Uncommonly smart, genuinely suspenseful and surprisingly moving, Egor Abramenko’s “Sputnik” is drawing comparisons to Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi shocker “Alien.” And while there are certainly correlations between the two thrillers, this Russian import takes a more cerebral approach to this tale of a space mission gone awry and an alien lifeform that’s unwittingly brought back to Earth. While the “Alien” franchise has certainly exhausted every aspect of its titular monster from the body horror angle and the high body count the acid-bleeding baddie consistently wracks up, Abramenko finds a different angle to explore that proves far more haunting and impactful.
That’s not to say the unwanted visitor that hitches a ride on the returning Russian capsule doesn’t cause its own brand of mayhem. Fans of the genre will not be disappointed by the moments of body horror Abramenko conjures. The gasp-inducing hijinks that we see play out don’t grab you so much because of their graphic nature but due to the intimate nature that exists between the creature and …
Well, to give more away would be criminal. While the film takes a bit to deliver its first shock, the exposition in the extended first act plants many narrative seeds that pay off in shocking and poignant ways as the story plays out. As with most movies like this, nothing is quite what it seems. Taking place in 1983, cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is praised as a hero in the media when he returns to Earth after a prolonged mission. And while he showed a great deal of courage during the trip, the public doesn’t have the full story where he’s concerned. He’s been quarantined since his return, is having problems with his short-term memory and wakes up each morning physically sore and confused. Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) is frustrated by the lack of progress the scientists in his charge are making and has brought in a specialist, Tatyana Kilimova (Oksana Akinshina), to see if she can get some answers.
She finds there is an odd connection between Veshyakov and the particularly violent alien that doesn’t hesitate to rip any human that crosses its path to shreds. It comes as no surprise that Semiradov wants to use the creature as a weapon; what is shocking is that Kilimova is able to ultimately communicate with this thing and determines just what it wants.
The creature comes to be a metaphor for the secrets various characters are keeping. Its appearances are rare and kept under wraps, only a very few people knowing of its existence. Equally intriguing is Veshyakov’s past, which is slowly revealed as Kilimova examines him. Far from being the hero everyone sees him as, he’s a troubled man, filled with doubt and wracked with guilt because he was forced to abandon his young son, who now resides in an orphanage Charles Dickens would view as a resort.
The script by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev is one of the leanest narrative constructs in recent memory. Plot points, major and seemingly inconsequential, come together for an unexpectedly complete and satisfying conclusion that appeals to the viewer’s intelligence and heart. Yes, “Sputnik” has its share of visceral moments, but it’s the quiet, human ones that prove haunting as it speaks to the self-inflicted damage done by the guilt we carry and the redemption that’s possible through facing it.
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