Synopsis: The lone survivor of an enigmatic spaceship incident hasn’t returned back home alone-hiding inside his body is a dangerous creature.
Stars: Oksana Akinshina, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anna Nazarova, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Vitaliya Korniyenko, Aleksandr Marushev, Albrecht Zander
Director: Egor Abramenko
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: It’s been surprising to me how much I’ve adjusted to seeing movies from the comfort of my own home these past several months. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed moving from point A in my living room that serves as my office to point B in the same area which turns into my nightly space for screenings. Sure, it’s taken just a tiny bit of the “event” feeling out of going to the movies but there hasn’t been anything I’ve seen so far that has truly cried out for the big screen experience. Until now.
Watching the new Russian monster movie Sputnik, I felt the first honest pangs of nostalgia for being in a darkened movie theater staring up at a moving image. This is the type of film that would have been a lot of fun to catch with an audience or even just flying solo as a weekday matinee to fill in some time between work and evening plans. At the same time, what a thrill to find a movie so on the money when it comes to creative ideas and working wonders with overwrought plot mechanics; it’s arguably in the top tier of films I’ve seen in 2020 and easily a new genre favorite.
It’s 1983 and two Russian Cosmonauts are in orbit preparing to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, discussing plans for what they’ll do when they return home. Kirill Averchenko (Aleksey Demidov) longs for a hot bath while Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov, The Darkest Hour) has more family-oriented matters to attend to. All plans are put on hold, though, when their capsule has more than a close encounter with an…unplanned visitor. Back on Earth, neurophysiologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina, The Bourne Supremacy) is facing sanctions for her unorthodox handling of a patient and the young doctors brash willingness to ignore authority catches the attention of Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) who has an interesting proposition for her.
If Semiradov can smooth out Tatyana’s present troubles, would she be willing to consult on a new patient at a top secret, heavily guarded government facility? Intrigued and seeing this as a quick solve to a annoying problem, Tatyana agrees to meet with the man Semiradov has been tasked with guarding: Cosmonaut Konstantin. Returning to Earth with little memory of what happened to him and his comrade, Tatyana dismisses his symptoms at first as a case of traumatic PTSD leading to temporary amnesia. That is, until she witnesses first hand his rather large problem that only comes out at night…
I think I’ve been trained for so long to be let down by movies that have a tantalizing opening act that I was particularly on edge with Sputnik. When would the other shoe drop, and how would screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev make some silly error that betrayed the three dimensional characters that were so carefully etched early on? Would director Egor Abramenko give in to the pressure to show off instead of draw the viewer in closer, making the experience less about craftsmanship than pure gimmickry? That the movie showed some of its cards at the outset made me nervous, but it turned out to all be part of the scary plan Sputnik’s creators had in store for audiences.
Bound to be compared to Alien and justly earning the same echoes of praise, this is one impressive discovery that continued to hold surprises well into its final stretch. That should be especially good news to those that want a little plot to go with their slimy guts and gore (which the film has buckets of, by the way) and the performances match the finely tuned suspense sequences. As the chilly young doctor plagued by a past that has ties to her present situation, Akinshina is as compellingly watchable a lead as I’ve seen in this genre. Bringing a Cold War steeliness to her early scenes and, in getting to know more about Konstantin, finding small ways of slowly letting her guard down, Akinshina carefully navigates a complex strong female character to make her as important as whatever gooey creature might be right around the corner. Fyodorov is nicely balanced too, playing a man expecting to return home to a hero’s welcome only to be imprisoned without any explanation why and kept from his family to be used as an experiment. The more he comes to realize his part, the more his allegiances change…but how much does he actually know to begin with? Also serving as a producer of the scare pic, Bondarchuk makes for a nice human villain when the well-designed beast isn’t onscreen.
Good performances and script can’t save a movie alone and there’s obviously been some money spent on Sputnik because it looks and sounds excellent. The cinematography by Maxim Zhukov is never too intrusive on the action but also doesn’t shy away from clever positions and tricks. I was particularly drawn in by Oleg Karpachev’s ominous and haunting score which helps to set the mood…and then some. Use of night vision and an abundance of 80s security video can be a little distracting at times but it keeps the mood of the piece just right and helps with that whole “less is more” feeling when showing the creature at the center of it all.
Had this opened in movie theaters, I still doubt it would have gotten as much attention as one of the proposed summer blockbusters or even a glazed over second tier release but it might have generated the kind of buzz that would have gotten it to audiences in select cities. That could have kept word of mouth going and will, I think, benefit its streaming debut because now the news of it being one to watch can spread quicker. It’s also worth noting this is arriving in the US via IFC films (IFC Midnight to be exact) and this is the third film this summer (after The Wretched and Relic) that has been a bona fide winner in my book. The folks at IFC clearly know how to pick ‘em and Sputnik is their latest bullseye.