Review: Russian thriller 'Sputnik' a gory, decent, creature feature of the week
Courtesy of IFC MIDNIGHT
You’ve seen it all before. And as far as creature features, body snatchers, and parasitic insects latching onto human hosts go, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is still the gold standard in this genre. But that hasn’t stopped countless imitators over the years from trying to unseat the 1979 classic: 2020 alone has given us three: the criminally underrated Kristen Stewart led “Underwater; ” the stuck at sea quarantine thriller “Sea Fever’” and the Shudder original “Beach House.” Each entertaining on their own silly merits, I have a soft spot for the creature feature genre, and usually find myself engulfed in the gory splendor of a weird looking beast crawling out of the stomach of some buffoon who shouldn’t have explored that dark alley.
In the new Russian thriller “Sputnik,” the usual mechanics are employed: there’s a central creature or parasite - in this case extra terrestrial - who latches itself onto an unsuspecting host in an attempt to become connected. The film does put a fresh and inventive spin on the oft recycled plot devices of “Alien,” giving “Sputnik” a gripping edge over some of its competitors. At its core, the film is a character study of the mind and body, with more than enough gory mutilations and dismemberment's to make any horror nut blush, and gives debuting Russian director Egor Abramenko a solid resume to build upon.
Though a majority of “Sputnik” takes place on earth’s soil, the opening prologue takes shape in orbit, during an ill-fated mission that sends a surviving astronaut, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) back home. The year is 1983, and we’re at the height of the Soviet Union regime and their working overtime to give citizens a false sense of hope and security. They want to push agendas and narratives around heroes succeeding in battle and tout space expeditions yielding exceptional results. Though, Veshnyakov and his voyage don’t necessarily represent the latter.
The young cosmonaut doesn’t remember much about what killed his crew or how he ended up back on earth, but he’s come back with a slimy “companion” that’s living inside his torso, just below the stomach. At night, when the creature decides to exit the host like vomit, it leaves Veshnyakov unharmed, and, oddly enough, unaware of what’s happening. For all he knows, there’s a lump in his throat related to a cold.
Enter controversial scientist Tatyana Kilmova (Oksana Akinshina) who's on the chopping block for performing risky, life saving methods on her patients. Facing the truth that she could lose her medical license, she accepts an offer from a shady, high ranking, military official named Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) who's leading the charge in helping separate Veshnyakov from his new found buddy. Tatyana’s task is simple: help find a way to detach the creature from its human cocoon, and her medical credentials stay intact. But like most of these flicks, it doesn’t take long for the good-hearted scientist to see the evil and villainous motives behind the organization that hired her.
Screenwriters Oleg Malovichiko and Andrei Zolotarev don’t create anything wholly original, but the design, look, and feel of the creature is something to admire. For starters, the logistics of how the “companion” operates is fascinating: like when it goes to leave, it releases a toxin that knocks out the host so they have no idea what’s happening, and the way it feeds off our brain waves definitely gives “Sputnik” a unique creation. In that regard, the film differentiates itself from the likes of Daniel Espinosa’s immensely satisfying “Life.”
There are instances when the filmmakers attempt to divulge too much backstory and secret allogies about governmental control, underestimating just how invested they believe audiences will be when the creature isn’t ripping people's heads off. Still, Akinshina would make a good sidekick for Ripley any day of the week, and thanks to some daft and sly camerawork by Maxim Zhukov, “Sputnik” feels like a tightly wound and claustrophobic thriller whereas other, similar flicks, run out of gas after the opening title card.
SPUTNIK is now available to rent from various digital retailers. Check your preferred platform.