Skip to main content

'Sputnik' Review: Russia, you have a problem

Egor Abramenko's Cold War era stunner makes the most of exploiting humanity's darker side through its treatment of alien outsiders and war-based motivations.

Tensions rise in Sputnik.
(Image: © IFC Midnight)

Our Verdict

Sputnik blends extraterrestrial intrigue with science fiction experimentation in a way that delivers cosmic body horror with a period-savvy Russian twist.

For

  • 🚀 It's creature forward.
  • 🚀 Rooted in curiosity.
  • 🚀 Technical aspects are strong.

Against

  • 🚀 Takes its time.
  • 🚀 More ponderous than fierce.

Since Apollo 18, I’ve been hesitant about modern “space horror” titles that hinge on cosmic creatures. Sputnik’s poster brings with it unfortunate moon-rock-monster flashbacks. Thankfully, Egor Abramenko’s (massively impressive) feature debut has more in common with Life and Venom in the way that theorizers joked how Life was a stealth Venom prequel. Sputnik is hard-R Russian science fiction that shares DNA with titles like Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, where research and reason blend with an unidentified organism’s evolution. Less about exploring the final frontier that is space, and more about unpredictable hitchhikers in newfound ecosystems should extraterrestrial populations exist.

When cosmonaut “hero” Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) lands back on Earth after communications go dark during his descent, he’s rush to an isolated Soviet facility. Comrade Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), a Cold War-era military type, leads an investigation into Konstantin’s current condition. A renowned psychologist with a specialization in neurological studies, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), is brought into the facility because of her “dangerous” tactics. Together, the trio - with the help of other top-secret agents - must save Konstantin from himself. More specifically, from the slimy lifeform that’s taken residence in his human vessel until after midnight when it emerges.

What I love about Sputnik is what I love about most of my favorite creature-features: there’s no sneaky camera work that hides said creatures from view until, say, the third act. Within the overnight hours of Tatyana’s first visit to Semiradov’s facility, Konstantin’s gooey stowaway slithers out the spaceman’s mouth. By day, Konstantin cannot feel the thing’s presence and sees insanely rapid regeneration benefits that keep him in top health. By night, he’s knocked unconscious by a chemical the organism releases to wriggle out of Konstantin's body. It’s a symbiotic relationship that powers the film’s driving conflict. Can Tatyana separate man from interstellar booger before Moscow gets involved?

Procedural demands drive a wedge between Tatyana, Semiradov, and the lead scientist before Tatyana’s arrival, Yan Rigel (Anton Vasilev). Tatyana’s work with Konstantin and his nocturnal companion presents a studious bond, showing empathy towards the otherworldly passenger that’s willfully humanitarian. Semiradov is the iron-fist tyrant interested in Konstantin and his squishy assassin’s capabilities as a weapon. Oh, and Rigel? He dreams about the Nobel Prize possibilities. Three clear motivations, three distinct personalities (I adore Semiradov’s forthcoming acknowledgment that all he cares about is weaponization potential), but one common goal. It’s a bit like watching Cerberus, the three-headed dog, as the characters above nip at each other yet must work in unison or their adjoined brains are useless.

Abramenko’s directorial confidence throughout Sputnik helps intensify the quarrels between observant inquisition and battlefield exploitation. Tatyana’s interactions with Konstantin’s miniature Cloverfield lookalike evoke a zoologist’s wonder when trying to comfort a newly caged animal. Even better, the gangly bat-manta-ray figure projects finely tuned personality accents. Something so unclassified, yet viewers can sense both compassion and suspicion just by how it mimics the pose of whoever’s on the other side of its enclosure glass. Then the “hard-R” nature of the being’s aggression begins to showcase, and “feeding habits” are brought into question. Sputnik gets dark, violent, and morally ambiguous as a commentary on “redacted” missions carried out by governments everywhere. Again, the confidence behind Abramenko’s cinematic command does not suggest that of a debut filmmaker. 

It’s not “action-packed,” mind you. Sputnik isn’t some outpost flick where an alien breaks containment and hunts its captors one by one. It’s a quasi-political thriller with criminal elements, that viciously reward patience when Konstantin learns more about his lil’ buddy’s strengthening shared abilities. It’s also a character study about Konstantin himself, an astronaut’s psyche, and the propaganda utilized by governments such as Russia when toughening their nationalistic brand and hiding secrets from the public. All promises are fulfilled by the time Abramenko’s curtain falls, but this is a horror film of many-layered elements that all need time to breathe.

Sputnik is a speculative conspiracy movie as much as an exciting creature adventure. A film about worlds colliding and collaborating under a sterner sci-fi lens, questioning whether universal peace can be achieved when warlords are in charge. It’s a mostly industrial-complex based experience with sterilized interiors, but that doesn’t prevent Egor Abramenko from channeling the ever-questioning curiosities in thematic ambitions. You’ll get your glimpses of primal horror, commentaries against corrupt rulers, and assessments of patriotism at the expense of self-indulgence. Everything that’s not teased in a simplistic poster inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing (tethered themes) makes Sputnik such a breathtaking beginning for what I’ll assume to be a lengthy and heralded career for Mr. Abramenko.

Sputnik will be available to rent August 14th.