Russian Horror Sputnik (2020) Lands Scares with Existential Alien Mayhem
First Wide Release: April 23, 2020 (Digital/Streaming Platforms)
Director: Egor Abramenko
Writer: Oleg Malovichko, Andrey Zolotaraev
Runtime: 113 Minutes
Starring: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
A doctor is promised to have her license restored after making a controversial decision that saved a child’s life in exchange for a consulting gig at a top-secret Soviet compound. Once at the compound, she meets the chipper yet cocky cosmonaut who has returned from orbit with a celestial lifeform buried inside him. Oblivious to the symbiote, the alien leaves his body at night in search of carnage and prey. Sputnik is Egor Abramenko’s directorial debut.
Sputnik walks a tightrope as it hits every aspect of good storytelling. The story has enough meaty twists and turns to misdirect the audience: the type of creature used, its diet, the knowledge of the characters, etc., which maintains a sense of mystery to keep the story engaging. All loose ends are tied up in the end, while still leaving enough ambiguity to keep the viewer thinking after the credits roll. The dialogue is both layered with deeper meaning and realistic which makes viewing certain sequences more unnerving or satisfying. All around, Sputnik does a stellar job of telling a grounded and engrossing story.
While the story itself is great, the characters are where Sputnik really shines. Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) is the clear star here. She presents as stoic which usually leads to the “strong, independent woman” archetype”. Thankfully, that is subverted here. Tatyana is multifaceted, driven both by justice and duty, bold and daring in her actions, aware of her intellect, and uses it without apology. She is a fully developed and realized character with a great backstory. Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), who plays opposite of Tatyana serves as a complementary character arc. Quick-thinking, cocky, and with a deep desire to protect others, Konstantin’s ultimate flaw is his hero complex and how it drives his actions. Together they share beautiful chemistry that rarely falls into romantic trappings, which is refreshing in this setup.
The art direction in Sputnik further cements its caliber as a quality horror film. Much of the film dabbles in striking visuals. The cinematography outside of the compound is lush and beautiful when compared to the spartan insides of the facility. Set pieces offered bold visuals that elevate the horror of the story: a Russian doll, an open space shuttle, the slaughtering cage. Imagery that is haunting yet beautiful paints a more atmospheric and sophisticated picture of the horror behind Sputnik. These artistic flourishes mesh with the interesting camera angles to create a heightened and claustrophobic feeling for the viewer. I also greatly appreciate the score. It feels classic and charmingly bombastic, I especially love the use of horns in the ending credits.
On a technical level, Sputnik exceeds expectations, especially in the effects department. The creature design work is astounding. I could almost feel the texture beyond the screen, something slimy and cold and unnatural without feeling fake. It certainly borrows from some films before it, some heavy inspiration from Life and of course a little of Alien, but it still is an atypical design that elicits fear and wonder. Above all, I appreciate the cgi is not overdone. I do feel like Sputnik could have fleshed out its story a bit better in terms of editing. Particularly, one more scene with the orphanage offering one more clue or two would have made a big difference to me but it not disqualifying by any means.
Abramenko’s first full-length feature is a massive success. With an excellent pace and captivating mystery, Abramenko bides his time by letting the audience better understand the character’s situation before constantly and consistently raising the stakes. Dark and brooding, but never hopeless, Sputnik allows for a narrative to form without falling back to the boring and nihilistic cliches of the genre. To me, the best kind of horror is the kind that happens to people who feel real. Abramenko’s decision to fully invest in the characters lets the horror develop more effectively and naturally. I really do hope he continues making horror films as I am very interested to see what he does next.
Between the great story and the terrifying execution, Sputnik also raises some great questions about duty and sacrifice. What does your willingness to sacrifice mean if it is attached to what you get in return? Is duty an extension of one’s work or of one’s debt to the opportunities they have had? Are you willing to kill part of yourself to save someone else? We see these themes interwoven into our main character's story arcs: a heroic cosmonaut returning from a dangerous yet politically important mission, a doctor willing to forgo typical practices and legal boundaries to save a patient, military men making decisions to galvanize power and influence, a scientist willing to put risk lives for academic honors, etc. These characters occupy certain archetypes but do not always behave in ways that stereotypes typically operate under, which is refreshing.
I absolutely adored this film. Sputnik is a tense and gripping feature with well-developed leading and supporting characters. Ignoring the typical chase-and-run tactics most bottom-of-the-barrel alien films employ, Sputnik is intelligent and atmospheric, often favoring more existential terror over clumsy extraterrestrial rampages. Without sacrificing substance or style it is thoughtful, mesmerizing, and, above all, scary. Sputnik is easily one of my favorite films of the year and I highly recommend it to anyone searching for the best that 2020 has to offer.
Overall Score? 8/10