Sputnik

2020 | Unrated (light R equivalent) | starring Oksana Akinshina, Pyotr Fyordorov, Fedor Bondarchuk | directed by Egor Abramenko | 1 hr 55 mins |

I’ve become very aware of a potential for critics to over-score foreign films. One possibility is that they are simply not  the subject of an ad campaign that some Hollywood movie studio carpet bombs us with months before it comes out, and including a trailer that reveals the entire plot. Because of that they are able to sneak up on us and surprise. It’s also possibly, highly, that movies that don’t come out of Hollywood have a storytelling style and structure that I like, a slower, more measured one that drops plot revelations over the course of the story and not fixed to time codes. An American Hollywood genre movie would strictly follow a structure that basically strings action/horror/comic set pieces together and drops one scene before the halfway point that explains everything, then plays out the scenario. The Exposition Dump. This is the Kevin Smith scene in Live Free or Die Hard.  We get a bit of mystery (What’s going on?), the Exposition Dump to explain it in one scene and then the results play out, leading to a 3rd act twist then the climax.  In a Marvel movie, for example, that third act twist is inevitably when the mentor/father figure or veteran actor is revealed to actually be (gasp) the villain (Jeff Bridges, Robert Redford, Annette Benning).

Compare that to some movies that Sputnik reminded me of. Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst or Pasal Laugier’s Martyrs that reveal the story in a stair-step approach, at first appearing to be about one thing, then shifting to another and committing to each one every time. At no point in these movies do we bide our time until the next action scene or Exposition Dump because while slower and longer they are constantly unfolding, consistently escalating the stakes.

All of this informs my immediate affection for Egor Abramenko’s Russian alien revisionist-history genre film Sputnik, a not so original movie told in a way I was riveted to. Yes, it is sort of a patchwork of genre tropes and a hard sell, but Abramenko’s first film is a confident one with it’s own twists and turns in the details. It looks like it will be another cheap alien invasion grab, (like the terrible US found footage film Apollo 18) but it’s far richer in execution. Speaking of critic cliches, I wholly reject the idea that Sputnik is an Alien-rip-off. We can get that out of the way right now. A charge I already leveled at Underwater, Sputnik has an alien in it, but it doesn’t stalk around it’s Earth-based facility picking people off in a haunted house fashion. This is more a movie about it’s host (Pyotr Fyordorov) and the neuroscientist (Oksana Akinshina) brought in to extract the parasite, with an alien in it. It’s more like Bong-Joon Ho’s The Host, a movie that also used it’s titular monster as a McGuffin to explore it’s characters, that also indulges in some first rate monster action when it needs to.

The movie that Sputnik most resembles is the 2017 Rebecca Ferguson pulse-racer Life where a group of scientists on a space station encounter a rapidly evolving alien that (Spoiler) ends with them landing on Earth and unleashing it. Playing like a spiritual sequel to Life, Sputnik plot-wise picks up right there with an alien that even looks like the one in Life. The details are very different:

The year is 1962 and the first space capsule to orbit the Earth returns home, but unlike the heroic return recorded in history books, the reality is actually that it returned carrying two crew members – 1 on the verge of death and the other infected, unbeknownst to him with an alien parasite. They are rushed to a secret facility, where a general (Fedor Bondarchuk) hires a neuroscientist, Tatyana known for not shying away from brutal methods to get results to somehow extract the parasite out of the astronaut so that Russia’s hero can return to the public eye victorious. Abramenko approaches this like a procedural, with Tatyana researching the creature’s behavior and testing it’s power. That slow roll out reveals new details of the parasite’s true nature and it’s interaction with it’s host and that’s where the film’s most unique and inventive plot elements are. That stuff is too much fun to reveal here.

The movie climaxes with a rare surprise that I did not see coming, though I’m racking my brain a bit to see what that adds to Tatyana’s journey from cold scientist to more emotional helping hero (she was already a rule-breaker at the start of the film and ends it by rebelling against the rules). Many may be turned off by Sputnik’s colder, more clinical approach vs the white hot tension you might expect from a horror film. Stylistically it’s more like Alien 3 than Alien. If that sounds as refreshing and engaging to you as it did to me, this is your movie. This is less a movie about a rampaging monster than it is about two characters, a dangerous new discovery and the Cold War era Soviet nationalism that stands in their way. Everyone with valid competing motives and interests. What looks like a cheap SyFy Channel monster movie, actually turns out to be measured, mature, thrilling in it’s details – one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It might even be my favorite monster movie since The Host. 

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