When most people hear the word “sputnik,” they likely think of the name of the first satellite launched into space by the Soviet Union. But the word itself roughly translates to “fellow traveler,” making it the perfect title for director Egor Abramenko’s less-than-perfect debut feature based on his award-winning short film “The Passenger,” which continues the grand tradition of sci-fi horror films that dates back to “Alien” without accomplishing anything particularly new and different to the genre.
The Russian film is set in 1983 and stars Oksana Akinshina as Tatyana Kilmova, a psychologist on the brink of being stripped of her medical license due to her extreme methods. It is then that she is recruited by Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) of the military and brought to a secure government facility where she meets Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), a cosmonaut who survived a terrible ordeal while on a mission in space but has no memory of what happened. What the military has discovered, however, is that Konstantin brought back an alien parasite that is living inside him and emerges at night. Tatyana is tasked with finding a way to separate the alien from Konstantin before the two beings become so inseparable that it is no longer possible.
“Sputnik” isn’t a bad movie, or a boring watch. It doesn’t necessarily succeed at sustaining tension, but it does maintain a sense of intrigue throughout, thanks in large part to its fierce heroine. Akinshina gives her character a coolness that is riveting without making her unlikeable. Another character of note is the alien itself, whose design successfully walks the line between potentially friendly and terrifying when it needs to be. The explanation of the relationship Konstantin shares with the alien is interesting, and lends itself pretty well to his backstory that consumes the bulk of his mental state (he left his son behind to go on the mission to space).
But it’s difficult to watch “Sputnik” without getting the feeling that Abramenko and his writers (Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev) could have taken the structure of this story and done so much more with it. Instead of pushing boundaries they fall back to a series of tropes that are rather safe. Of course the military wants to weaponize the alien. Of course Tatyana isn’t going to fall in line with them. The pacing of the film is fine but it never goes full horror. In fact, the gory alien scenes are few and far between, with most of the film’s runtime spent on interactions between the human characters instead. When the story does finally erupt in action toward the end, it’s more generic than exciting. The scenes with the alien that we do get are great however, and well suited to the cold, dark facility that the majority of the movie is set in. While the film is engaging enough to go along with, it could have been so much more entertaining had the filmmakers embraced that aspect of the story a little more.
Finally, “Sputnik” concludes on a surprisingly sentimental note that doesn’t feel especially fitting for either the characters or the tone of the film overall. The film falls somewhere between gory sci-fi/horror and a more profound statement on identity/heroism/the Cold War without really committing to either. “Sputnik” is fine, especially for a debut feature, and it does the bare minimum to make me interested in seeing what project Abramenko commits to next; but it could have been so much more.
“Sputnik” will be released in select theaters and on video on demand on August 14. Runtime: 113 minutes. Not rated. 3 out of 5 stars.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films/IFC Midnight.