Movie Review: Sputnik (2020)

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“Sputnik” is a work of Russian space horror that takes place in 1983 – it has to be 1983. Not only is that, as the film's director Egor Abramenko acknowledges, the “golden age” of science fiction as “Sputnik” shares a direct lineage to Ridley Scott's masterful “Alien,” but it's also the ideal time for its allegory about the complexities of identity to pay off on the upcoming fall of the Soviet Union. Additionally, 1983 was the peak time after the rise of astronauts in the space race – both in Russia and here in the states – where kids grew up dreaming of being one of those chosen few, the heroic explorers who represented their country and the entire planet as they journeyed into outer space.

This was before the devastation of the Challenger explosion in 1986 and before kids were old enough to see some of the (then) contemporary works of space horror from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (before its director Philip Kaufman would go on to make the brilliant, flag-waving space docudrama “The Right Stuff”) to “Alien” and beyond. Not only brilliant works of existential science fiction, these films serve as cautionary tales, warning us that perhaps not all of the life forms that awaited us in space were as friendly as the one in “E.T.”

In setting his film in 1983, Abramenko taps into all of these contradictions, including the desire to answer that childlike call in all of us to be a pioneering national hero and the body horror that occurs in its protagonist as a result that is so perfectly suited to '83. 

Written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev (and inspired by Abramenko's short film “The Passenger,” penned by Roman Volobuev, which played at Fantastic Fest), “Sputnik” tells the story of the sole survivor of a space wreck. Chronicling the crash of the Orbita 4 spaceship at the start of the film, after the ship lands, Russian cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (played by Pyotr Fyodorov) is held under observation in a secure facility in Kazakhstan while scientists work to deduce exactly what happened and what if anything might be wrong with the man who walked away. 

Having traveled to Moscow to recruit risk-taking neuro-psychiatrist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to evaluate the man with promises that he'll take care of her ethics board inquiry from the health ministry, Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) listens to Tatyana's cursory diagnosis that the cosmonaut is suffering from PTSD, knowing full well that the riddle that is Konstantin becomes far more complex by nightfall. Left in the dark right along with Tatyana, we soon discover that although the cosmonaut arrived back on Earth alone, he is very much not alone in a truly shocking reveal that's as disturbing as it is a genuine throwback to the type of space and/or body horror fare we saw in the late 1970s through the early '80s.

An intelligent puzzle that grows progressively scarier as it continues, while the film lays on some of the psychoanalysis regarding the root of the man's troubles a little heavily (and far too early, when it could certainly use one more twist before its thrilling climax), “Sputnik” is still one sophisticated scarer, overall. 

Exceedingly well-crafted and featuring chilling antiseptic production design that's heavy on barriers, mirrors, glass, and mazes – all of which become, in Abramenko's hands, an effectively symbolic motif – "Sputnik" benefits from its uniformly excellent cast, particularly Fyodorov and Akinshina who ably carry the film. Infused with an intense, percussion-heavy score from composer Oleg Karpachev that feels at once both well-suited to this film as it also does very reminiscent of the scores of 1983, “Sputnik” is a damn strong calling card for Abramenko in an assured feature filmmaking debut.

The latest in a long line of films that were inspired by “Alien,” from a quality standpoint, “Sputnik” belongs to the upper echelon of these movies and I appreciate just how much it paid tribute to and deviated from the blueprint that is the Ridley Scott classic. 

Frustratingly never paying off on a twist involving one of our main characters that it foreshadows but then abandons, “Sputnik” admittedly does start to run out of gas in the last half of the film. Polished and unrelenting nonetheless, it remains gripping enough to hold your attention as we watch the scientists try to figure out who the real Konstantin is deep down and how to separate the “passenger” from its host for good.

Trying (and at times struggling) to juggle both horror and allegorical satire, Abramenko's film is intriguing from a historical perspective as well. Watching its leads question the ethics involved in their work as they wonder if they should report their superiors when things fall apart (just like the Soviet Union would eight years later), Abramenko's “Sputnik” plays especially well to kids who remember the '80s and dreamed of going to space, before Hollywood informed them that the greatest risk might come from within. 

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