‘Sputnik’ Review: “Horrors Behind the Iron Curtain”
The value of a story isn’t in what it tells, but how it tells it. The most tired of stories can gain new life through strong characterization, change in setting, and careful plotting. Fortunately, Sputnik is a textbook example of how to revitalize a familiar narrative.
The crux of Sputnik is a familiar one. After sending two cosmonauts into space, the Russian space program gets a nasty surprise when only one comes back alive. This cosmonaut, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), is put into quarantine immediately. As the days go by, and his behavior grows more erratic, the truth comes to light. Konstantin has brought something back with him.
Sputnik has no interest in being a typical creature feature, though. First-time director Egor Abramenko primarily is making a film about 1983 Soviet Russia. Again, not the freshest of settings, but this one actually comes to us from a Russian filmmaker in the Russian language in the modern-day. The Russia we see here isn’t the villain of American cinema. Furthermore, it isn’t the hero they portrayed their selves as at the time this film is set. Abramenko depicts his setting with conviction, as a country with a labyrinthian government in which the strong try to do good and others succumb to its darkest corners. The rest are caught in between.
Neurophysiologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is one of the strong. After being dismissed from her profession for taking a large risk to save a patient’s life, military brass Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) recruits her to study Konstantin. Starting in their first interaction, Akinshina and Fyodorov are magnetic together. Clinical and probing, Tatyana couldn’t be more opposite from Konstantin. Deeply troubled by the events of his flight, he’s a guarded individual that Tatyana strategically moves to figure out.
The screenplay by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev precisely stages these scenes as a slow un-spooling of character. On their own, they’re riveting to watch. Yet, they’re only one part of the package. Sputnik is a science fiction film, after all, so Tatyana soon learns the secret of why she’s there: an extraterrestrial creature shares a body with Konstantin, coming out when he’s asleep. Therefore, it’s her duty to figure out how to separate Konstantin from the creature. Little does she know, she’s also a pawn in a wider political conspiracy.
Psychological examinations. Extraterrestrials. Government corruption. 1983! There’s a whole lot going on in Sputnik, to the point where it could fall apart at any second. Miraculously, it doesn’t. Egor Abramenko maintains a guiding hand over a crew that puts everything they have on the screen. The aforementioned script wastes not a line of dialogue and keeps all the plotlines moving at a lightning-fast clip that never loses the audience.
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Perhaps that’s due to a mixture of the rest of the production. Sharp cinematography by Maxim Zhukov revels in the grey compounds and dark shadows, drawing upon neo-expressionistic imagery to solidify the story. Backing this is a “waste no visual” editing approach from the team of Aleksandr Puzyryov and Egor Tarasenko. You could turn the sound off and Sputnik would still be an effective piece of storytelling. However, that would deprive you of a fist-pumpingly intense score from Oleg Karpachev.
Top-to-bottom, Sputnik is a technical bravura. The cherry on top is a unique, though familiar in the right ways, creature design. Think H.R. Giger meets Cloverfield, alternately anthropomorphized and alien. Through all this talk of production, I fear I am understating just how great the story and settings of the piece are. That’s just the kind of film Sputnik is, though. A movie that does near everything right that you can get spun off on a tangent easily.
The only sin of Sputnik is that it can be almost overwhelming in the amount it tries to do. What a good problem to have. Like Alien, Ex Machina, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Sputnik puts its full faith behind its science fiction narrative in ways that reap mesmerizing results. Is it as good as those films? Only time will tell. But for now, take the voyage… you’re bound to bring something back with you. –James Preston Poole
Sputnik is now available in select theaters and on VOD.
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