Where does pop culture draw a line separating genre-defining movies as either healthy or harmful for its own development? Alien, Ridley Scott’s unimpeachable 1976 masterpiece, has influenced horror and sci-fi cinema for over 30 years, from the good (Pitch Black, Galaxy of Terror), to the bad (Inseminoid), to the worst (Life). Alien, of course, remains the best example of its make and model: tactile, tense and utterly terrifying even after the umpteenth time you’ve seen Harry Dean Stanton take a set of slavering pharyngeal jaws straight to the face. The film cannot be excised from the sci-fi horror canon. It’s too good, and that in turn can make the especially egregious face-plants like Life all the more painful.
The good news is that, three years later, at least one of Alien’s descendants have figured out that borrowing from its forebear makes far more sense than lazily aping Scott, which explains in part why Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik works so well: It’s Alien-esque, because any film about governments and corporations using unsuspecting innocents as vessels for stowing extraterrestrial monsters for either weaponization or monetization can’t help evoke Alien.
Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) has just returned to Earth after spending an unknown amount of time floating in the stars, which would be a happy occasion if not for the abrupt crash landing. Tragically, his partner died along the way. Worse, there’s a slimy alien critter living rent-free in Konstantin’s chest cavity, though thanks to episodic amnesia he’s mercifully unaware of the uninvited houseguest. Determined to take the monster out of the man, shady commander Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) calls upon Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), an iron-spined psychiatrist on the verge of being struck off the record, to diagnose Konstanin’s condition and make the task of removing the symbiote from his body easier.
Sputnik has big ambitions riding on essentially a four-piece cast, adding in Anton Vasilev as Dr. Rigel, Klimova’s immediate rival in the undisclosed military base where the picture is set. Rigel bristles at and pushes back on Klimova’s unorthodox methods, which she interprets as him being threatened at the chance she might steal the Nobel Peace Prize from him. Because Sputnik is a Russian film about naughty Russian secrets, and because of its Alien, ancestry there’s much more going on under the surface, which Abramenko withholds and doles out judiciously over 100 or so minutes. Konstatin’s relationship with the symbiote, for instance, is a question: The creature exits his body in the wee hours every single night, and questions arise as to whether he knows he has a stowaway in his body or not. The questions have complicated answers that raise new questions. (Fittingly, the movie is structured like a matryoshka doll soaked in slobber and gore.)
Some of Sputnik’s questions concern its plot. Others concern its characters. Is Konstantin really a hero? He took a rocket through our thermosphere, accomplished a task assigned him by his government, and made it back alive. But he also abandoned his son, orphaned by the death of his mother, in favor of space, which clashes with the very definition of “hero.” Is Klimova better equipped to understand Konstantin’s condition than her colleagues, or is she really the walking malpractice case she’s introduced as? In one of her early close encounters with the alien, a moment of connection turns into pure terror when the thing turns on and attacks her, which doesn’t give much credence to her empathetic approach. Does Semiradov have good intentions at heart or does he view the alien as a government asset? If you’ve ever seen a sci-fi movie before, then this question answers itself.
The cerebral, interior quality of the script’s characterizations are met by Abramenko’s steely filmmaking. Sputnik paces its conclusions and focuses on atmospheric maintenance: The film’s chilly air effectively spotlights bloodshed, which, though rare, supplies essential shocks as payoff to screenwriting team Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev’s thematic concerns. Mankind fights fruitlessly to understand mysteries that elude meaningful understanding. The more that people, whether Klimova or Semiradov, attempt to exert control over what won’t be controlled, the harder they’re pushed back. Driving this point home is a scene in the final act that feels more like a nod to Cabin in the Woods than Alien, a welcome reference point for a sub-niche in need of new energy after decades of beating the xenomorph to death.
Abramenko has that energy. Sputnik’s style runs somewhere in the ballpark of unnerving and unflappable: The movie doesn’t flinch, but makes a candid, methodical attempt at making the audience flinch instead, contrasting high-end creature FX against a lo-fi backdrop. Until the alien makes its first appearance slithering forth from the prone Konstantin’s mouth, Sputnik’s set dressing suggests a lost relic from the 1980s. But the sophistication of the creature’s design, a crawling, semi-diaphanous thing that’s coated in layers of sputum equally audible and visible, firmly anchors the film to 2020. Let the new pop cultural dividing line be drawn there.
Director: Egor Abramenko
Writers: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev
Starring: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev
Release Date: August 14, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.