Russian sci-fi cinema has always been a fascinating cornerstone of the genre. From the early days of Stalker and Solaris, to the recent orgy of CGI excess that was Fedor Bondarchuk‘s Attraction in 2017, there has always been a brooding, thoughtful and distinctly soviet take on the themes and concepts tied into futurism and the cosmos. In the last half-decade, there has been a resurgence of interest in it, into which Egor Abremenko’s feature directorial debut falls quite neatly.
Sputnik, follows the story of an unorthodox psychiatrist, Dr Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina). She’s about to be struck off for defying convention when the affable but inscrutable military man Colonel Semiradov (Bondarchuk) offers to make it all go away if she assists him with a top-secret patient. Upon arrival at the remote facility, she discovers that the patient is Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), recently returned cosmonaut and hero of the Soviet Union. Aside from clear signs of PTSD, Veshnyakov seems in perfect health; more than perfect in fact. But at night, something sinister and terrifying shows itself while he sleeps, something not quite of this world.
Abremenko first toyed with this story concept in his short film, The Passenger. While the premise there seemed to be more heavily influenced by the plot of 90s schlock-horror Species 2, the expanded concept in Sputnik is unashamedly a riff on the more recent Denis Villeneuve first contact story, Arrival. The grim laboratory feel, the young brilliant woman faced with an alien presence behind a perspex screen, and even the vast wide helicopter shots of jeeps approaching the complex feel decidedly familiar.
That’s not to say that Sputnik isn’t a lot of fun. The script isn’t hugely taxing, and there are certainly a few moments where it could have stood to be a little more complex. But still, it neatly side-steps most of the presumptive turns and twists that immediately spring to mind. The visual effects and body-horror are equally underplayed and brilliantly utilised, never feeling excessive and always leaving you wanting more.
What’s more, the performances and chemistry between Akinshina and Fyodorov feel both compelling and realistically low-key. Amidst this, Bondarchuk spends his scenes chewing the scenery, solidifying the film’s ‘coolness’ credibility with his presence. His appearance in his former protege’s film cements it with a seal of approval from one the foremost voices in Russian cinema, and he’s plainly having a great time watching his former 2nd unit director knock his own film out of the park. Which is much the experience the audience will have as well.
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