By Elias Savada.
Be warned – Sputnik‘s creature most likely did not come in peace.”
When I was a child, I was fascinated by those first artificial satellites launched into orbit around our planet. For those caught up on world history, the Russians were the trailblazers, in October 1957, with Sputnik, a polished metal sphere that survived about three weeks circumnavigating Earth. A year later my dad made a home movie that echoed those space race times, capturing me dressed up as what an 8-year-old and his mother would imagine that satellite would be – if transformed into a homemade Halloween costume. Two pillows tied by a belt around my waist, then wrapped in aluminum foil. A propellor cap, a buzzer, a mask, and some lightning bolts drawn in lipstick on my checks. That little 4-minute time capsule can be seen here.
Sputnik, the new Russian creature feature from director Egor Abramenko, making his feature debut after a decade making name brand commercials and music videos, has nothing to do with its namesake or my dad’s film, but refers to the word as translated into English as “fellow traveler.” In that respect, it’s an appropriate look at an alien stowaway aboard a Russian spacecraft in 1983. It’s now available on digital platforms and video on demand.
As this nearly two-hour scifi-horror entry begins, a pair of cosmonauts aboard a cramped spaceship are chit-chatting before they head back home. The pilot rides the stick shift, catching a glimpse of something outside their icy porthole. And when it moves to the top of their craft, you get the feeling it’s not Santa Claus or one of his reindeer trying to get down their chimney. Ho, ho, horror.
By the time the ship lands in Soviet Kazakhstan, one of them is devoid of most of his brain, while the commander, Konstantin Segeyevich Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), is suffering from a stubborn case of selective amnesia.
Meanwhile, a couple of thousand miles away in Moscow, headstrong but soon-to-be-disgraced neuropsychiatrist Tatiana Yurievna Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is offered a chance to reclaim some of her unorthodox glory. Of course, it concerns that recovering astronaut, now held at the remote All-Union Scientific Research Institute in Kazakhstan. It’s time to save a national hero!
The film’s slow-paced opening half-hour sets up the palace intrigue, with the Frankenstein castle being run by rule-bending Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk, son of the noted director Sergei Bondarchuk). As the shit starts to hit the extraterrestrial fan – with the Alien-esque stomach burst replaced by a slimy, grotesque, and nocturnal exit through Konstantin’s oral cavity – there’s plenty of plotting set in motion. Considering the film’s low budget, the critter is pretty convincing as a multi-eyed, crawling medley of alien insects, brain-smashing vampires (but instead of blood it thirsts for a fear-induced hormone), and other unearthly beings.
In a way the film also mimics tropes and scenes found in 2016’s Arrival, in which Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist, attempts to start a conversation with the visitors from another planet. Director Abramenko and his writers, Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, expand the director’s 2017 short The Passenger ten times over, and it could have profited by being shorn down to a more presentable 90 minutes. There’s a lot of technical mumbo jumbo and backlot scheming that pads the plot. If you going to watch this one at all, it’s probably for the good performances, the steel blue production design (by Mariya Slavina) and the dark, brooding cinematography of Maxim Zhukov.
Akinshina gives her character a solid, fierce confidence. In normal Soviet instances she would have been shipped off the a Siberian gulag and never heard from again. Like Ellen Ripley in the Alien films, she’s a survivor. Klimova’s peer in the facility is Yan Leonidovich Rigel (Anton Vasiliev), who hides some rather serious dietary concerns about the interstellar symbiote from her. Of course, he thinks the creature is his meal ticket to a great discovery (and a Nobel Prize). Yeah, you’ve seen hundreds of such self-serving folks in films like this. Rigel, at first glance, seems cut from the same cloth as Paul Reiser’s unscrupulous, squirrely Carter J. Burke in Aliens (1986), with hopes of weaponizing beings better left alone. Remember, it rarely ends well for these folks.
A sub-plot involving the cosmonaut’s illegitimate son should have been jettisoned from the start. It is so overwhelmingly underdeveloped it just provides a confusing afterthought in the end. One interesting plot device is the use of “Million Scarlet Roses,” a popular Russian hit during the film’s time frame. Music does soothe a troubled alien’s soul.
Be warned – Sputnik‘s creature most likely did not come in peace.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).