The Soviet Union used space exploration as a means of keeping its populace onboard with its goals, and Russians embraced their cosmonauts as folk-heroes, a symbol of national pride, something to aspire to. It’s no surprise then that science-fiction, both literary and cinematic, prospered in the USSR. Many Soviet sci-fi films were propagandistic, while some filmmakers, notably Tarkovsky, used the genre to conceal their contempt for the system. In recent years we’ve seen the emergence of a generation of Russian filmmakers influenced by Hollywood sci-fi, whose films are neither political nor propagandistic but rather vacuously glossy imitations of American genre product.
Egor Abramenko’s directorial debut Sputnik is a polished if ultimately superficial blending of all three. It has the reverence for space exploration and the people involved that you find in Soviet propaganda, but with hindsight it’s heavily critical of the regime (and if Mr. Abramenko were honest, his film is more likely critiquing Putin’s Russia than the Soviet era of its setting), while with its bombastic soundtrack and action sequences, it’s clearly influenced by Hollywood fare.
Set in 1983, Sputnik employs the old sci-fi trope of an astronaut returning to Earth having been infected by something alien and hostile during his explorations. In this case it’s cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), whose space vessel crash lands, killing his sole crew member and leaving him dazed and confused. Konstantin has indeed brought something alien to earth - a symbiotic creature that lives inside his body, escaping at night by knocking him unconscious before exiting through his mouth. Once fed, the creature returns to its host body and Konstantin returns to consciousness, seemingly none the wiser of his experience.
Sputnik brings us into this story through a very Hollywood cliché - that of a maverick professional being reluctantly recruited by a shady government figure. Here it’s psychologist Tatiana (Oksana Akinshina, whom you might remember as the young star of Luka Moodysson’s 2002 teen drama Lilya 4-ever), who has just lost her job following the near death of a teenage patient. Creepy Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk, whose sister Natalya starred in that most famous of Russian sci-fi movies, Solaris - he’s a truly menacing screen presence) brings Tatiana to a secret facility where Konstantin is being prodded and studied, hoping her unconventional methods might help find a way to separate the alien creature from its human host.
Abramenko never quite decides what type of sci-fi movie he’s making, and Sputnik lands somewhere between a cerebral, allegorical drama and a schlocky monster movie. The first half of his film plays like a second rate take on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, with a female scientist with a melancholic backstory brought in to study an alien under the watchful eye of government forces that may have more sinister intentions. Thanks largely to Akinshina’s emotionally taut performance, Sputnik is initially quite gripping, keeping us on our toes as, like her Tatiana, we feel our way into what exactly is playing out here. It’s at the halfway point, when the true horrors of what’s happening under Colonel Semiradov’s watch are revealed that Sputnik descends into mediocrity, attempting to outdo Hollywood but lacking the budget to pull off any real spectacle.
Abramenko’s film does possess some brains and even a little heart, with a touching subplot concerning Tatiana’s conquering of a physical disability that runs in parallel with her attempts to separate Konstantin from his symbiote. On a surface level it’s as technically lustrous as any big budget Hollywood blockbuster, with Oleg Karpachev’s dramatic score adding a significant extra layer of production value. But much like the alien living inside Konstantin, Sputnik struggles to break free from its sci-fi influences to stand on its own feet.
Sputnik 3 Stars out of 5
Directed by: Egor Abramenko; Starring: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com