August 16, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Egor Abramenko
Russian with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia (and briefly in outer space) in 1983, the sci-fi/horror film “Sputnik” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A psychologist at a crossroads in her career is recruited to examine a cosmonaut who has lost his memory after a botched space mission, which resulted in a parasite creature living inside his body.
Culture Audience: “Sputnik” will appeal primarily to people who like sci-fi/horror films influenced by “Alien.”
There’s no way to get around the comparison, so it might as well be brought up right away: “Sputnik” is undoubtedly inspired by director Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic “Alien,” because it’s essentially about people trapped in an enclosed space with a deadly parasitic creature that feeds off of humans. “Sputnik” (directed by Egor Abramenko) is nowhere near as groundbreaking as “Alien,” but it’s an intriguing, well-paced thriller that is an impressive feature-film debut from Abramenko.
“Sputnik,” just like in “Alien,” begins with a space mission that goes very wrong. It’s 1983, and the Russian small spacecraft Orbita-4 has experienced a major jolt that causes the control panel to go haywire and the spacecraft begins malfunctioning, as if it’s going to crash. The people on board then hear what sounds like something walking on top of the spacecraft.
It’s unknown what happened after that, because the next thing that viewers see is that Orbita-4 has crashed back down to Earth. The commander is dead, the flight engineer is in a coma, and the only survivor is Konstantin Veshnyakov (played by Pyotr Fyodorovas), who has no memory of what happened to him while he was in outer space. The media and the government of the Soviet Union (as Russia was known back then) have hailed Konstantin as a hero. In the meantime, he is being held in quarantine so scientists can investigate.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, at the Research Institute of Brain AMS USSR, a strong-willed psychologist named Tatyana Klimova (played Oksana Akinshinain) is being interrogated by a Health Ministry panel because she’s been accused of misconduct and negligence. Tatyana is under investigation for the death of a 17-year-old boy, by holding him underwater for nearly a minute. This incident is not seen in the movie, but Tatyana is told by the lead interrogator that she will not accused of willfully inflicting injuries on a patient.
Tatyana admits that she temporarily cut off oxygen to the patient because he was misdiagnosed. She also refuses to admit to any wrongdoing and says she actually did the right thing when treating the patient. Even though the outcome of the investigation is pending, Tatyana is sure that her days are numbered at her job: She knows she’s going to be fired or forced to resign. But, for now, Tatyana refuses to quit and is adamant about defending herself from what she says is a wrongful accusation.
After this interrogation, as Tatyana is about to leave her workplace for the day, a man identifying himself as Colonel Semiradov (played by Fedor Bondarchuk) approaches her and tells her that he runs a research institute, he’s interested in neuropsychology, and he wants her expert opinion. Semiradov is in charge of the All-Union Scientific Research Institute in Kazakhstan, where he wants Tatyana to go to examine a patient.
Tatyana is reluctant at first because she doesn’t want to spend time away from Moscow. However, Semiradov makes her an offer she doesn’t refuse: If she does what he asks of her, he promises that he “take care of the review board,” implying that those career-damaging accusations against her will go away. Tatyana doesn’t really question Semiradov’s credentials or do a background check on him. Nor does she ask him to go into details about who or what she’s being asked to examine.
Tatyana trusts that Semiradov telling the truth and she agrees to go to Kazakhstan for this mysterious job. It’s implied in the movie that Tatyana is putting blind faith in Semiradov, largely because of her circumstances: She’s about to lose her job and she’s probably curious about this new research opportunity that could lead to her next job. It explains why she doesn’t ask very many questions and willingly goes to Kazakhstan without really knowing why she’s there.
When she gets to All-Union Scientific Research Institute in Kazakhstan, Tatyana finds out that she’s supposed to examine the quarantined Konstantin, who is being held there in secrecy. Although Tatyana has been told that she will have access to 90% of the facilities, she feels a growing sense of unease that she is being “trapped” there because of the secrets that she uncovers.
During her time at All-Union Scientific Research Institute, Tatyana meets Yan Leonidovich Rigel (played by Anton Vasilev) , the director of the institute, who tells her that Konstatin can be hypnotized. Yan and Tatyana end up clashing over ways to treat Konstantin, so there’s somewhat of a power struggle between them that can get in the way of what Tatyana was recruited to do. And it isn’t long before Semiradov tells Tatyana that she was chosen specifically because of her maverick ways. He wants someone who can think “outside the box,” even if it sometimes going against the government’s rules.
During Tatyana’s analysis of Konstantin, he seems to be playing games with her. He says that he is a field marshall named Robert Duvall. But all kidding aside, Konstantin is aware that he might be sequestered for the long haul, because he asks Tatyana to call his mother Lydia and tell her that he’s fine. Another member of Konstantin’s family is part of one of the more touching subplots of the movie. Tatyana diagnoses Konstantin with post-traumatic stress disorder, but there’s obviously something else going on with him.
And because it’s already revealed in the “Sputnik” trailer, it’s not a spoiler to say that Tatyana isn’t just there to try to help Konstantin recover his memories. Konstantin has a large parasite creature living inside him that is controlling Konstantin’s brain and has a symbiotic relationship with Konstantin’s other organs. The creature apparently invaded Konstantin’s body while he was in outer space.
And the creature only comes out of Konstantin’s body between 2:40 a.m. and 3:10 a.m., when it has an appetite that is deadly to humans. Tatyana and the other people who know this secret are supposed to figure out a way to keep the parasite separate from Konstantin without getting anyone killed. Easier said than done.
Much of “Sputnik” borrows elements from “Alien,” including the idea of a slimy and grotesque creature living inside a human and even the way that the movie is shot that evokes a cold, dark interior that feels more claustrophobic as terror starts to take hold. And just like in “Alien,” the female protagonist is the smartest and bravest person in the story. She has grit but she also has compassion.
And although it’s not overtly mentioned in “Sputnik,” the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States affects the motivations of this top-secret research institute. Knowing that one of their “hero” cosmonauts has brought a deadly creature back to Earth is a shameful scandal that they don’t want exposed to people on the outside. It’s one of the reasons why “Sputnik” isn’t a typical “alien creature on the loose” story, although certain parts of the movie are like a typical horror flick where it’s all about guessing who will die and who will survive.
The “Sputnik” screenplay, written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, fortunately doesn’t clutter the story with too many characters. Abramenko’s assured and stylish direction make “Sputnik” an engaging thriller that has some twists that are surprising but not shocking. A movie like this could easily get too caught up in the visual scares, but the ending of the movie is a poignant reminder that space explorations that are ostensibly for the greater good of humankind can come with a human cost that represent life’s fragility.
IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Sputnik” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD.