Ridley Scott’s Alien casts a very big shadow on Sputnik, a slick Cold War alien invasion thriller from director Egor Abramenko (who’s making his feature debut), so much that it threatens to swallow the movie. Fortunately, Abramenko sneaks in a fresh angle before the chest-burning extraterrestrial mayhem takes charge. Launching with an efficient and eerie first act, Sputnik initially feels like the kind of slow-burn laboratory thriller that rarely gets made these days, yet feels timelier than ever. A medical phenomena that confounds modern science, you say?
Sadly, the analogy doesn’t go much further than that. But before Sputnik settles into a run-and-gun routine that feels very familiar and conventional, it’s a gripping and gross B-movie made all the more intriguing by the period backdrop that carries connotations of its own. It’s all set in 1983, and after a trio of cosmonauts slam back to earth under dubious circumstances in the dark of night, one winds up dead, another in a coma, and a third can’t remember what happened. The latter is Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), who’s locked up in a lab where troubled young doctor Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina) finds herself carted off to the secretive military compound for murky reasons. Once there, she gets the fully creepy picture: During the day, Konstantin sits in quaratine, confused about his off-planet experiences and why he’s been detained; by night, the truth (literally) comes out as a slimy, spindly creature climbing out of his body (through his mouth), gnashing its sharp teeth in search of a late-night snack.
A blockbuster hit in its home country, Sputnik doesn’t deliver the most innovative onscreen monster, but it effectively embodies the spookiness surrounding its existence (especially since the film was only made for around $2.5 million and the budget never feels limited). Tatiana, whose career has already been tarnished by an earlier professional crisis and doesn’t trust the agendas of the authorities who brought her into this assignment, brings substance to an otherwise familiar cycle. When Sputnik hovers in the layers of bureaucratic secrecy surrounding the nature of her mission, and her general distrust of the military forces run by a slightly cartoonish and cheesy antagonist Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), it roots the sci-fi in deeper questions of institutional control. Sputnik makes it clear early on that, once again, evil (literally) comes from within.
Still, when Tatiana witnesses the carnivorous creature unleashed, and the bloody prospects of the Soviet military harnessing its power, her shock is felt because the creature preys on fear. So does the movie, which gets a lot of mileage out of the fundamental discomfort involved in watching its gross concoction hunt. This monster has nothing on your average Xenomorph, though, and Sputnik never finds enough substance on its own to compensate for the derivative centerpiece. As Tatiana develops a bond with the imprisoned astronaut and contemplates an escape plan, the movie gradually devolves into a silly array of chase sequences and shootouts that eschew innovation and surprise for cacophonous sound effects and shocked expressions.
It’s clear that Abramenko did his alien homework, understanding — as Ridley Scott’s 1979 staple did so well — that these scenarios are as much about the survivors as the unsparing thing from another world. This movie barely manages to give its characters reason to make it through the ordeal before it speeds into action mode, as if working overtime to distract the country’s censors from noticing the institutional critiques. Still, Akinshina’s commanding lead performance does an alright job as our centerpiece, playing a fierce and determined woman keen on fighting back against forces only she can understand in piecemeal. Sputnik gives her plenty of room to stare down the authorities before it sells her short, and she deserves more opportunities to play a troubled warriors facing ethical dilemmas, perhaps ones with stronger scripts. Released in a summer of no Hollywood blockbusters, Sputnik is a reminder of the mixed-bag experience that so many of them often offer. While derivative as it may be, Sputnik‘s assured and efficient juicing of its genre bonafides ultimately finds enough thrills and chills.
Sputnik is available on VOD