Outer space, 1983: though it may seem that few times are as uncertain and inhospitable as our current one, the Cold War era in the Soviet Union seems awfully close, especially if you are a Soviet cosmonaut hurtling through the galaxy. Sputnik, directed by first time director Egor Abramenko, centers not on the space journey itself, but rather the aftermath after the spacemen return to earth and disembark. You can take the man out of the tin can, but you can’t take the tin can out of the man — as the intense and suffocating claustrophobia continues to haunt cosmonauts.
Traversing the cosmos is not for the faint of heart, but the worst is still yet to come for commander Konstantin Sergeyevich (Pyotr Fyodorov) when he returns home. He survives a mysterious space accident that killed his crew and left him without much memory, or much of a warm welcome from those around him. Instead, he is put under the microscope. What follows is the investigation of Konstantin’s strange affliction eventually revealed to be an alien parasite, as Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina), an unconventional and often-reprimanded doctor, tries to get to know him (and the creature living inside him) better.
Shot during a winter in Moscow, mostly at the Institute of Biochemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Sputnik is deeply indebted to its genre predecessors in the science fiction genre . Its plot draws inescapable comparisons to Ridley Scott’s Alien, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and all the stories from the 1980s golden age of space horror that haunt our collective imagination. But this story adds its own distinctive twist, since it comes straight from Russia, with plenty of love. Some of the thematic territory is rather familiar as the government attempts to weaponize the space creature — trodding out some cliched questions about who is the real monster — but no Cold War-era story seems complete without some token exploration of secrecy, media cover-ups, and oppression. With his background in commercials and music videos, Abramenko takes on the epic space narrative with fresh eyes and a steady hand. Sputnik has a professional finish even as it has a bit of a B-movie plot, and each stylistic influence is nodded to with profound affection. The CGI of the parasitic beast is something that warrants particular admiration — while the film’s overall atmosphere is hypnotizing in its cold and stark production design, its extraterrestrial creature often bursts forth in bright bloodiness and bursts of gore, staying with us in our nightmares long after the final frame.
As the film makes a point to let us know, the true meaning of the word “sputnik” in Russian is “companion,” and at its core is all about the search for intimacy and understanding. Even though he does have a strange companion of sorts in the alien parasite, which causes him to literally carry a reminder of space back with him to Earth, our cosmonaut is left without his crew, without comrades, without friends. This aloneness can ultimately be harder to face than any scary creature or government leader. When we get past some of the tropes of government exploitation and evil experimentation and start to explore the human relationships is where the film really starts to shine, find a new star in the vastness of the universe. As the doctor desperately strives to save the cosmonaut’s life before he is consumed by evil, there is a strange romance to their developing kinship and epic escape attempts. We aren’t alone in the universe, and we do not need to be alone on earth.
Konstantin was once hailed as a hero of the Soviet Union, but he becomes an outcast, a criminal, a wild animal in a cage. As he and Tatiana try to escape from the enclosure while the alien struggles to escape his body, they reveal shared vulnerabilities that flay them emotionally as much as the parasite does physically. Sputnik is a glossy sci-fi thriller that offers ample excitement and intrigue, and grants audiences what they expect from the genre — there are no major surprises or massively shocking revelations, and the characters feel like people we know. But it is the glimmers of emotional depth and vulnerability from the Russians that help this story feel like it is traversing new territory. Space monsters may be terrifying, but at the end of the day, there is perhaps no creature as strange and difficult to understand than the human.