As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Sputnik. You’ve been warned.
When most cinephiles think of Russian science fiction movies, the name Andrei Tarkovsky immediately comes to mind. His two best-known works, 1972’s Solaris and 1979’s Stalker are, without a doubt, two of the most influential films ever made. Both created the trademarks of the genre – stories with an austere design that are dreamlike, philosophical and pensive. To western audiences, though, that can also mean stiff, obscure and extremely slow moving. But with the incredibly successful release of Sputnik (over a million views on streaming / VOD platforms in Russia before premiering in the States), director Egor Abramenko has created a strong and effective bridge between the two very different styles of filmmaking. Even if the basic story is one that many will recognize from a ton of other flicks.
Sputnik (in this case, referring to the literal meaning “companion,” not the satellite) takes place in 1983, in the last years of the Soviet Union. The old way of doing things is very much in force in the film’s design and general vibe of muted colors, grays and lots of concrete. The beginning of the flick happens in orbit. Two cosmonauts, Commander Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) and his co-pilot Kirill Averchenko (Aleksey Demidov) talk about what they’re going to do as soon as they’re back home and released from quarantine.
Averchenko talks about the simple pleasure of just being able to take a hot bath, while Veshnyakov just says he has business to take care of in a town called Rostov. They sing a popular song called “Million Roses” while a roly-poly, baby-rattle-type toy called a nevalyashka floats around the cabin. They’ve just disengaged from the rest of the spacecraft and are about to re-enter when something hits them and puts them in a spin. Veshnyakov manages to null the deadly roll and right the spacecraft – but then they notice something outside the porthole. Something with a tail, which they can hear crawling around on the outside of the ship.
Cut to the barren steppes of Kazakhstan. A farmer sees the capsule parachuting down and landing and goes to help, but what he sees in the dim light is horrifying. Averchenko sits slumped over with his helmet broken and part of his head taken off. Then the farmer spots Veshnyakov. He appears to be okay until the farmer gets closer and sees how bloody he is. The farmer also sees that his eyes have gone totally black.
Cut to a hospital in Moscow where neuropsychiatrist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) sits in front of a review board. She is being judged for her unconventional methods with a young patient. In order to rid the boy of seizures he was having, she nearly drowned him. The treatment worked, but Tatyana’s still in deep trouble. The board suggests she leave quietly or else they’ll have to kick her case up to the state prosecutor – but Tatyana insists that she did the right thing.
A man approaches her after the hearing, Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) – he’s come to ask for her advice on a case. She’s reluctant to get involved with something that’s obviously military-related, but she doesn’t have much in the way of options. Semiradov says he can take care of her problems with the review board if she’ll come out to Kazakhstan and examine Veshnyakov, who has no memory of what happened during the mission. So she heads out to the barren steppes in a military convoy to a compound full of hoosegow-looking buildings, guards and prison inmates doing hard labor.
Semiradov brings Tatyana to the main observation room, where Veshnyakov’s being kept on the other side of one-way glass. They watch the main doctor, a nerdy-looking dude named Yan Rigel (Anton Vasilev), attempting to hypnotize Veshnyakov in order to help him remember what happened. But Veshnyakov just makes a big joke out of it, which annoys Rigel to no end. Clearly, they’ve been at it for a while and are not buddies.
Tatyana goes in then with a cup of tea and Veshnyakov’s intrigued – not only is she new, but she’s a young and beautiful woman in a place of nothing but men. Tatyana offers him the tea and they have a short conversation. Veshnyakov asks if she can tell him why he’s being held prisoner and if she can free him. She can’t do that, but she says she’ll do what she can to help him.
She takes the tea back and goes back to the observation room, where Rigel takes the teacup from her and drops it immediately, because it’s scalding hot. But Veshnyakov handled it without issue – which, Tatyana says, indicates problems with tactile abilities. And just from speaking with him for that short time, she deduces that Veshnyakov’s suffering from PTSD. Case closed. She asks to leave then, and Semiradov says she’ll have to wait until morning and has a guard take her to quarters.
But of course, being the Soviet Union, it’s not exactly a posh hotel. She’s under guard and isn’t even allowed to make an outside phone call. So Tatyana settles in and we see from a scene in the shower that she has issues of her own – an ugly scar running down the length of her spine indicates a major surgery, but it’s never referenced again. She takes some pain meds and tries to sleep, but can’t – so she decides to go for a run. She runs straight into a group of guards and convicts doing god-only-knows-what kind of sketchy deeds at two in the morning. And after being delivered back to her quarters, Semiradov comes to get her and takes her back to the observation room.
Once there, Tatyana gets to see what she’s really been brought there for, as the guards lower down a wall of heavy protective glass in front of Veshnyakov’s quarters. Then they all watch Veshnyakov have what looks like a seizure while he’s sleeping – but then his eyes go black, and he falls on the floor and vomits up a huge, slimy sack (really cool VFX work there by the way). Semiradov asks Tatyana if she wants to take a closer look and she goes in, standing in front of the glass. At first she doesn’t see anything but then the alien presents itself in its fully-unfolded glory: a translucent body with long, spindly arms and a fish-like tail – and on its bat-like head are about a dozen eyes.
Tatyana touches the glass and the alien jumps at the glass, scaring the crap out of her and she runs out. Semiradov tells her that the creature emerges every night around the same time and that Veshnyakov has no memory of it. He has no idea that the thing is living inside of him. The alien even secretes its own chemicals that allow Veshnyakov to barf the thing up and swallow it back down every night without injuring himself. Semiradov tells Tatyana that what he needs her help with is figuring out how to separate the two. Rigel’s been pretty ineffectual at the job, so Semiradov looks to her now, someone who isn’t afraid to take risks.
After the shock and awe wears off, Tatyana agrees to work with Veshnyakov. She goes in to speak with him the next day and deliberately tries to provoke his anger by mentioning the fact that he has a child hidden away in an orphanage in Rostov. A child he doesn’t want anyone to know about. It would tarnish the immaculate reputation Soviet cosmonauts are supposed to have. In fact, the state never would have selected him as a cosmonaut if they knew about the kid.
Visibly stressed and shaky with anger, Veshnyakov tells her to get out and when she returns to the observation room, Rigel asks what the hell she was doing. She tells him to test his hormone levels immediately. She says they should find that there’s a connection there to the alien. Later on, she studies all the video of the alien emerging from Veshnyakov every night, and test results on Veshnyakov that indicate the alien is somehow keeping him in excellent shape. She wonders if the alien is actually a parasite – or a symbiote.
Tatyana also notices that with every day, the alien stays outside of his body longer. She tells Semiradov that eventually, the alien won’t need the spacesuit-like protection that Veshnyakov’s providing. They have to find a way to separate them before that happens. She asks that Veshnyakov be allowed to stay in the compound during the day in a regular room like hers, and be able to socialize with others instead of being cooped up in the isolation cell.
Veshnyakov’s surprised and somewhat suspicious when the guards bring him to his new room. As soon as they leave, he messes with the TV they’ve put in there to get the news broadcast. Apparently, the state’s been telling the people that he and Averchenko landed safely and are just recuperating from their long spell in weightlessness. They’ll be given a proper public welcome once they’re recovered. This infuriates Veshnyakov, knowing none of it’s true and he’s not likely to be released.
Tatyana comes to see him and apologizes for provoking him. She tells him she was just doing it to test stress levels. She asks if he’d like to go with her on a run, and once they’re out in the open where no one can hear their conversation, Tatyana tells him about the alien. He asks her to meet him later that night, before the alien’s usual emergence.
Veshnyakov takes his night-night pill like a good boy – but he pukes it right back up after the guards are gone. He crushes it up and puts it in some tea that he gives to the nurse whom he’s managed to charm into hanging out with him. Then he meets Tatyana and they mess with the security camera so they won’t be seen. Veshnyakov leads her to a room where they’re keeping Averchenko and she sees what the alien did to him.
Later that night, when Veshnyakov’s been taken back to the isolation cell, Tatyana goes in and tries to engage the alien by lying down in front of the glass. She makes some progress with it, getting it to mimic her action, but Rigel keeps interrupting her on the loudspeaker and it startles the alien, which in turn startles her. She accidentally bumps into the nevalyashka toy – and the alien seems to be intrigued by it.
Tatyana asks Semiradov to be let into the cell, and he agrees as long as she’s in a suit. So they dress her up in a very Ripley-looking spacesuit and she goes back in, carrying the nevalyashka. She puts it down by the alien and as it rolls and plays its tinkly tune, the alien curls up around it like a child. It’s a very sweet scene until Tatyana slips in its trail of slime and startles it – then it attacks her, managing to take a chunk of her leg.
The next day, Tatyana confronts Rigel – she’s noticed that all the videos have been edited, cutting out long stretches of time while the alien’s outside Veshnyakov. She demands to know what they’re doing and more importantly, exactly what the alien is feeding on. Tatyana tells him she knows he’s after a Nobel Prize for his work, but so far he’s been unsuccessful. She wants to help Veshnyakov – and the only way either of them are going to get what they want is to work together. Rigel agrees to show her what happens during that missing time.
That night, he smuggles Tatyana out of the building and drives to a different area of the compound. He gives her a pair of infrared binoculars and tells her to watch as the guards drag in one of the convicts and leaves him tied up on the floor in a fenced-off section. Tatyana watches in horror as the alien comes slithering in (through a door in Veshnyakov’s isolation cell) and attacks the convict, doing to him what it did to Averchenko.
Rigel tells Tatyana that what the alien is actually feeding on is the hormone produced when humans are afraid – cortisol. The alien makes sure the victim sees it in its full, frightening glory before it attacks. But Tatyana’s much more concerned with the fact that they’re willingly sacrificing people to feed it and goes to Semiradov to confront him. Semiradov doesn’t share her pity for the convicts they’re offering up as food. The guy she saw being eaten was a child rapist and murderer. And besides, as he says to her several times during the flick, he “needs results.” If they can completely separate the alien from Veshnyakov and learn to control it, it would be a powerful weapon – and weapons, in his words, “guarantee peace.”
But Tatyana’s not sure that the two can be separated. When Semiradov brings her back to the feeding unit the next night and drags in two more convicts, she begs him not to do it. And when the alien slithers in, she tells Semiradov to let her go in. They all watch in awe as she stands before the creature that’s ready to strike – and sings to it, the same song Veshnyakov and Averchenko were singing up in orbit. The alien immediately responds, backing down – and in his cell, Veshnyakov responds too, even in his overtaken state. But the convict seals his own doom by trying to get away and drawing the alien’s attention.
The next day Tatyana goes to see Veshnyakov, and he’s in a bad way, visibly shaken and upset by what happened. He tells her that what she did was stupid – he could’ve killed her. And he reveals to her that he never had amnesia – he’s known all along about the alien. He is the creature and the creature is him. He tells Tatyana that it’s his punishment for abandoning his child and he wants her to leave before he ends up killing her, too.
But Tatyana refuses to give up on him – instead, she hugs him. And when he keeps telling her to leave, she just hugs him tighter. She tells him she thinks she knows how to separate them – she knows why the creature chose him instead of Averchenko. Turns out he was in the early stages of cancer, and she can use drugs to reproduce those chemical effects. It would force the alien out, and then she can get him to a real hospital in Moscow where they can figure out how to break the symbiotic link.
Rigel ends up helping Tatyana by giving her a vehicle. Once they’re gone, Rigel barricades himself in Semiradov’s office and gets on the phone to whatever state office in Moscow they report to. He tells them what’s really going on, instead of the false reports Semiradov’s been feeding them. He gets off the line just as Semiradov forces his way in and shoots him.
Tatyana and Veshnyakov end up getting trapped by a slew of guards as they try to escape. As they take cover, Veshnyakov tells her to toss him the syringe with the drugs. She doesn’t want to, but it’s their only way out. Veshnyakov injects himself and seconds later the alien emerges and goes on the attack. Tatyana and Veshnyakov make for the jeep and take off as Semiradov arrives and starts shooting the hell out of the alien – which affects Veshnyakov. Even as Tatyana hauls butt away from the base and out into the steppes, Veshnyakov keeps reacting, puking up blood every time the alien gets shot. They’re both dying.
Tatyana stops the car and pulls him out, as Semiradov catches up to them. Guards bring the dying alien out in a crate. But, as soon as they release it, the fully symbiotic Veshnyakov and alien attack, killing the guards and Semiradov. Then the alien returns to Veshnyakov’s body and Tatyana has no idea what to do for him. But Veshnyakov knows exactly what must be done. He shoots himself, killing them both before the approaching convoy of state vehicles reaches them. Finally, in a sweet scene taking place sometime later, Tatyana makes the trip to the orphanage in Rostov and adopts Veshnyakov’s child.
Despite the flick’s use of well-worn concepts, Sputnik has many admirable aspects – many levels on which it works. You can take it as a straight-ahead creature feature. Or ,you can take it as a story of a woman trying to prove herself in an oppressive, male-dominated world. Or finally, you can even take it as a flashback to, and study of, the grim, Soviet-era society. It attempts to be all of these things wrapped up in one story. It is a pretty ambitious move – and for the most part, I think it works.
With its smart direction, decent writing and strong performances, Sputnik takes the trademarks of western sci-fi – the visual effects, the gore, the action, the fun – and weaves it together with the darker, headier, more cerebral aspects of Tarkovsky-esque sci-fi. It uses enough of it that it can’t be mistaken as anything but Russian. But, it also isn’t so preoccupied with it that nothing ever actually happens. Sure, it is derivative and maybe a little too somber and slow for western audiences. But overall, Sputnik is a solid, impressive effort to marry the two styles of filmmaking and introduce people to a kind of sci-fi they may not have seen before. But now, they might just give it a shot. And that’s a good thing.
Directed by: Egor Abramenko
Written by: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev
Release Date: July 24, 2020
Run Time: 1 hr 53 min
Distributor: IFC Midnight