As the cinema of celestial brutes and space-set horrors goes, Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic “Alien” still retains a gold-standard status among its kind, continuing to lend its DNA to various sci-fi quests beyond the atmosphere. The latest film to ingest a piece of its eerie spirit — albeit, with varying degrees of success — is “Sputnik,” a tense genre exploit by debuting Russian director Egor Abramenko.
A claustrophobic character study with gripping set pieces, serviceable spatters of gross-out B-movie gore and plenty of red-lit corridors, “Sputnik” doesn’t quite deliver upon the juicy potential of its paranoia-induced Cold War-era backdrop. Still, Abramenko maintains the film’s finite appeal throughout, mostly thanks to a familiar aura and a charismatic lead performance by Oksana Akinshina, a fine surrogate for the tough-as-nails heroine Ellen Ripley.
Despite its limitations — among them is an inelegantly designed extraterrestrial antagonist and simplistic special effects created on a small budget — it’s perhaps no surprise that “Sputnik” is a monstrous commercial hit on its native soil, the land of Andrei Tarkovsky and his heady masterpiece “Solaris,” another of Abramenko’s oblique influences with its existential disposition. Without access to cinemas amid the COVID-19 crisis, more than one million viewers in Russia have reportedly streamed Abramenko’s film since its VOD release late April. And with no U.S. blockbusters to compete against, it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect “Sputnik” to attract American audiences as well upon its digital release by IFC Midnight on Aug. 14. No spandex-clad, multiplex-dwelling superheroes blowing stuff up to save the day? Try circa-1980s cosmonauts in spacesuits, scheming Russian officials and self-serving politicians on your home screens instead — that is, if you haven’t had enough of the latter two groups in your everyday already.
Though most of the movie is earthbound, “Sputnik” launches its first act in space during an ill-fated mission that sends a sole survivor, astronaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), back to terra firma. The year is 1983, and the Soviet government is working overtime to boost the morale of the country through uplifting stories of national triumphs and heroic role models. Except, neither Veshnyakov nor his failed voyage fit that bill.
The young astronaut doesn’t remember a whole lot about the outer-space catastrophe that killed his co-pilot and seems to have come back with a slimy, snake-like, parasitic “companion” (the literal translation of the word sputnik from Russian) planted inside his torso. When the creature periodically exits his host, bursting not out of his chest but mouth like vomit, Veshnyakov remains unharmed and even more bizarrely, unaware of the grotesque episodes beyond feeling a mild tickle in his throat.
Elsewhere, Akinshina’s gifted scientist Tatyana Klimova is having a tough day, defending her risky yet life-saving methods in front of a medical review board. Facing the threat of losing her license unfairly, she accepts an offer from the high-ranking, villainous big-shot Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who oversees Veshnyakov’s case at a distant research facility. The transaction is simple enough: Tatyana would help them observe and interrogate Veshnyakov to ultimately separate the creature from its human cocoon, and get to save her career in return. But when she slowly discovers the depths of corruption and sees through Semiradov’s secret mission that often employs frighteningly inhuman means to get results, Tatyana starts forging a deeper connection with her subject, ultimately deciding to fight the shady powers to facilitate Veshnyakov’s escape.
Aiming to take the deep skepticism toward institutional authority at the heart of “Alien” further, Abramenko and screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev ground “Sputnik” in terrifying procedural machinations primarily, rather than the fear and shockwaves spread by their own creature. In that regard, “Sputnik” is unlike the recent, standard-issue, ensemble-driven “Alien” imitators such as Daniel Espinosa’s (very good) “Life” or Neasa Hardiman’s frustrating “Sea Fever.”
Often, you get a heartening sense that the filmmakers might have different fish to fry here. But the film’s political ambitions around critiquing bureaucratic control don’t coalesce. For starters, we never feel sure about how the authorities plan on harnessing the power of the extraterrestrial creature once it’s separated from the human body it occupies, or what exactly they plan to do with it. In the midst of various dark cat-and-mouse sequences deafeningly scored with Hans Zimmer-esque bombast, an underdeveloped outside world and a slapdash backstory revealed about Akinshina, the era-specific secrets and motivations of the film’s tarnished heroes and single-minded antiheroes feel all too broad and pedestrian. The script also takes half-baked stabs at ideas around class and toxic masculinity, but these thematic efforts don’t really go anywhere either.
Nevertheless, Akinshina makes good with her sharp-eyed character’s engrossing resolve, while Abramenko maintains a satisfyingly immersive and alarming mood within “Sputnik,” thanks to some sophisticated, mazy camerawork by cinematographer Maxim Zhukov. In a way, his film feels like an exciting space mission cut short, a journey worth following even if it ends before reaching its ultimate destination.