Capitalism has always been the true villain in the Alien films. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation, sometimes referred to as “The Company”, is willing to sacrifice freighters, marines, prisoners, scientists, and colonists just so they can have access to a vicious killing machine. Sputnik is an interesting inversion of that idea: it takes the basic narrative framework, and since it takes place in Soviet Russia, it replaces “The Company” with “The Party”. This is a science fiction film with real ideas and characters, plus a sense of atmosphere to back it up. It may lack in top-notch special effects, but it has the potential to stir the imagination.
It is 1983, near the waning days of The Cold War, and the USSR’s recent space flight nearly ends in disaster. There is only one survivor, a cosmonaut named Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov). The state-sponsored media frames his earthly return as heroic, but we learn the truth alongside an independently-minded scientist named Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina): Konstantin is under constant surveillance at a secret research facility. A shady colonel named Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) takes Tatyana to the facility, and what she sees there startles her. There is an alien life form living inside Konstantin, and it exits his body for about two hours every night.
Director Egor Abramenko captures the right look for the film. Anyone who has watched The Americans will recognize the drab colors of the research facility, and like Ridley Scott’s Alien, he is wise to keep the creature draped in shadow, saving the blood and terror for short bursts. That sense of atmosphere goes a long way, since there are significant periods where the characters argue. The dialogue is never boring, however, because screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev introduce interesting ideas about politics, scientific ethics, and what it means to be human. We already know that Konstantin is linked to the creature inside him, and Sputnik revises that relationship in ways that tap into the classic fears which inform body horror.
The sense of suspicion in Sputnik is much more pervasive than the Alien films. Everyone is on the same page, more or less, because there is an implicit understanding that secrets are being withheld by everyone. Semiradov posits himself as an independent thinker, although that is ultimately a cover for him being just another apparatchik; the real source of intrigue is Konstantin himself. He keeps his cards close to the chest, and his uneasy relationship with Tatyana grows more dangerous when she tries to bond with the creature inside him. Are they part of the same consciousness, or is the creature a parasite? There are no easy answers, and the ethical quandaries only grow more complicated as we learn additional secrets.
There is a brusque, standoffish quality to the performances that serve the story well. Every character conceals their feelings, which is a roundabout way for the audience to grow more fascinated with them. Tatyana is the closest thing we have to Ripley, the hero of Alien, except her scientific background makes her curious about the creature (that she does not immediately hate the creature adds a dark undercurrent of maternal instinct). That sort of bond is only weirder with Konstantin, a character who remains difficult to pin down.
It is a credit to Fyodorov that each adjustment and twist is plausible. What helps is the infusion of pseudoscience mumbo-jumbo into the dialogue, so we constantly reinvent how much we think we know (it sounds plausible enough to suspend disbelief). Supporting characters like Yan (Anton Vasiliev), a mid-level scientist who understands how to bend bureaucracy, buoy the credibility of a story that ultimately becomes the world’s weirdest love triangle.
Sputnik ends with a tense action sequence, as is the requirement of the genre. It is to the film’s credit that character choices inform the action, and the crisp edit keeps it moving at a steady clip. The creature itself is unnerving to behold, a slimy mix of teeth and sinew that contorts itself in inhuman ways. The CGI used to make it looks a generation too old, so Abramenko uses top-notch sound design to suggest raw terror. This is a strange film, with ideas that mirror its story in an elegant way. Students of Soviet history may find themselves with a renewed interest in science fiction, while science fiction fans may find themselves more curious about what really happened to scientists under the Iron Curtain.
Sputnik is available on your preferred VOD platform starting Friday, August 14.