Premise: The lone survivor of an enigmatic spaceship incident hasn’t returned back home alone-hiding inside his body is a dangerous creature.
Sputnik, the new Russian sci-fi horror film from IFC Midnight directed by Egor Abramenko, infuses elements of creature and body horror with the humanity of a compassionate protagonist. At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is brought to a secluded research facility to analyze the bizarre case of a cosmonaut who returned to Earth with a parasitic entity in him. Charged with having to figure out a way to separate the entity from the host, Tatyana finds her conviction not to harm others being tested as the morals of those assisting in the institute are slowly called into question.
The cosmonaut in question, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), faces the brunt of the institute’s lack of communication as he appears to have no knowledge of the parasite inside him. Instead, he is sedated each night while the alien separates from its host through his esophagus and mouth in a grotesque display of well hidden visual effects and very effective sound design. As Tatyana’s affection for Veshnyakov and his situation grows and her knowledge of what is really happening expands, a plan formulates to get Veshnyakov to safety.
The plot reveals itself well with a few surprises along the way that keeps the momentum up throughout the film. As we learn more about the motivations of those in charge at the institute, the film becomes more bleak and the stakes rise accordingly. Akinshina’s performance gives Sputnik a worthy character to rally behind as Tatyana struggles to do what’s right or even recognize what is right and wrong in an increasingly volatile situation.
The character beats are fleshed out well in contrast to the violence and morally questionable (and in some cases, repugnant) behavior of the people in charge. There is a healthy amount of violence and tension as the film allows us to discover exactly what the parasite is capable of when separated from its host. The film uses some clever in-film elements to disguise the carnage (such as night vision goggles, and CCTV footage) as a means to prepare us for more visceral bloodshed later on.
Aside from the horror elements, one of the biggest developments in Veshnyakov’s story involves an estranged son he abandoned in favor of the chance to be a hero of space travel. The regret he feels for his lost son (who is now in an orphanage) endears Tatyana to Veshnyakov in such a way that it becomes the linchpin of the emotional story within Sputnik.
There is a subplot involving the orphanage, however, that drags down the film considerably as it leans into vague details that don’t become clear until much later in the film. The way it ties together is ultimately passable and helps to round out certain character arcs in meaningful ways. However, cloaking this subplot in mystery makes it too combative with the intrigue of the institute plot when it comes to competing for our attention.
Sputnik‘s human antagonist is Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), the head of the team researching Veshnyakov’s affliction. As the film progresses, Semiradov’s true intentions are revealed as being in direct contrast to Tatyana’s ideals. There’s some good tension as the two work against each other in their own ways in secret. But the real tension is in the escalating violence that occurs at the whim of the parasite.
Sputnik leads audiences to a satisfying, if expected end that brings the action and violence mostly teased throughout the film to the forefront. The internal logic of the characters’ actions are somewhat questionable as plot threads are tied up relatively neatly. The final confrontation between Semiradov and Tatyana feels a bit underdeveloped but, like the rest of the final act, is passable and overall satisfying if you don’t pull too hard at the loose logic threads.
Sputnik releases August 14 in select theaters, as well as on digital & cable VOD
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.