It’s 1983, and cosmonaut Konstantin Sergeyevich (Pyotr Fyodorov, Finest Hour) has just survived the rough re-entry that killed his partner, with one catch: he now has a freaky alien living in his esophagus. The alien, which looks sort of like an albino cobra crossed with a wolf spider covered in mucus (much like Senator Ted Cruz), escapes Konstantin’s body every night at 2 am to go carousing. As bad as that sounds, if the government functionaries in charge kill the alien, Konstantin, a national hero, might die himself (the ol’ Tony Stark corollary). Now the official in charge has brought in Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), a young doctor known for her unorthodox methods. Will she be able to help?
That’s the premise for Sputnik, a utilitarian new sci-fi thriller out of Russia from commercial director Egor Abramenko. It was slated to debut at Tribeca before the pandemic, and has since been released online in its home country, where it became a modest hit-type thing on VOD. This week it gets an American release, courtesy of IFC.
Between the steely beauty (a “Russian Ripley,” per the press release) attempting to communicate with a mucusy, tentacled alien and a space traveler with kid issues (Konstantin has just found out about an estranged child), Sputnik borrows liberally from previous sources — Arrival, Alien, Gravity, that SNL sketch where Christopher Walken is trying to lure a badger out of Will Ferrell’s butt with a nice pot roast. Funny how every movie astronaut seems to have a dead, dying, or sick child that makes them want to leave Earth (see also: First Man). There’s even the requisite government official (Semiradov, played by Fedor Bondarchuk) who can only think of aliens in terms of geopolitics.
Obviously, what makes Sputnik fun to watch isn’t that it’s the first movie ever to cover this ground (though the Soviet setting is an interesting wrinkle). Egor Abramenko’s direction is tense and moody, and Sputnik‘s fx and production designers are clearly having fun, creating creature effects that all seem to ride that perfect line between gross and fascinating. Is there a word for that? The Dr. Pimple Popper effect? It’s like ASMR for people who enjoy bodily functions.
For an explanation of why Sputnik is a fun popcorn thriller (or at least a slightly smarter version of a popcorn thriller), we could essentially leave it at that — a testament to what well-staged scenes and exuberant production design can accomplish. It’s interesting to note, though, Tatyana’s commitment to the value of human life. It helps that the movie is set in 1983, because even in our movies since then we’ve been conditioned to accept higher casualties as the cost of progress (not to mention being encouraged, then and now, to believe that general disregard for human life was something ingrained in the Russian DNA). But much of Sputnik hangs on Tatyana’s steadfast refusal to throw bodies away, a mildly refreshing reversal when so many movies with aliens and geopolitics require simply yadda yadda-ing through collateral damage.
Sputnik has some loose ends, mostly dealing with Konstantin and Tatyana’s respective family drama, that it attempts to tie up in the third act, not altogether convincingly. It’s hard to give Sputnik much credit for larger philosophical ideas, which it mostly seems to toss in occasionally as a spice, so going for some heartwarming conclusion falls a little flat. Mostly, everything in it seems designed to build and maintain suspense that carries us from scene to scene, a task it more than accomplishes.