Fans of horror curious about Russian-language contributions will find a USSR-sized gap in their research. Soviet horror films are rarely presented as an existing category - while countries like the United Kingdom, United States, Japan, and various European nations currently produce horror films by the dozen each year, you would only need one hand to count the number made in Russia over several. That alone might be a good enough reason to check out director Egor Abramenko's new film, 'Sputnik'.
In 1983, during the Cold War, a Russian cosmonaut, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), returns to Earth from space. Unfortunately, he brings an uninvited guest - an alien parasite that hides in his oesophagus and clambers out of its host's mouth while he's asleep. The government tasks a disgraced psychiatrist, Dr Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), with travelling to the isolated military facility where Konstantin is being held in order to find out more about the extraterrestrial.
The stone-faced Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) wants her to determine how to separate Konstantin and the creature. Not only does he want his cosmonaut to survive because of the positive public relations it will provide the Russian space program, he also wants to weaponise the creature, which seems to have developed a symbiotic relationship with Konstantin that gives the man amazing recuperative powers. Psychological cat-and-mouse games aplenty ensue.
With 'Sputnik', Ridley Scott's 'Alien' meets John Carpenter's 'The Thing' in a variation of other sci-fi tales. Dealing with familiar concepts, Abramenko pulls from proven sources with his story of a team of scientists who live in an isolated compound and face the feeding frenzy of a hitchhiker who spends time inside an astronaut's body. You could even think of 'Sputnik' as the middle part of an unofficial trilogy comprised of Daniel Espinosa's 'Life' (astronaut encounters alien life form in space) and Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' (alien life form ditches astronaut to pal around with Tom Hardy).
'Sputnik' offers a few interesting wrinkles to a fairly standard setup, with all of the characters struggling against different bureaucratic machinations. Klimova wants to save an innocent man, particularly once she finds out that his son is waiting for him in a government orphanage. Semiradov wants to get the situation with his cosmonaut under control before head office in Moscow catches wind of the situation. Another doctor, Yan Rigel (Anton Vasiliev), goes along with some grisly experiments, citing that the military order overrules his ethical objections. Even Konstantin is compliant with the savage actions of his parasitic passenger, but argues that he is ultimately has no choice. Abramenko captures the feel of the USSR's political climate, without veering into the sort of caricature and soap opera dramatics typical of usual Cold War-era portrayals. The film features intelligent dialogue, well-delivered by actors who show big screen charisma and skill.
You could even think of 'Sputnik' as the middle part of an unofficial trilogy comprised of Daniel Espinosa's 'Life' (astronaut encounters alien life form in space) and Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' (alien life form ditches astronaut to pal around with Tom Hardy).
However, there is still a feeling of untapped potential. During the 1980s, the Soviet bureaucracy lived as a parasite on the conquests of the working class, feeding off the latter until it destroyed them. Their parasitism, privilege and self-promotion were an enormous tax on the Soviet economy, infrastructure and social resources. I wish that Abramenko could have used his gooey beast to push the obvious metaphors even further.
The tension in 'Sputnik' ramps up very gradually and the film is never particularly scary, but when we eventually get to see the creature, it isn't disappointing. The computer-generated xenomorph is used sparingly in the early part of the film and to good effect when the action kicks in. While there is some gore, it mostly avoids slipping into a slimy, tacky pool of blood, initially drawing back rather than focusing on schlock film exploitation moments.
Abramenko's movie puts the characters in perilous situations where no answer seems like the right answer, leaving you wanting to know what happens next, and keeping the audience engaged. Although it doesn't reinvent the wheel, 'Sputnik' is an effective monster flick that touches upon human nature and the moral choices people have to make when it comes to life and death.