Some movie concepts are now so worn they’re practically threadbare but because the movie business is so obsessed with recycling (ideas, not plastics), it seems we’re destined to watch the same scenarios play out for the rest of eternity. Case in point: virtually every movie that features a malevolent extra terrestrial stalking juicy looking humans around any sort of lab/space station/dark area are usually sketchy photocopies of Alien or Aliens and the sub genre has been stuck in a visual rut ever since. The movies that have avoided this have managed to do so by injecting something new into that overworked DNA that somehow manage to freshen up the entire experience (Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block and David Twohy’s Pitch Black are great examples) and this brings us to creepy Russian sci-fi effort Sputnik, a film that attempts to change things up by wondering: what would have happened if scientists had gone up to John Hurt’s Facehugger and simply asked it how it was feeling?
It’s 1983 and two Russian cosmonauts in the middle of a research mission experience something weird going on outside the window of their capsule as they orbit the earth. Next thing we know their spacecraft has crash landed with a single survivor, Konstantin; but something besides his delicate mental profile is wrong with the afflicted spaceman and to get through to him, granite-faced Colonel Semiradov enlists controversial psychiatrist Dr. Tatyana Klimova to examine him at an isolated and very heavily guarded military facility – it is the Cold War, after all.
Tatyana soon discovers that there’s much more to the large amount of security than just Soviet era paranoia when it’s revealed that Konstantin has brought something back with him from his mission that no one could have foresaw: an alien parasite that has nestled cosily inside his belly and that emerges from his mouth to crawl around it’s cell once the sun has gone down. After bonding with Konstantin emotionally and finding out that he abandoned his son to an orphanage, she uses this news to stress him out to discover that his state of mind directly effects the parasite but she also discovers that there’s a whole lot Semiradov isn’t telling her, like what exactly they’re feeding this thing when it emerges for it’s nightly crawl once the sun has gone down.
Cottoning on that the parasite feeds on cortisol, a hormone generated by fear in the human body and therefore won’t attack if you’re not scared, Tatyana realises there’s a way to separate Konstantin from his gooey, internal passenger and puts a plan in motion to break the cosmonaut out, but with Semiradov casting a stoney glare over all he surveys, is this even possible?
Slotting itself more in the vein of Vincenzo Natali’s Splice than your more average bug hut, director Egor Abramenko manages to mine a healthy amount of tension and depth from the concept thanks to having it’s characters aim their professional opinions at an otherworldly beast instead of a blazing pulse rifle and plays essentially as a merging of The Arrival and Life (the alien one, not the Eddie Murphy one) but with way more teeth.
Giving the weighter, emotional tones the space it needs to grow, the movie at times may have the more impatient among you itching for it to pull loose from it’s more artier notions and start employing some standard carnage – and while the beast gets to cut loose during the climax (one poor fucker gets to say dosvedanya to two thirds of his skull), the real meat of the piece is a marginalized woman trying to do what is right despite the inexorable weight of the Iron Curtain.
The three main performances work very well with Fyodor Bondarchuk’s impressively compartmentalised Colonal being formidable representation of the kind of red tape and militaristic thinking that was rife during the global tension that was The Cold War and the dreary sets wouldn’t look out of place in Tomas Alfredson’s spectacularly dingy Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy adaptation.
But enough about 80’s politics and measured therapy sessions with a man who’s treating an alien creature as a gastric band; it’s time to discuss where the alien sits in the pantheon of slimy space monsters and the answer is: pretty well actually. Well designed, well executed and bearing more than a passing resemblance to the ungodly pairing of a king cobra and a skinned rabbit, the creature isn’t a million miles away from the awkward limbed beings from Cloverfield or Super 8 and it’s parasitic nature obviously is reminiscent of Alien, but great pains are made to let you know that this potentially dangerous creature isn’t the real threat here and is much a prisoner as his unwitting host despite the scientists letting him treat himself to eating the odd face or two off convicted felons.
While I would probably argue that Sputnik’s rewatch value isn’t huge, it’s always intriguing to see what original things filmmakers from other countries manage to pry out of overused scenarios; and the themes of bitterness, regret and the ability to be brave during a time when tensions where sky high give the story some real resonance.
Grim, yet ultimately uplifting Sputnik manages to balance it’s drama with it’s sci-fi high-jinks pretty well and if you’re a fan of thoughtful sci-fi that still has some bite, I can think of cosmo-naught reasons why you shouldn’t give this a go.