It’s an extraordinary fact that Russia, the first country to send a man into space in the 20th century, ignored the subject of space in cinema for a long time. To be more precise, in the USSR, space flights were an important element of sci-fi movies for teenagers, but no big movies were produced about interstellar flights. With one exception - Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which didn’t even try to pretend to be an entertaining movie meant for a wide audience.
After the disintegration of the USSR the lives of cosmonauts periodically featured in arthouse films, but a real breakthrough in the exploration of this theme came only in 2017, when not one but two movies about the adventures of Soviet cosmonauts in space were released - The Age of Pioneers and Salyut 7.
The Passenger, a short film by Egor Abramenko where the idea for Sputnik first originated, came out that same year. In The Passenger, a cosmonaut who has returned to Earth has to conceal the fact that he has an alien living inside him, to whom the protagonist’s girlfriends have to be fed from time to time. The producers decided to turn Abramenko’s short film into a full-fledged space horror movie. Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing were obvious sources of inspiration. This approach proved to be a winning formula. Sputnik, with its relatively low budget (approx. $3 million), has indisputable entertainment value, remaining a solid horror movie in which the action takes place in an almost permanent twilight. The main interest is not so much in the visual effects themselves, as in the characters, their secrets and relationships.
Sputnik belongs to the not too commonplace retro horror genre. The movie is set in 1983, at a secure Soviet research institute out in the wasteland of the Kazakh steppes. The research facility itself is a cross between a military unit and a Gulag camp. Here, employees of the institute live in dormitories, while prisoners occupy the barracks next door. In line with the plot, an unenviable fate awaits the latter. Both staff and prisoners are guarded by armed soldiers. These details greatly enhance the horror effect - here, fear of the realities of the totalitarian state combines with traditional elements of the genre, such as brooding suspense.
According to the plot, a group of researchers and military men, led by the mysteriousColonel Semiradov (played by Fyodor Bondarchuk), are conducting research with cosmonaut Veshnyakov (played by Pyotr Fyodorov) after his return from a space flight. The second cosmonaut has died; as for Veshnyakov, the surviving cosmonaut has no inkling that he has an alien living inside him. Of course, the military are tempted to use the space creature as a weapon, but for a start, it would be nice to be able to communicate with it. For this purpose, Tatyana Klimova (played by Oksana Akinshina) is dispatched from Moscow - she is a doctor who has been removed from her research work for being too independent minded. But Klimova’s arrival in Kazakhstan takes events in a completely unexpected direction.
Sputnik also follows all the latest trends in genre cinema. The story centers on a strong female character, compared with whom even hardened alpha males like Colonel Semiradov are put in their place. At the same time, the horror genre is not in-your-face here - there are almost no jump scares or shocks, and the suspense is created in more sophisticated and intelligent ways. And even the alien itself, emerging from Veshnyakov’s body, serves more as a metaphor for inner demons, which the cosmonaut has and are, of course, destructive, but at a decisive moment may be of benefit.
The sets were specially built and custom costumes made for the main protagonists of the movie, which is set in 1983. But their main purpose is not so much to accurately recreate the fashions and style of that time, but rather to produce a retro fantasy. The world of Sputnik is a cheerless place of totalitarian noir, where corridors are flooded with disquieting red light and the protagonists inhabit small rooms shot in a way calculated to induce claustrophobia, and when the action breaks out into the open air, one sees that all around is an almost lifeless wasteland stretching to the horizon. Such an abundance of detail works perfectly well in its own right, but, in conjunction with the other elements, it makes Sputnik more than just another B movie on a done-to-death theme, and decidedly makes it stand out among cinematic analogues.
Sputnik is also capable of surprising the viewer with original plot twists on more than one occasion. And the main plot is melodramatic, something not typical in sci-fi horror movies. In the second half of the movie, Sputnik, broadly speaking, gravitates more towards drama than genre cinema - and audiences expecting a gory final battle should probably be warned. There isn’t one (well, almost). Instead, there is a conclusion that everyone will understand. One of perseverance and strength of will, which will necessarily be rewarded.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused the release dates of big Hollywood movies to be postponed to at least the second half of 2020. Numerous online cinemas have tried to offer alternatives. But really quality offerings haven’t been all that numerous, despite the abundance of content - particularly when it comes to feature-length thrillers. Against this background, the success of Sputnik with Western critics can be seen as a by-product of this shortage - the lack of quality sci-fi genre films forces people to sit up and notice projects of this sort, which would normally be regarded as exotic for an English-speaking audience. Well, it has to be admitted that, in the midst of the general summer scarcity of things to watch, Sputnik certainly looks like a great success.
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