Russian director Egor Abramenko’s feature debut “Sputnik” is a gloomy, chilling affair, using its impressive special effects sparingly in favor of compelling character drama.
Released Aug. 14, the Cold War Russia-set film’s events are put into motion by the botched re-entry of a Russian spacecraft carrying two astronauts. As the two men prepare to enter Earth’s atmosphere, they notice something clinging to the outside of their ship, but their ship crashes before they can react to the disturbing development.
One of the astronauts is killed by the crash, but the other, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), survives. Doctors are unsure how Veshnyakov survived the devastating crash, but the answer soon reveals itself. One night, as the wounded astronaut sleeps, an alien creature slithers out of his mouth and coils up next to him. The creature is a parasite, preserving Veshnyakov’s health in order to ensure its own survival.
Enter Dr. Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), a psychiatrist whose brazen, hands-on approach has drawn fire from her superiors. Klimova’s introduction shifts the movie into focus — Veshnyakov’s crash and parasitic occupier are fantastic, but Abramenko’s film is less concerned with its visceral sci-fi than it is with its characters.
Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), the military leader in charge of Veshnyakov’s recovery, recruits Klimova to interact with the astronaut in an attempt to gauge the creature’s effects on his mind, as well as aid their efforts to remove the parasite from Veshnyakov.
There’s a good reason the film focuses on a psychologist, not a surgeon or an endocrinologist. Veshnyakov is Klimova’s patient and test subject, but it quickly becomes clear there’s more to their dynamic.
As Veshnyakov’s situation develops, so does the pair’s relationship. Veshnyakov’s ostensibly a victim, but his reticence to treatment, while mostly a result of his ignorance towards the extraterrestrial dwelling in his stomach, leaves Klimova on the defensive in the majority of their interactions.
Given the film’s trappings are those of a generic sci-fi horror romp, it’s a welcome surprise that Abramenko’s debut ends up being more of a psychological mystery. The Russian facility the film is set in is a desolate, oppressive place, lit alternately with dusky sun and piercing fluorescent lights — a perfect setting for the two leads to spar in.
Beyond the film’s detailed set design and harsh photography lie two excellent performances. The smoldering, steely-eyed turns from Akinshina and Fyodorov are spot-on for the film’s tone, embodying a blend of obligation and desperation unique to two characters who are both trapped, albeit in much different ways.
Abramenko’s narrative functions as a matter-of-fact, straightforward sci-fi, but it’s also highly symbolic. The similarities between a violent parasite in a symbiotic relationship with its host and the relationship between the military and its personnel in the film are obvious, and Fyodorov does a remarkable job portraying the awareness of that notion on Veshnyakov’s face.
A slow-burn sci-fi horror with impressive creature effects, “Sputnik” resists definitive categorization. The film strikes a similar tone as many smaller, character-centric indie fare, but the film’s technical achievement is on-par with higher budget, more action-heavy blockbuster sci-fi and horror. It’s a tenuous balance, but Abramenko’s directorial debut strikes it perfectly.
“Sputnik,” rated R, is available to rent for $6.99 on Amazon Video, Google Play and iTunes.