Egor Abramenko was nine years old when his father returned home to Russia with a VHS copy of Jurassic Park. Life was never the same after that.
"Science fiction became part of my DNA," Abramenko tells Inverse. "I watched that and fell in love. When the time came to do my first feature film, I knew it would be science fiction."
In contrast to the Hollywood blockbusters Abramenko grew up on, where aliens invaded American cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C., for his first movie, the director set his sights more local.
"I thought it was an interesting idea to do an alien invasion movie that unfolds in the USSR," he says. "It was a crucial period for Russian history."
Available now on VOD, Sputnik is a new science-fiction thriller about a parasite that inhabits a Cold War-era Russian cosmonaut. Set in 1983, a disgraced psychologist, Tatiana (Oksana Akinshina) is recruited to evaluate Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), the only survivor of a downed spacecraft with no memory of the crash. As Tatiana questions Konstantin in a secluded facility, she discovers an alien creature — and a government cover-up — that could threaten the entire world.
In more ways than one, Abramenko's movie monster got under his own skin.
"It was a long, painful process," he says of designing the monster. In the film, the unnamed creature looks like an unholy crossbreed of a cobra snake, a praying mantis, and an insect. Abramaneko remembers that "someone" in a pre-production meeting brought up the imagery of snakes.
"Someone mentioned snakes living in your body and going out every night through your mouth. That was image was terrifying," he says. "That image became our blueprint. It was a very long process finding the creature."
While everything about Sputnik is Russian made, Abramenko's first feature exists in reverence to '80s-era Hollywood horror movies. "I was inspired by U.S. science fiction," he says. "Alien, Blade Runner, The Thing, E.T. The '80s was a golden era for great sci-fi, and in terms of visual aesthetics and texture we can play with as filmmakers."
An experienced commercial director whose portfolio includes spots for Budweiser and Visa, Abramenko spun Sputnik out of an acclaimed 11-minute short The Passenger that wowed audiences at the 2017 Fantastic Fest.
"The difference between advertising and movies is that commercials think in terms of shots," he says. "In movies, you think in sequences, characters, character arcs, and what the audience takes away."
But setting Sputnik in the '80s wasn't merely an excuse to indulge in affectionate period nostalgia, à la Stranger Things. Many of the film's environments — shot in the winter of 2018 and 2019 at the Institute of Biochemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow — is appropriately devoid of human warmth. "This unique place determined the aesthetics of style of our film," Abramenko described in a statement.
Though he was born in 1987, in the final years of the Soviet Union, Abramenko understands how it was "a new period" for his people. "I would say it's almost the same we're experiencing now," he says, citing the existential nightmare living in a pandemic.
"The '80s were this really strange time that everybody was on edge. Everybody was waiting for something, whether it's a new war or a threat coming out of space. Everything was changing." In his director's statement, Abramenko called the early '80s "a transitional time of uncertainty" when it was clear "that a huge country is beginning to collapse into an unknown abyss."
Despite Russia's important contributions to global cinema, Abramenko remains all about American science fiction. "I don't think there is such a thing as Russian science fiction," he says. "It's a new genre for Russia. Sputnik is the first science fiction horror [for us]. It's young, uncharted territory for Russian filmmakers."
Abramenko acknowledges the work of giants like Andrei Tarkovsky, whose '70s science fiction films Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) loom large in Russian cinema. The last decade has also seen a pronounced wave of Russian sci-fi blockbusters, like the 2017 film Attraction (of which Abramenko served as second unit director) and its 2020 sequel Invasion; the 2019 film Coma; and the 2017 superhero movie, Guardians.
But so much of "Russian science fiction" looks a response to Hollywood. After all, Tarkovsky made Solaris because he didn't think highly of Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Abramenko says it's overdue for Russian artists to figure out the genre for themselves. "I believe we have to keep discovering the genre," he says, "and evolve it."
In Sputnik, Abramenko is confident he's found a path for his fellow Russian filmmakers. A twist ending involving the true identity of an unidentified child in an orphanage, a major subplot in Sputnik, is exactly the kind of stuff sci-fi fans chew on for years to come.
Warning: Spoilers for Sputnik ahead.
In Sputnik, we learn that Konstantin is the father to a child he abandoned and left at an orphanage. Towards the end of the movie, when Konstantin kills himself to keep the creature from infecting more people, Tatiana makes a promise to adopt his child.
All throughout Sputnik, we see a neglected child in an orphanage. We do not know their name until the very end. We assume he is Konstantin's son, until we learn the child is actually a young Tatiana in flashbacks.
"Our story deals with trauma," Abramenko tells Inverse about his film's surprise ending. "Our main protagonist has trauma. Even Colonel Semiradov, a terrific villain, has his own trauma. We thought we needed our audience to know why Tatiana ended up like [she is]. Why she's so tought. We wanted to show her background in that way. Everyone has their own personal trauma, and that [ending] is part of Tatiana."
Sputnik is available now on VOD.