2020, R, 107 min. Directed by Egor Abramenko. Starring Oksana Akinshina, Pyotr Fyodorov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Anton Vasilev, Anna Nazarova.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Aug. 14, 2020
If you are a fan of atomic-era cinema, the past few years have been a gift from on high. Just as that period in Hollywood history put scientists at the forefront of science fiction, so too have modern horror films found their inspiration in the exploration of the unknown. Everything from Ex Machina to Annihilation have grounded their horror in mankind’s knowledge of the rational world. The latest in this trend is Sputnik, Russian filmmaker Egor Abramenko’s nod to the monster movies of yesteryear.
Despite her undeniable results via questionable practices, Dr. Klimova (Akinshina) has fallen out of favor in the Soviet Union. Her latest review board has deemed her methods too extreme; her choices are to resign now, quietly, or be dragged into criminal court. It is then that Klimova is presented with a third option. Semiradov (Bondarchuk), the head of a top-secret research facility, steps out of the shadows with an offer: help his team evaluate Cosmonaut Veshnyakov (Fyodorov), who recently returned from outer space with a monstrous biological hitchhiker. If Klimova can find a way to break the bond between Veshnyakov and his parasite, she may be responsible for saving a Russian hero – and her own career.
In an era where so many horror films are anchored in the aesthetics of Eighties American cinema, Sputnik establishes itself as an especially polished work of retro-futurism. So much could be said about the quality of the production design; from the period furnishings to the blend of analog and digital technologies, Sputnik is a marked departure from films who think that nostalgia begins and ends with a synthwave soundtrack. Unsurprisingly, then, the film’s best sequence is a montage where the character of Semiradov is filling in the blanks of Veshnyakov’s symbiotic relationship with the creature. Scenes like this prove that Sputnik is a thoughtful marriage of both science and fiction.
Sputnik’s alien is also a worthy entry in the science fiction canon. Bony and translucent, the creature melds the best of classic Hollywood monsters – there are fangs and eyes aplenty – with the more marinelike characteristics favored by modern films. Watching the creature crawl its way across Veshnyakov’s quarters is a singularly unnerving sequence; in fact, Sputnik is at its best when we adopt the perspective of the facility’s recording equipment. Watching the alien tear its way through victims on the infrared camera brings out the best of both the period setting and contemporary CGI.
But for as much as Abramenko’s film excites with its attention to detail, the narrative exists in a space devoid of character development. Klimova is something of a cipher, a woman whose motivations seem to vary depending on the demands of the scene. While Akinshina gives a measured and engaging performance in the lead role, so much of Sputnik depends on fragmented character decisions – sudden flashes of empathy or even romance – that seem at odds with clinical nature of the team. It is not unfair to suggest that the interactions between Klimova and the lead researcher feel completely artificial, devoid of the internal motivations needed to move the story forward.
Had Sputnik managed to better connect the various character threads, Abramenko and company might’ve had something truly special on their hands. There is no denying that Sputnik is a work of incredible craftsmanship and a unique spin on a brand of Eighties science fiction. But without more believable character arcs – or any kind of character arcs in general – Sputnik loses the very human element it seems so determined to save.