Like the space race that ended with Americans on the Moon in 1969, Russian science fiction always finds itself compared to Yankee counterparts.
In 1972, Andrei Tarkovsky's dark and dirty space epic Solaris poked fun at Stanley Kubrick's sanitized vision of intergalactic travel in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Fast forward to 2020, and there is Sputnik from director Egor Abramenko.
A new science fiction horror movie about a Cold War-era spacecraft that brings back something otherworldly, Sputnik is a Russian film that proudly wears American influences on its sleeve. The film mixes ingredients from Ridley Scott's Alien, John Carpenter's The Thing, Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, and even Venom, but still tastes fresh in its gripping, original story that is just a little more thoughtful than it is terrifying.
In select theaters and VOD on August 14, Sputnik takes place at the tail end of the Cold War. It's 1983 and a spacecraft containing three cosmonauts violently crashes back to Earth. The only survivor, Konstanin (Pyotr Fyodorov) doesn't remember a thing. A disgraced doctor, Tatiana (Oksana Akinshina) is recruited to a secret facility to evaluate Konstanin. That's when Tatiana discovers an alien parasite clinging to Konstanin as a host, and a true threat that awaits them all.
Though purposefully reminiscent of '80s genre giants, Sputnik stands on its own two feet with strong character dynamics and a suffocating atmosphere. The movie is billed as a science fiction thriller, but it's more accurate to call it a workplace drama. File off the spooky alien stuff, and what you have is a clever woman in a new job where the hazards aren't just intergalactic insects but grumpy men who resent her presence. An office rival, who later becomes a reluctant ally, demonstrates the most growth in Sputnik.
Tatiana is a fun anchor for this story, though it's impossible to imagine her ever strapping on a mech suit like Ellen Ripley (if comparing to Alien is what we're doing, then compare we shall). When we meet Tatiana, she's facing disbarment for a morally gray yet noble treatment of a patient. "I did what was necessary," she affirms, like many other headstrong characters before her. "Negligence is failure of one's duties." What follows Tatiana is that challenge, where her role to cease a heinous crime conducted in deep secret can either be an act of heroism or treason.
It's a fascinating conflict that takes up most of Sputnik's running time — so much so, the movie forgets to drum up actual scares. While the atmosphere of Sputnik is thick with mystery, curiosity, and villainy, the film never once conjures screams that register any decibels. "Thriller" is the correct label for Sputnik, not "horror." But when there's an alien parasite let loose in a secluded government facility, there are only so many places that story ought to go. When the choices are "Scare the hell out of the audience," or "Shoot it up like Doom," it's a bold choice — and not necessarily the best choice — that Sputnik does neither.
Still, it's no small feat that Sputnik remains a smart thriller when it could have been a very dumb action-horror, even if it fails to do much of anything new with the space horror genre. Director Egor Abramenko is a professed fan of '80s Hollywood genre classics and it shows. His Sputnik is a familiar film, it's just grounded in unusual lived-in realism and emotional harshness. That it's also a native Russian movie that eschews propaganda — here, the monsters are very much calling from inside the house — is all the more fascinating, at least to western eyes. The creepy, gooey alien at the center of the film is appropriately gross (and impressive despite a visibly tight budget) with crystal clear ideas. Yes, it's hungry. Yes, it's violent. No, the host does not become a web-slinging superhero. These stakes make sense. Anything more is needless.
With Sputnik, Abramenko proves he's a fresh talent to watch. Though Sony's Venom franchise is already off and running, Abramenko would be well-suited for a Venom 3 or some symbiote spin-off. But until then, Abramenko has his own merits profoundly on display in Sputnik. It's not the scariest movie you'll see in 2020, but you just might find something worthwhile hiding beneath the surface.
Sputnik will be released in theaters on August 14.