When it comes to Russian horror films, I don’t exactly have a deep expertise. Thankfully, such a viewing history isn’t required to get a thrill out of Sputnik, the latest from IFC Midnight to be released creatively during these topsy-turvy times for movies—now available on major streaming platforms, the film has also been screening at select drive-ins around the country. Directed by Egor Abramenko and written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, Sputnik is, in a lot of ways, a familiar alien invasion story. Two cosmonauts on duty in a cramped ship orbiting Earth make a mysterious crash landing, and the one who makes it home is possessed by something very much not of this world. The clandestine team monitoring him enlists a talented doctor to help determine just what it is, and she discovers they’re not exactly in it for the most ethical reasons. With a few unexpected twists and solid craftsmanship, the film becomes something worth seeking out.
Oksana Akinshina is Tatyana Klimova, and when we meet her she’s facing a review board taking her to task for the unconventional treatment of a young man whose mother isn’t too pleased with her methods. Faced with the choice between admitting she screwed up or having her license revoked, Tatyana holds her ground: she knows what she did was in the patient’s best interest, and she doesn’t have any intention of backing down. And just like that, we get a sense of who Tatyana is, the strength of her principles and the depth of her resolve. As she’s leaving the hearing, she meets Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), a military man who promises he can make her professional problems go away if she agrees to join him on a very special assignment. Without much of a choice, Tatyana finds herself in a secure military complex in the middle of nowhere, where she’s brought to an observation lab to learn more about what she’s agreed to.
There, the military is keeping Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) under lock and key since he returned from outer space. When she arrives, lead scientist Yan Rigel (Anton Vasilev) is interviewing him about seemingly ordinary things, and though there’s clearly some cognitive issues, Tatyana’s initial diagnosis is a fairly understandable case of PTSD that emerged from the trauma Konstantin experienced during the crash. Of course, there’s more to it than that, and when Semiradov summons Tatyana from her room in the middle of the night, we learn just what that is right alongside her. First-time filmmaker Abramenko makes quite an event out of the reveal, one just graphic enough that I was watching between the fingers shielding my eyes for the grosser moments. Granted, I’m a wimp about these things, but regardless—the sheer mechanics of the film’s extra-terrestrial beast are a credit to the creative team, from the writers who dreamed it up to the effects team who realized it, building a believable other-worldly species and a backstory to go with it.
As Tatyana learns more about not only the creature and how it works in conjunction with its host but the military’s plans to weaponize, those pesky principles make themselves known again. She’s getting to know Konstantin not only as a scientific subject but as a human being, too; not accustomed to taking orders, she balks at Semiradov’s attempts to keep her in line, even as she’s responsible for discovering more about the parasite than the team has ever known, able to communicate with it in ways they never anticipated. Sputnik could easily have stopped there, delivering enough smart scares and compelling characters to make it a worthy addition to the alien-possession sub-genre. But the plot goes one additional level in with a late-in-the-game twist that I certainly didn’t see coming, raising the stakes on a story that’s already plenty involved.
Sputnik succeeds because it skillfully marries the genre elements of an alien horror film—a creepy creature, a dastardly plan, plenty of brutal moments—with the smart, multilayered themes of a political drama—competing motives, personal priorities versus those of the state. If there’s an opportunity to see it at the drive-in (and assuming the subtitles are large enough to see from your car), the thrills alone would make for a great night out at the movies; however you see it, Sputnik delivers as a polished, engaging horror film.
Sputnik is now playing at Music Box Theatre (with limited, socially distant seating; review all safety and health policies before attending) and on VOD.
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