Whether due to its vast emptiness or our natural fear of the unknown, it’s safe to say there’s something inherently terrifying about space...
...There’s so much about our universe that remains beyond our reasoning, and the possibility of what humanity might find as we make our way into the stars allows us to dream up creatures and worlds that are both beautiful and deadly. In my mind, one of the aspects of sci-fi horror that makes the genre so potent is its plausibility. Our universe is so large and our knowledge of it so limited that it’s impossible for us to comprehend its true size, and not to imagine infinite variations of lifeforms that might exist in it.
Sputnik, a Russian sci-fi horror film being released in the US by IFC Midnight, attempts to give one answer to the question of what might exist beyond our world. From the minds of first-time feature director Egor Abramenko and writers Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, Sputnik takes place in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. Cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov, played by Pyotr Fyodorov, is the only survivor of a mission to space that ended in a crash landing on Earth, leaving the astronaut with a bout of amnesia. Hoping to find the cause and cure of his mental state, the commander in charge, Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), calls in renowned psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to help with diagnosing and treating Veshnyakov. Tatyana quickly finds out the truth: Veshnyakov is the lone human survivor, and something alien came back to Earth with him and is living inside his body. While Tatyanna works to learn more about the creature and its connection to Veshnyakov, she also discovers that the Soviet commander hasn’t been telling her the entire truth.
Following in the steps of other productions set during the Cold War (like Chernobyl), Sputnik uses the blanket of paranoia and secrecy that has become synonymous with the Soviet Union as a major source of dread. As Tatyana becomes more involved in Veshnyakov’s treatment, she makes headway in unravelling the truth about the creature and Semiradov’s true intentions for it. It’s easy to feel the weight of Tatyana’s own desperation as she tries to reveal the mysteries about the creature and get herself home alive.
Part of the weight that hangs over Tatyana’s head is the enigma of the creature. The creature constantly seems to embody several opposing traits. It is monstrous but seems gentle at times. It is intelligent while also seeming to live entirely based on instinct. Even the design and animation of the creature work to create this duality. As it drags itself forward by its arms, it appears both predatory and meek at the same time. In this opposition, the creature becomes both an alien being and a lifeform we’re able to empathize with, which works to confuse the relationship that the human characters and viewers have with it, adding to our connection to the story.
Although the anxiety that the constant feeling of paranoia and dread present in Sputnik creates a compelling plot, the film is rather slow, choosing to reveal the mystery bit by bit rather than giving a complete explanation all at once. This slow pace makes the almost two hours of the film stretch, and while it never feels too long, it will likely lose any sci-fi horror fan who lives for the action sequences we’ve come to expect from the genre. The main action is compressed into the final act and I would have preferred a more even distribution to help with the pacing of the film.
Horror fans should be warned that Sputnik is much more sci-fi than it is horror. The foreboding feeling that permeates the film is where the true fear lies, but truly frightening scenes are few and far between. The terrifying look of the creature is never really used to its full advantage to scare the viewer.
Sputnik is a fresh take on sci-fi horror that fans of the genre should enjoy. The creeping sense of fear and tension team up with a strange alien creature to create a powerful story of one woman’s journey to find the truth and help her patient no matter the cost. Unfortunately, the effort to build the dread that hangs over the characters’ every action does the film a disservice, leading to slow-paced story that takes a little too long to get to the real action.
Sputnik comes to select theaters, VOD and Digital from IFC Midnight August 14th.
By Tim Beirne