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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

[Review] ‘Sputnik’ Puts Slow Character Study at Forefront of Gory Creature Feature

Ridley Scott’s Alien left an indelible mark on horror set in space. It’s hard not to default and defer to Alien whenever there’s a particularly nasty extraterrestrial in horror, especially if there’s a birthing scene. Sputnik attempts to buck comparisons with an Earth-based character study cast in the Cold War’s drab shadow. There’s a lot to like about this creature feature and its gory man-eating monster, but Sputnik prefers to lean into its character-based drama.

Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina) is a passionate young doctor. However, her willingness to push well past the boundaries of ethical medical practice prompted an inquiry that’ll likely result in the revocation of her license. The controversy draws the attention of military officer Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who recruits Tatiana to assess a unique case at a secret research facility outside Russia. That case centers on cosmonaut Konstantin Sergeyevich (Pyotr Fyodorov), the sole survivor of a mysterious space incident that unwittingly left him with an extraterrestrial stowaway. As in, a creature lives inside him and leaves his body every night while he’s unconscious.

The script by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev is much more interested in getting to know Tatiana, her unorthodox methods and drive, and her slow-building connection with Konstantin than it is in getting to see the alien in action. Meaning that the alien’s on-screen time is minimal compared to Tatiana’s measured search for the truth. It’s a shame because the movie springs to life every time the creature crawls out of Konstantin’s mouth, whether eviscerating prey or curious about its new habitat. Once Tatiana regains the focus, the film lulls back into quiet meditation for long stretches. With a nearly two-hour run time, you feel that unhurried pacing.

Directed by Egor AbramenkoSputnik is gorgeously shot, even with its glib ’80s setting. That the humans are reserved characters that keep their emotions hidden deep behind scowls only enhances the cold, aloof mood of the film. That’s the point. As exhilarating as the creature moments are, this film exists more as a commentary on the era and how it shapes the discovery of an extraterrestrial that’s attached itself to a public figure. Konstantin’s space mission that left his partner dead is never explained, but his native country is so in need of heroes to boost morale that it doesn’t matter. So as not to rob Russia of a hero, he’s moved to a facility out of the country. The intent is to keep the parasitic entity from tarnishing an icon of hope. Much of Sputnik is about what’s not said and reading between the lines. There’s much more to Tatiana and Semiradov than meets the eye, and the film bides its time peeling back their layers. That aloofness makes it challenging to find the film’s main point. Tatiana is the grounding center, but there are a few plot threads and ideas lost in the drama.

Expectations going in will play a pivotal role in reception. Those imagining a briskly paced creature feature that puts the genre elements first will come away sorely disappointed. Those that go in knowing it’s a meditative character study by way of a subtle mood piece, punctuated by moments of blood-soaked violence, will have a much easier time settling into this drab world. Ultimately, Sputnik merges a monster movie with a beautiful, detached drama, and the former is the far more successful of the two. It’s also the more sparsely used of the two. Abramenko doesn’t quite successfully separate his film from its Alien influence, but there’s enough to keep you intrigued and longing for more monster mayhem.

Sputnik crash lands in theaters and VOD on August 14, 2020.


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