Everytime you hear Elon Musk talk about all the crazy stuff we’re going to do in space one day, you have to wonder what’s going on in that guy’s head, because space is kind of terrifying. You can be a perfectly normal cosmonaut on a routine mission, for example, and then all of a sudden you end up with a grotesque alien hitching a ride home in your esophagus.
But that’s just, like, a for instance.
Sputnik is a Russian film directed by Egor Abramenko that follows in the illustrious footsteps of Alien. It takes the trope of alien body horror, territory that is well-trod in science fiction but hasn’t completely worn out its welcome, and subtly adjusts it to evoke a sense of paranoia and fear in Soviet Russia during the early 1980s. It’s with a grim sense of humor that Abramenko names his debut film Sputnik, which is not only a reference to the Soviet satellite that threw the US into an anxious tailspin in the late 1950s, but also a word that, loosely translated, means “fellow traveler.” Which is horrifyingly accurate.
Cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) finds himself kept indefinitely in a top-secret holding facility after the crash landing of his space shuttle resulted in the death of his colleague and his exhibiting some worrisome symptoms. Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is a doctor who has developed something of a reputation for using unorthodox methods that the Soviet government doesn’t necessarily approve of to help her patients, and she has been tapped by a high-ranking military official to provide a medical assessment of the recently earthbound cosmonaut. At least that’s what she’s told. She later learns that Konstantin has unwittingly brought an alien back with him, one that has enmeshed itself with his anatomy and only separates from its host for an hour or two each night to feed.
In Sputnik, everything is thoroughly entrenched in thick layers of subterfuge, secrets, and ulterior motives. Tatyana may be the only one who approaches anything in a straightforward manner, and that may be why she seems to get closer than anyone to understanding the alien lifeform. The film succeeds here in perfectly blending science fiction and the moody atmosphere of a Soviet-era drama; it puts just enough of a spin on the familiar body horror story to stand out as something creatively distinct.
And one of Sputnik’s most compelling aspects is how it takes the science fiction elements and plants them squarely in the realm of science. A film like Alien succeeds on shock value and the anxiety-provoking uncertainty of what this terrifying creature actually is. Sputnik devotes much more attention to fleshing out the mechanics of the alien, and painstakingly constructs a surprisingly plausible symbiotic relationship between the human host and the alien it carries inside. It’s clear that so much thought went into its development that it’s hard not to be impressed by it, and the design of the actual alien is eerie and visually off-putting, yet somehow graceful.
For a sci-fi horror with alien scares, it’s particularly slow-paced and brooding. The characterisation is compelling, especially the bond that develops between Tatyana and Konstantin, but it’s also appropriately cold and austere. Audiences may not be overwhelmed by a charm offensive from any of the main players, but there’s a quiet, understated force of personality that draws viewers in. The film purposefully constrains the relationships between the characters, so focused are they in maintaining the rigidly professional dynamic expected of them within an oppressive state-run institution. There is a lot of talk about the type of sacrifices Konstantin is expected to make for Moscow as a hero of the Soviet Union; perhaps here, too, there is a vaguely threatening relationship that walks a thin line between parasitic and symbiotic.
All things considered, Sputnik is a clever, inventive twist on an old classic, its period setting giving it an atmospheric edge that elevates it above what could otherwise be considered a fairly generic alien thriller. It moves along at its own deliberate pace, but when it comes to life, it really goes for the jugular.