One lesson any film buff learns from studying film history is that American and Russian cinema continue to share a symbiotic relationship. It began when a few Soviets saw the works of D.W. Griffith and came up with Montage Theory, which led to a style of editing that has been used from music videos to action blockbusters. For better or worse, post-soviet Russian cinema has adopted a very American blockbuster aesthetic, heavily emulating the style of what is popular in the States. This is appropriate, given that the subject of this review is Sputnik, a Cold War slow-burn about an alien and its host.
The year is 1983 in Soviet Russia and Tatyana Klimova, played by Oksana Akinshina, is a young psychiatrist with questionable approaches. She is recruited by the no nonsense Colonel Semiradov, played by filmmaker Fyodor Bondarchuk, to assist at an isolated military facility. Quarantined there is Konstantin, played by Pyotr Fyodorov, the sole surviving cosmonaut of an orbital mission that ended in malfunction. Konstantin has made a miraculous recovery from his injuries and seems to have amnesia with regards to the events of the mission (you can probably guess where this is heading). At first Tatyana believes he has PTSD, but it is later revealed to her that a horrific alien creature has taken refuge in Konstantin’s stomach (without his knowledge), and only exits his body for a short time at night. Colonel Semiradov has known about the alien, has enticed its appetite for human cortisol, and is waiting to weaponize the creature. Tatyana is tasked with finding a way to separate the alien from Konstantin, even though neither can seem to survive without the other for long.
So, to address the elephant in the room early on, Sputnik is an Alien clone. In particular, it can be seen as a response to the recent controversial entry, Alien: Covenant. It also borrows scenes and elements from Annihilation, Venom, and Gravity, but its primary focus is to emulate the original Ridley Scott’s Alien. Sputnik presents a tense, often claustrophobic film utilizing a small location where the CGI creature is primarily kept low lit in night scenes. However, there is a scene towards the end, where we see the creature in full daylight, perched on top of a vehicle in an identical pose and in a similar scene to the Xenomorph in Scott’s Covenant. I find it interesting that the film took this approach. It refreshingly reminds the viewer about what made the original film scary, and what was lost when that was traded for the all-out visual spectacle in recent entries. There also has to be some correlation in the casting of Russia’s filmmaking equivalent to Michael Bay or Zack Snyder as the antagonist.
Sputnik marks the directorial debut of Egor Abramenko, who shows his potential by building tension and bringing the most out of this material that he had no hand in writing. He presents it in a way that you can sit back and enjoy it as both a straight-forward sci-fi horror, and as a critique of big budget cinema. We can’t give him all the credit though, as the real strength lies with cinematographer, Maxim Zhukov. Scenes are very still and invoke coldness. Even in the non-scary moments, everyone feels like they’re being watched under a microscope. The film was primarily shot at Moscow’s Shemyakin-Ovchinnikov Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry, a prime example of Brutalist Architecture.
The acting is serviceable, with all of the cast elevating what should be a B-movie concept. Akinshina comes off as a strong lead, believably disturbed at first, but undeterred from learning what she can do to complete her task. Fyodorov gives a pretty vulnerable performance as Konstantin, frustrated with his incarceration and how it conflicts with the hero status he has spent his life training for, and the slow gravity of his situation breaking him down. Bondarchuk, not traditionally an actor, convincingly portrays a strong military presence. A villain doing service to his belief in the greater good.
Sputnik is an overall welcome edition to the long tradition of Alien emulators. It stays true to what made the original Xenomorph scary: we know nothing of its origin. And throughout the film, no one has any interest in finding out its origin or if there are more of them, one is enough to deal with. Even with its intention of homage, the creature’s design works: part spider, part salamander, part the Cloverfield monster. It's familiar, but stands out, subtly growing in size with each appearance. What it lacks in originality it makes up for in mood, and good old creature violence. And on top of that, it’s a period film that genuinely feels like a movie made in that time period. I think we need to keep an eye on Egor Abramenko, maybe he’ll break the mold of the Russian Blockbuster or maybe he’ll fall into the same trapping of his contemporaries. What can be said though is that he knows his way around a horror film.
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