Mere seconds into the trailer for the new film “Sputnik” I immediately felt strong “Alien” meets “The X-Files” vibes. That’s all I needed to be onboard with this Russian sci-fi horror picture from first-time feature film director Egor Abramenko. Originally slated to debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, “Sputnik” joined many other movies in seeing its big premiere postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully IFC Films is dropping it this Friday on VOD and it deserves an audience.
The story (co-written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev) opens with a prologue set in outer space. In 1983 two cosmonauts heading home from an orbital space station encounter something mysterious just outside the earth’s atmosphere. Their space capsule eventually lands but the retrieval team finds the mission commander Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) suffering from short-term amnesia and his co-pilot in a coma.
The cosmonauts are taken to a secret research faculty in Kazakhstan ran by Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk). He is under pressure from Moscow to figure out what happened to the crew, specifically their “national hero” Konstantin. But it’s soon discovered that there is more at stake than just propaganda. Turns out Konstantin is host to an alien parasite that is using his body as an incubator of sorts. He doesn’t know it’s inside him, but Semiradov does and the potential benefits to the government could prove invaluable.
Semiradov recruits Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), a neuropsychiatrist who is in hot water with the Health Ministry for using some controversial methods to save a young boy’s life. Semiradov needs someone willing to “take risks” to save a national hero for the government’s propaganda machine and save a potential weapon for the Soviet military. But to do so she’ll have to navigate through the facility’s numerous secrets in order to find out what’s really going on. And some of her discoveries have dramatic (and potentially fatal) implications.
“Sputnik” is built upon a surprisingly rich attention to character. It’s spends much of the first half uncoiling the people we meet almost exclusively through Tatyana’s point of view. Even as the action intensifies in the second half, the characters are always front and center. The performances are well-tuned for a Cold War era thriller. Akinshina brings a needed steely grit to Tatyana while Bondarchuk’s Colonel Semiradov is an enigma – cold, emotionless, and impossible to read.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is found in the eerie atmosphere it maintains from start to finish. Abramenko makes great use of both visuals and sound to create a chilly and unwelcoming environment. Cinematographer Maxim Zhukov shoots in moody washed out color tones and with a slight grain to his images. It effectively looks cut from its time. Meanwhile the ominous score from Oleg Karpachev cuts in at the just the right moments, reenforcing the sense of dread.
I’m almost certain that “Sputnik” will be too much of a slow-burn for some. Yet at the same time Abramenko is constantly moving his story forward whether it’s through the chilling mystery or character growth. I love his patience in allowing his crafty genre brew to play out. And while the influences of “Alien” and “The X-Files” are all over it, “Sputnik” etches its own identity that feels fresh in this day of stale rehashes. “Sputnik” premieres this Friday on VOD.
VERDICT – 4 STARS