I could name five French films that have released in the past year, the same with Korean, Chinese, German, Swedish, and Spanish films as well. However, despite being the largest country on Earth by landmass, I probably couldn’t name five well-known Russian films that went big stateside in the past five years. As weirdly strenuous as the rest of the spectrum of USA-Russia relations, Russian film is not a sector of foreign film often explored in the States, but that doesn’t mean their film industry isn’t booming in their own right. While we in the states never receive the full bounty of every foreign film ever made, there are subsets of distributors who do good work in putting those projects out there as much as they can, whether it’s Well Go USA’s commitment to distributing Asian cinema, or Sony Pictures Classics/Music Box Films’s contributions to the distribution of Western European cinema. And while Russian cinema doesn’t get the love these other films get, and while it doesn’t make up for the disparities in distribution, Sputnik (Спутник) is more than enough to convince me of the hidden talents in Russia’s film scene.
Set in Soviet-era Russia in 1983, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is a psychologist under review for alleged unethical behavior with a patient in attempting to cure their violent seizures. When her professional career seems done for, she is offered an opportunity from Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) to offer her expert opinion on a cosmonaut (Pyotr Fyordorov) after he returned from space following a catastrophic accident. After traveling to a secret facility in Soviet Kazakhstan, Tatyana first senses strong post-traumatic stress disorder in the subject, but soon begins to discover dark secrets in the government facility keeping the cosmonaut and the foreign lifeform he brought back with him from space.
Sputnik is not as lean and mean as it sounds on paper, but it takes a slow-burn approach to a sub-genre of horror usually reserved for films more straightforward. The film resembles that of both Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake as its neutral-toned, Soviet Era aesthetic leans heavily into immersing you into a world of political turmoil, and that of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival with its focus on slower, drawn-out scenes of dialogue seeking to understand the unfathomable through emotional connection and scientific innovation. However, Sputnik is far from a game of impersonation; rather, it takes the strong elements of said films and molds them into its own, wild image come the film’s final act. It can feel a bit disconnected come the film’s overlong finale, but the journey is worth every bit of fun.
The main three performances at the center of the film, being Akinshina, Bondarchuk, and Fyodorov all provide a great deal of depth and intensity that detail each character expertly. It could’ve been incredibly easy for writers Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev to box each character into a certain archetype, but they rather provide bases of sympathy for each character and their motives beyond just the superficial level. It doesn’t completely subvert the protagonist/antagonist structure, but it finds and lives in the gray area that provides audiences with a psychological struggle in understanding the characters.
And then there’s the actual horror of it all. While it’s pretty obvious the main creature at the center of Sputnik was created with digital visual effects, it’s a rare moment where it doesn’t feel so entirely artificial that it takes you out of the film. Unlike something similar to Alien, where characters are up close and very personal with the creature at hand, there’s a distance to most everything in Sputnik that provides both the actors and the digital artists to keep their work separate, therefore making the physical vs digital world of the film feel much more seamless.
Yet, I wouldn’t necessarily classify Sputnik as a “scary” movie, at least not in the traditional sense. Tense? Yes. Violent? Absolutely. Horrifying? You betcha, but scary? Not necessarily. The film builds itself up for so long with such a heavy theatrical focus that it feels more like a dramatic thriller with a sci-fi edge than anything else. It does create some narrative inconsistencies in the film’s final act, which does attempt to go full-on horror before returning back to its dramatic base, which leads the film to feel a bit incomplete, but its effects are generally negligible on the experience as a whole.
And that’s what Sputnik provides in spades: an experience. An experience that I wish I could’ve had in a theatre with impeccable image and sound quality, but as is the way of the world, watching it at home doesn’t detract from the objective elements that make Sputnik great. It uses the backbone of a sci-fi horror film to create a slow-burn dramatic thriller that explores as much about Soviet-era bureaucracy in Russia as it does about an alien lifeform wreaking havoc on a secret facility in Kazakhstan. With surprisingly seamless visuals, expert writing, and strong performances from the cast, Egor Abramenko’s feature debut displays a level of promise not often delivered by first-time directors. One can only hope that Russia gives him the chance to deliver on this promise as much as he does here.
In select theaters and on VOD August 14th, 2020.
For more information on Sputnik, head to the official IFC Films website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.