by Andrew Wyatt on Aug 13, 2020

It’s challenging – although not impossible – for a new sci-fi horror film about a parasitic extraterrestrial to wriggle out of the long shadow cast by Alien (1979). Most features of this sort are upfront about their cinematic lineage, making little effort to conceal the obvious influence of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, particularly when both their budget and their artistic ambitions are modest. That’s certainly the case with Russian director Egor Abramenko’s debut feature, Sputnik, reportedly made for 190 million rubles – south of $3 million – which practically makes it a scrappy little indie production by the metrics of American filmmaking. Abramenko and screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev are not interested in reinventing the wheel when it comes to the essential components of the alien-parasite subgenre. That said, the mutations that the filmmakers splice into the Alien genome are the very things that make the feature a moody and creepily effective slice of genre cinema. It’s a B-picture in all the right ways: smart, bloody, and atmospheric, with enough personality to moderately revitalize a familiar premise.

Set in 1983, Sputnik opens aboard an orbiting Soviet space capsule, in which two weary cosmonauts are preparing for atmospheric re-entry. Following a strange malfunction, a dark shape appears outside the vessel, at which point the film quickly cuts to the capsule’s subsequent touchdown in a snowy field in Kazakhstan. One cosmonaut appears to be quite dead, while the other stumbles in a daze from the spacecraft, retching and bloodied. Although this prelude is appropriately mysterious and skin-crawling, the film at this point rather shrewdly jumps forward a few weeks and shifts its point of view to Dr. Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina). Klimova is a civilian physician whose cavalier, Gregory House-style methods have recently put her in hot water with the government. She is brusquely unrepentant, but just as her professional credentials are about to be snatched away, a shadowy official named Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) swoops in to press-gang her into a top-secret assignment. Klimova is tasked with assessing the physical and mental health of recently returned cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), currently being held in quarantine at a remote facility.

By positioning Klimova as its protagonist, Sputnik does two intriguing things within the constraints of the Alien template. First, it allows the film to completely skip any obligatory, grinding scenes of Soviet scientists puzzling out what is abundantly clear to the audience from the moment Veshnyakov emerges from his capsule: The cosmonaut has been infected by something monstrous and malevolent. Klimova effectively enters the story in media res, which means that Sputnik uses its first act to swiftly bring her (and therefore the audience) up to speed on the situation through an efficient blend of showing and telling. The government has learned quite a bit about Veshnyakov’s condition since his return from orbit, and the military has already constructed an elaborate detention system that allows the facility’s chief physician (Anton Vasilev) and other scientists to safely observe the cosmonaut.

This points to Sputnik’s other modest innovation: It’s essentially the story that Alien and its descendents have dangled threateningly as the Worst-Case Scenario. Namely, an infected individual has returned to Earth, falling into the hands of an amoral government less concerned with preventing a planet-wide outbreak than with exploiting the discovery for their own sinister ends. Klimova is a risk-taker with a natural compulsion to uncover answers to allegedly unsolvable riddles, and to that end Semiradov sees her as a useful tool in his effort to unlock the secrets coiled inside Veshnyakov’s flesh.

Despite her blunt and chilly demeanor, however, Klimova has an empathic heart, and she is therefore also an insistent foil to the stony foot soldiers and cynical apparatchiks that surround her. The facility’s other scientists treat Veshnyakov like a cancer-riddled lab rat, but Klimova regards him as a traumatized patient. She initially disarms him with acerbic jabs – partly to observe his biochemical response – but then slowly wins his trust with her curiosity, compassion, and no-bullshit attitude. Unlike Semiradov and the other officials, she doesn’t insult Veshnyakov’s intelligence by dispensing party-approved half-truths. Eventually the cosmonaut warms to her, speaking openly of his anxieties and regrets, such as the illegitimate son he once abandoned at an orphanage.

Veshnyakov’s condition is, admittedly, perplexing. He claims to remember nothing about what transpired prior to the capsule’s landing, and he proves stubbornly resistant to hypnotic regression. He recovered from his injuries with unnatural speed and seems, if anything, in better physical health than he was before the mission. It’s only when Semiradov summons Klimova to the cosmonaut’s cell in the early-morning hours that the true horror of Veshnyakov’s situation becomes apparent. The entity within him is less a parasite than a symbiote, one that squirms violently in and out of his body each night – mutating Alien’s most vivid metaphor from a one-time sexual violation into something disconcertingly akin to marital rape. (In a bit of perverse cheek, the film’s title is a play on the name of the first artificial space satellite, which is loosely translated from the Russian as “traveling companion” or "consort".)

Sputnik’s screenplay generally favors mystery over thrills, dispensing revelations at a steady drip over the film’s slightly overinflated 113-minute running time. Although the feature never feels like it’s spinning its wheels – each new discovery cleverly complicates Klimova’s attitude toward her patient – there is an unmistakable repetitiveness to the film's structure. Pivotal, character-driven scenes in which Klimova and Veshnyakov confide in one another are interspersed with sequences of Klimova poring over scientific data, quarreling with the territorial head physician, and sneaking around the facility’s restricted areas. This structure is partly attributable to the constraints of the film’s setting, a grimly functional complex of offices, bunkers, and laboratories that radiates the distinct bleakness of a once-imposing Cold War redoubt in decline. (In truth, much of the feature was filmed at Russia’s prestigious Shemyakin-Ovchinnikov Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, still a thriving center of government-funded research.)

The filmmakers break things up by intercutting Klimova’s story with the tribulations of a nameless orphan child, who wanders the halls of a gloomy institution in a wheelchair and repeatedly butts heads with a humorless nurse. Abramenko and the screenwriters play it coy here, trusting that the viewer will infer this child to be Veshnyakov’s son, whose unknown fate gnaws at the cosmonaut’s conscience. In practice, these sequences don’t add much to the narrative, other than providing an occasional respite from the increasingly alarming and gruesome events at the facility where Veshnyakov is being held. This only highlights the filmmakers’ miscalculation, however: Sputnik lives and dies by its icy, remorseless atmosphere of gradually intensifying peril. There’s a powerful sense that the viewer is trapped along with Klimova in this remote laboratory-cum-prison, surrounded by suspicious authorities and menaced by a ravenous alien creature. Every cutaway to the orphan-kid subplot diminishes that spell.

Notwithstanding the broad conventionality of alien-parasite stories – and the gnarly yet predictable twists of this particular iteration – Sputnik is an undeniably impressive debut feature for Abramenko. Having previously helmed the similar but unrelated 2017 sci-fi horror short “The Passenger,” the director here graduates to feature-length filmmaking like an old pro. Abramenko exhibits firm control over the film’s eerie, anguished tone. The anxiety that he summons is deep and unyielding, like a stiff Siberian wind, but the feature rarely feels overbearing. Even when a slimy alien symbiote is ripping skulls asunder in a spray of blood and brains, Sputnik feels oddly and confidently restrained, never doing more or showing more than is needed. The film is also unexpectedly stylish for a low-budget genre flick, owing to Maxim Zhukov’s fittingly murky cinematography, Maryia Slavina’s on-point period production design, and especially the harsh, ominous score composed by Oleg Karpachev.

If Sputnik ultimately feels a cut above similar sci-fi horror efforts, it’s attributable in no small part to the distinctive Soviet setting the filmmakers conjure. The specificity of the feature’s early-1980s period evokes the USSR’s economic stagnation and looming collapse. (Boris Yeltsin and the dissolution of the Union are less than a decade away.) Abramenko’s film unfolds in a corroded, late-model Soviet empire bereft of true believers, its institutions populated solely by craven opportunists, dead-eyed cynics, and canny survivors. The old Communist playbook is still very much in use, however. Initially, Semiradov dons a velvet glove in his dealings with Klimova, relying on world-weary straight talk and magnanimous gestures to secure her cooperation. When he later invokes patriotic language – repeatedly referring to Veshnyakov as a national hero, for example – it pings Klimova’s bullshit detector, signaling that old habits are hard to break for authoritarian superpowers. Whatever its shortcomings in terms of originality, Sputnik offers a more unnerving depiction of hawkish nationalism and its distorting, dehumanizing effects than do most genre films with budgets fifty times bigger.

Rating: B-

Sputnik will be available to rent from major online platforms on August 14, 2020.