Alien was a masterwork, no doubt, but it has been so emulated and parodied that the edge I found so terrifying that first time around felt dulled and its pace seemed much more plodding than it was in my memory. Consequently, it was with some trepidation that I popped my corn and took a seat on my lockdown-couch to watch a new Russian Sci-Fi-Horror flick that seemed like it could so easily be yet another Alien wannabe. Shame on me for being a Doubting-Thomas. Despite sharing some common ground with its forbear, SPUTNIK (which roughly translates as ‘traveling companion’) is a highly original, tensely compelling and surprisingly intelligent addition to the genre and is all the more remarkable an achievement for being the first time out for feature director Egor Abramenko.
The screenplay, written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotare, is set in 1983 towards the end of the Cold War era (the Cold War hadn’t quite cooled down yet as was evidenced a year after this film is set when American President Ronald Reagan made his infamous gaff during a microphone check for a radio interview. He accidentally sent the following message around the world - “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”) It’s against this political landscape that the Russian space agency (or is it the Russian military – it’s hard to tell the difference) attempt to conceal an incident in space that has resulted in the crash landing of the capsule, the death of one Cosmonaut and the quarantining of the mission’s Commander, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) at a secret base in the middle of nowhere. The base is under the command of Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) a seemingly urbane and reasonable officer who just wants to get to the truth about what happened out there. To help him achieve this he travels to Moscow to enlist the services of Tatyana Yuryevna Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) a neurophysiologist who’s in the process of being chewed out for her unconventional clinical practices. But, of course, these are exactly the skills that Semiradov needs.
When Tatyana arrives at the base, Semiradov is charming and welcoming in the way he gives her free reign of, as he puts it, ‘90% of the facility’. Are warning bells sounding? What’s the deal with that other 10%?
While the public media campaign is praising Konstantin as a national hero who will soon be paraded before the adoring crowds, the story back at the base is quite different. True to the title of the film, Konstantin has brought back a ‘traveling companion’ – a sleek, lithe deceptively cute looking creature that has taken up residence in the Cosmonaut’s oesophagus. Unlike Ridley Scott’s Chestburster, this creature has developed a symbiotic relationship with its host, able to come and go from its host’s body as it pleases. It’s this relationship that Tatyana wants to get to the bottom of and, in the process, starts to develop her own relationship with Konstantin. Is it real, or is it a strategy to get what she wants?
I’ve seen this film promoted as ‘gory and nailbiting’ and as ‘one of the most suspenseful science fiction films in years’. Yes, it may be all those things – it has moments of horror that are well crafted and it creates them without resorting to an abundance of hokey old ‘scare tactics’, and its heartpounding score by Oleg Karpachev enhances the narrative in often chilling ways - but in the end SPUTNIK is much more than the sum of its horror-movie parts.. For me it succeeds much more as a psychological thriller. In many ways, it’s a three hander, exploring the tension between Tatyana, Konstantin and Semiradov. Each character is well drawn, complex and beautifully performed and the dynamic between the buttoned-up, duplicitous colonel, the loose-cannon, empathetic doctor and the arrogant but naïve cosmonaut is a volatile emotional cocktail.
But let’s not forget the creature. It may look cute from certain aspects, but its motivations are anything but. It’s much more than just a monster; a remarkable visual achievement designed by both the director and the team at the Russian visual effects studio, Main Road Post.
But the creature is not the only visual triumph. Mariya Slavina’s cold war production design perfectly sets the tone and Maxim Zhukov’s cinematography captures the mood and tantalises us with glimpses and hints of the creature in the early stages of the film but resists the temptation of going all ‘Godzilla’ on us when this alien visitor gets its moment in the frame. In fact, this kind of restraint through the film is what allows the characters and their psychology to be as much, if not more of our focus than the more traditional scary elements. But it’s not a film without its weaknesses. There’s a mysterious intercut story about an orphan child (Vitalya Korniyenko) that provides a counterpoint to Tatyana’s insistence on probing Konstantin’s emotional guilt about the boy he’s left behind while he pursues his heroic deeds. Obviously, these cutaways serve as a bit of a circuit breaker to the tension at the base, and the child’s story is compelling in tis own right, but it carries us to a kind of twist at the end that is unnecessarily ambiguous and doesn’t quite hit the note that it should. Nevertheless, this is an exciting debut for Abramenko made with skill and confidence and a clear vision for the telling of its story. I can’t wait to see what he does next.