Yes, News Of The World will have to wait a little bit longer. I will get to it, promise. Instead of Paul Greengrass’ latest opus, I found myself taking in a pretty unlikely film, if you know anything about me. Horror isn’t really my thing at all. The last film I watched that could be grouped under that category wasn’t entirely by choice, with Jordan Peele’s Get Out a Dublin Film Festival surprise offering that I honestly probably would not have sought out under normal circumstances. Being fearful, or terrified is perhaps a better way of putting it, is not the kind of emotion that I seek to get out of the movies (though Get Out was, objectively speaking, a pretty good film).
Perhaps it was the sci-fi element that drew me to Sputnik over any qualms I had about the likelihood of bump scares, gore and uncomfortable thoughts when the lights got turned out later. Maybe it was the somewhat unique setting of the Soviet space program in the 1980’s, not exactly the very best time for cosmonauts with the USSR already in what we would recognise today as its death spiral. Maybe I just have a thing for aliens, and for the subtext heavy films that frequently feature aliens. Either way, I found myself all in on Sputnik for some reason, when it became available to Irish audiences for the first time a few weeks ago. Was it a worthy attraction, or is Sputnik going to inspire another few years of swearing off being scared by entertainment?
Soviet Kazakhstan, 1983: Neuro-physiologist Tatyana Yuryevna (Oksana Akinshina) is brought to a remote military facility by Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) to give an assessment of detained cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), who has returned from Earth’s orbit with an extraterrestrial symbiote inside of him. As she goes about her work, Yuryevna begins to bond with Konstantin, but soon learns that she is in as much danger from the amoral Semiradov as she is from the the predatory creature inside her patient.
So, yes Sputnik is a film that has plenty of jump scares, a surprising amount of gore and may, in fact, cause you to hesitate when it comes to turning out the lights at night, at least just a little. The alien creature that constitutes both one of its main antagonists and its monstrous force provides the jump scares, various heads getting pulled off or otherwise ripped to shreds bring the gore, and an overabundance on shadowy environments and infrared camera does the rest. But Sputnik is far more than just some throwaway alien horror movie that any studiio could have made at any time. No, this is a film with ideas and with a brain, and manages to get across both perceptions rather well in the course of its 100 minute running time.
Essentially an elongated version of director Egor Abramenko’s short film The Passenger from a few years ago, Sputnik’s main idea would seem to be a challenge to the audience to consider the different between a parasite and a symbiote. One leeches off the host body, the other forms a circle that benefits both parties: it takes a while for the characters in Sputnik to determine what the creature inside of Konstantin actually is in terms of that divide. The parallels to a Soviet state that is obsessed with creating and then protecting its heroes, at the cost of eliminating societal parasites who donl’t confirm to that culture of self-sacrifice, are fairly clear, but still presented in a manner that I enjoyed, maybe because it isn’t overdone. The film doesn’t draw out too much mystery in terms of the alien creature, who gets revealed relatively early on, with the larger point of the exercise being to figure just what to do with the creature and with Konstantin: are they friend, foe, potential weapon, or potentially life threatening? And, well, if evil is coming from within the cosmonaut, is it coming from within other characters as well?
Investigating this quagmire brings Tatyana into contact with certain extremes of Soviet policy, and adds a moral sheen to Sputnik that keeps the tension at a reasonable point. A lesser film would have attempted to promote some sort of romantic angle between Konstantin and Tatyana, but Abramenko forgoes this in favour of something a little less melodramatic and little more symbolic. Tatyana has issues from her past that are obliquely hinted at, which become important in understanding certain aspects of her actions, and I thought that the film went about exploring these with the right sense of patience and restraint, amid all of the suspense elsewhere. You keep waiting for Sputnik to devolve into “horrible monster runs riot throughout isolated military base, plucky survivors attempt to escape” but it never fully goes down that road (we might get a little bit of the first part, admittedly). As I said, Sputnik has its eye on being a bit more of a cerebral experience than you might have been expecting after the first scene sees cosmonauts attacked by an alien creature. It’s an exploration of duel lives and dual personalities, with an extreme allegory at the heart (and I don’t mean an unintentional COVID one, you can go to the somewhat similar Sea Fever for a better example of that).
Of course it has its problems as well, as all films of this level must. The film probably doesn’t need to be as long as it is, with the tempo staring to ebb a bit when we hit the 90 minute mark, the point already past when we should be heading for a conclusion. There are a few dangling hooks, like a brief, nasty encounter between Tatyana and a facility guard, that go unresolved. And the film’s ending strays a bit too eagerly into the realms of unnecessary melodrama, not unlike recent watch The Dig, which constitutes a certain level of betrayal of the tone of the thing up to that point. Without wishing to spoil things to too great of a degree, Sputnik sets itself up nicely to provide a third act narrative driven by late Soviet era pessimism and an understanding that the individual can only do so much in the face of the machine, but then undertakes a sudden, and not entirely palatable, about face, in regards to certain unseen characters and the deeper motivations of Konstantin.
But these are not terminal flaws, and are made up for in other ways. Part of what drives Sputnik above and beyond being just another low budget creature feature with delusions of grandeur is its cast which, while limited in number, are all quite good. Akinshina is a bit of a revelation to me, being known to western audiences mostly for a relatively small role in The Bourne Supremacy, but she’s quite good here, playing the role of a controversial scientist now way over her head with aplomb. The reserves that comes with being a member of a totalitarian society is there, but also the palpable feeling of wanting to break free of it (despite the performance it’s hard to ignore the, somewhat ironic given the easy comparison to icon Ripley, the actresses truly distasteful thoughts on feminism). Fyodorov is a bit harder to grasp in terms of his performance, but the aloofness and false bravado that he injects into Konstantin seems more appropriate the more you dig into the film, and come to realise the secrets that the character is hiding. Bondarchik is understated as the military base’s somewhat unhinged commander, maybe egging Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz more than is good for him, but provides a suitable human foil for the other two.
Sputnik is a film that I think worthy of some acclaim, if for no other reason that it manages to tell a fairly engaging sci-fi/horror story on what I assume was a relative shoestring, and yet looks good in the process. A soviet style minimalism, and brutalism, is evident throughout the film, in utilitarian building designs, musty old offices that look and feel like they were built in the 1950s and a bareness that certainly reflects the lack of funding in the film but does a good of placing you in the middle of a society that views progression as a danger and accouterments as unnecessary. It’s, well, alien. It’s not all that far off the similar style and technique that we would have seen in HBO’s Chernobyl in many ways. I would imagine that the majority of that budget was spent on the brief moments when we really get a look at the creature in question, which looks both suitably alien and suitably threatening, with a good bit of inspiration probably to be traced to Ridley Scott. It looks like both a sentient (and malevolent) thing, but also a wild animal: it wouldn’t have been easy to capture both extremes. Gore effects are infrequently used and thus see their impact maximised. There’s an understanding there of less is more, that fits the Soviet aesthetic very nicely.
This film surprised me to a certain extent, but in a good way. Once again, I found that Netflix has provided an outlet for the kind of low budget high concept sci fi feature that otherwise might struggle to find the kind of audience that it can get through the streaming giant. Sputnik has a whole lot to recommend it: a good premise that draws you in pretty quickly, a unique setting that probably doesn’t get enough play in modern filmmaking, a good cast making hay out of the material and a nice look that does credit to both the era depicted and the production team. Perhaps the entire experience is a bit too long and has an ending that is as melodramatic as it is convenient, but other than that I think that Sputnik is a fine example of making something engaging, thoughtful and maybe occasionally thrilling using a very limited list of principals and finances. If in the mood for a diverting sci-fi thriller, it’s something that I have no issues recommending.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures).