The movie begins like something out of a David Bowie song: It’s 1983, and two astronauts sit in a tin can, far above the world. Cosmonauts Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) and Kiril (Aleksey Demidov) engage in idle chitchat as they prepare for reentry. Unfortunately, a malfunction sends their craft spiraling to Earth, and only Konstantin survives the crash. He is badly wounded, but it’s clear that something even deeper is wrong with him. Konstantin recovers with superhuman speed, and his personality seems greatly altered.
Alarmed, Soviet space scientists scramble for answers. Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk), the military brass in overall command, brings in Dr. Tatyana Yuryevna Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), a neurophysiologist to investigate. She’s a bit of a medical maverick, willing to skirt rules for the sake of both her principles and patients. This makes her perfect for such a sensitive mission.
Tatyana examines Konstantin, and immediately deduces that Semiradov hasn’t divulged all the facts. He relents and drops the bomb: Somewhere between reentry and crashdown, Konstantin became host to an alien creature. It endows him with superior strength and regenerative abilities, in exchange for an oxygen rich environment to survive on this planet. The alien springs out of Konstantin for a short while every night, in an effort to explore a little more to world around it.
For Tatyana, this revelation brings with it an avalanche of questions: Is this truly a symbiotic relationship? Does Konstantin truly know nothing about this presence, or is he just playing dumb to win his freedom? What are the creature’s ultimate intentions? As she investigates these, Tatyana must also suss out the motives of Col. Semiradov. Is he acting for the benefit of Konstantin, or does all this have some ugly military purpose?
Sputnik checks all the boxes for brainy, bravura filmmaking. It’s intense, scary, and thought-provoking, all at once. This was clearly made on a smaller budget, and yet the special effects are remarkably effective. Director Egor Abramenko also does a great job of cutting to reaction shots, or pulling back to CCTV cameras at key moments. This helps tone down some of the gore, and puts a human face to all the unfolding terror.
So, I’m a little bit of a bind. I want to recommend Sputnik, and I will. So many movies are marked by dim-witted direction and slapdick screenwriting, I can’t not praise a film that excels in both departments. A lot of my friends who are savvy with horror and science fiction will chow down on this movie like French silk pie.
I’ll just go ahead and say it: I liked this movie. I didn’t love it. It’s too dour and aloof. There’s a melancholia that seeps in a little too deeply. When the story heads for a twist ending and a big emotional payoff, it rings completely hollow. The filmmakers spend so much time painting in monochrome that when they introduce vibrant new colors, it almost ruins the entire painting.
Still, that’s not a dealbreaker for me, and it doesn’t have to be one for you. Sputnik is a film made with rare skill, and it deserves time in the sunshine. Akanshina and Fyodorov deliver outstanding performances, with both adding a dose of real tragedy to their characters. Plus, it manages to borrow from good sources and feel like something new. If you’re looking for solid, thought-provoking horror, Sputnik is a worthy choice. It almost deserves cartwheels, but not quite.
113 min. NR.
(It’s not rated, but this movie has quite a bit of violence and gore. Go ahead and slap an ‘R’ on this one. And if you’re squeamish, best to stay away from it altogether.)