Film Review – Sputnik
On the surface, Sputnik (2020) has similarities with other science fiction films involving humans coming into contact with non-Earth beings. Hailing out of Russia, its approach will call to mind Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) or maybe Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016). What the writing (Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev) and directing (Ego Abramenko) accomplish so successfully is endowing the material with its own unique spin. This is just as much of a cultural statement as it is edge of your seat sci-fi horror. That’s what makes the genre so appealing. When done well, filmmakers can utilize otherworldly elements to touch upon real world issues.
We begin by meeting two Russian astronauts returning to Earth after a lengthy mission. However, something went wrong upon re-entry. An alien creature attacked the ship, killing one and leaving Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) as the sole survivor. As a result the alien embedded itself inside of him, creating a symbiotic (or parasitic) attachment. The two now depend on one another – the alien can only survive outside of Konstantin for a short period of time and he needs it as a kind of life support system. Konstantin is brought to a secret facility where Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) enlists maverick doctor Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) to study Konstantin and find a way to separate him from the alien.
The story is set in 1983, while the USSR was still in existence and during the last few years of the Cold War. This introduces a number of themes, especially the contrasting ideologies of individuality versus one’s loyalty to the government. The three main characters – Konstantin, Tatyana, and Colonel Semiradov – represent the spectrum of this conflict. But the intelligence of the writing doesn’t allow them to simply be types. They operate in different shades of gray, oscillating between blind patriotism and doing what one believes is right.
The performances of all three are excellent. It would be easy to see Colonel Semiradov as the cold-blooded villain, the government official representative of an oppressive system. But Bondarchuk gives the character more dimension that that. Much of the time Semiradov is accommodating to Tatyana, allowing her the space and time to run her examinations. Konstantin is a tragic character, so committed to the governing powers that he sacrificed everything he loves to be part of it. Notice the way he keeps referring to himself as a “hero,” not out of arrogance but as an attempt to justify his actions. Tatyana is stuck right in the middle, getting pulled back and forth between her growing empathy for Konstantin and the understanding that he must be separated from the alien. The dynamic of this triumvirate makes for the narrative’s central tension.
The gore is amplified through suggestion instead of depiction. That’s not to say that we don’t get our fair share of blood splatter, because we do. But in the same way that Jaws (1975) magnifies the aura of its monster through description, so too does the monster here. We see much of its destruction through photographs, and often the cinematography (Maxim Zhukov) will show security camera and night vision footage as a way of obscuring the alien’s attacks. The approach makes it so that when we finally see it in full form, our minds have already imagined how dangerous it can be. The alien itself is so very…wet. This is the slimiest intergalactic being we’ve come across in a long while, where its body seems to ooze mucus. The design is a cross between the body of a praying mantis and the head of a cobra. It’s all arms and legs attached by a skinny torso.
Deciding to have the alien and Konstantin form a bond to secure one another’s survival was a masterstroke. Not only does it create a riddle for Tatyana to solve, but also serves a grander cultural allegory. I don’t know the intricacies of Russian politics – either during the height of the Cold War or in modern times – but there’s something to be said about how one body (the government) must rely on another body (the people) to endure, and vice versa. How difficult is that balance when one of the two is corrupted? Is it even possible for them to separate? The same idea can be applied to our own country (or any, to be honest). Just like the alien and Konstantin, society cannot prosper without balance. To disrupt that balance would cause chaos, so eloquently demonstrated here.
Not only is Sputnik well-made, it has the maturity to have something meaningful to say. Some can go into it and be entertained by the suspense and horror, while others can look at it and think about the underlying subtext it’s trying to examine. It takes place in the past but feels very much a part of the present. We’re living in a time where the cinematic landscape is in a bit of a mess. Hopefully this will rise above the fray and be seen be a large number of people. Those who give it a chance will be rewarded.