Photo: Mikhail Mokrushin / IFC Films
The new Russian horror film Sputnik whipsaws between suggested horror and shock so furious that it turns inconsistency into a virtue. It’s a scary chamber drama that regularly transforms into a power – laden non-party. But transformation is in the film’s DNA. It begins in space, 1983, where two Soviet cosmonauts dream of what to do when they get home, when they see something outside the spaceship’s window. Next thing we know, a Kazakh rider finds the wreckage of their vehicle melting in an empty field. A cosmonaut has a hole in his head; the other, Konstantin (Pyotr Fiodorov), is alive – but he has something else in him, which we will soon find out.
Our heroine is the shameful psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), who is secretly recruited by a hard-nosed colonel (Fyodor Bondarchuk) to travel to the military base where the survivor is being held and interrogated. Constantine remembers nothing of what happened on his ship. He also has no idea that we will soon learn that he has become the human value of a giant, tortuous, sloppy stranger who shows up out of his mouth every night and then crawls in again. In addition, the alien and the man began to mind-meld. That’s why the military wants Tatyana there; they hope she can find a way to separate man from alien, so that the creature can be used for … well, the kinds of things that military people always seem to want to do with mysterious intergalactic life forces.
The general set of Sputnik is not something particularly new. It has echoes of Alien, and Stjärnman, and any number of other sci-fi movies. But the tone is unusual, as director Egor Abramenko never fully reveals the type of film he makes here; there is an uncertainty in the atmosphere for fear because we are never sure what we should be afraid of. Is it strange? Is that Constantine? Are they the military men? Is that the German, secret Tatyana? That uncertainty feels intentional (and entirely in line with the gloomy, paranoid mood of the Soviet years).
Abramenko also adjusts the usual character dynamics in interesting ways. A lot of Sputnik is built around Constantine and Tatyana’s conversations, and their interaction is the best with the picture. Everyone hides something. She has a naturally confrontational attitude to the world, and Akinshina works wonders with the character’s chilling – it’s clear Tatyana has buried layers of pain. Constantine, on the other hand, hides something because he remembers so little; Tatyana discovers other things from his past as he tries to immerse himself in his mind. The psychological cat-and-mouse game between them makes the film. It also pays off beautifully in the surprisingly touching final scene, which you can even call a minor “twist”.
So that’s the proposed horror part. But like I said, the movie is changing. Every foreigner shows up, the conversation disappears and we get something more immediate and visceral. VFX is not exactly seamless – the creature looks a bit too computer generated – but even that, perhaps unintentionally, improves the material. It is a simplicity in the creature’s design that contributes to the scary; it feels less like a specific monster and more like an existential fact. SputnikThe genre genre is modest, but as the best sci-fi you have to think.