I’m pleased to welcome back Mark Spangler for another one of his insightful reviews…
In the days of yore, we quaked to Quasimodo, dreaded Dracula, and feared the Frankenstein monster. The wolfman had us howling while the mummy had us screaming for mommy. Soon came atomic monsters, horrors from Hammer, and later still, demon-possessed little girls, slashers, freaks, cannibals, and zombie hordes. There was and still is much to be afraid of when we venture out into the darkened theaters we love so well. The most terrifying element in the history of the horror film, however – or any genre for that matter – is the dreaded “s”’ word. Yes, we’re referring to the unmentionable, the taboo, the hideous… subtitles.
The written word at the bottom of the letterbox is such a despised feature in the US of A that the mere mention of the word spells box office doom. We aren’t much of a literate society anymore and the days in which horror fiction was a standard inclusion in magazines of all stripes are long gone. We go to the movies to see the films based on novels and stories we have no intention of actually reading. That’s a shame because it shuts off from many American audiences some truly great cinematic experiences. Sputnik, from Russian director Egor Abramenko, is one of them.
Other than some acclaimed shorts, this foreign gem from 2020 (now available on Hulu) is Abramenko’s first big-budget, full-length feature, and he wastes no time hitting an inside-the-park homer in his first plate appearance. The film draws some understandable parallels between his silver screen debut, 1972’s Solaris, and most vividly, Ridley Scott’s Alien. Even a cursory viewing of his debut offering, however, reveals the wisdom of Winston Churchill when he described the USSR as “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…”. So, too does this Russian feature, which concerns three, main characters with many levels of complexity. Sputnik has much to offer if you can read between the lines (and in this movie, you’ve no choice). Speaking of reading, please note this review contains numerous spoilers.
Close attention to detail in the movie highlights the barren existence of modern Soviet-era technology circa 1980. In comparison with the immaculate, high-tech “wildfire” biotech facility in 1971’s The Andromeda Strain, the medical establishment in Sputnik, where we spend 90% of the movie, deep in the wastes of Mother Russia, looks as if it was hastily patched together from an abandoned Best Western motel. The furniture is second-hand pasteboard with no style, just dusty functionality. Colors are a muted tan or a cold, steely gray. The rooms within the facility contain no frills or extras, except for video cameras and that highest of high-tech devices, the VCR. The exteriors, full of gates, locks, and cold-war razor wire convey a familiar if bleak, glimpse into the shoddy, polluted landscape of the Warsaw Pact in the Cold War era. Even the scientific qualities of the bio lab look truly Soviet – cold, sparse, utilitarian. There are few creature comforts here, but there most definitely is a creature lurking about. The art direction and gloomy cinematography at work in the picture work hand-in-hand with the script to achieve an atmosphere of suspense, and mistrust while perfectly capturing the impotence of people caught up in a world they can neither influence nor understand.
Sputnik is a wonderful example of how a triumphant sci-fi/horror blend can be achieved cinematically with careful adherence to recreating a bygone time frame, smart characterizations, and a script that refuses to insult its audience. If the abuses of the communist system are soft-pedaled, the well-entrenched bureaucracy of the Brezhnev age reflects a certain reality of a softer form of repression than the gulags of Stalinist times. The film is a smoldering, slow-burn, almost dreamlike in its ability to reveal one secret after another in an ossified society that is doomed to failure.
The movie opens with two Russian cosmonauts in low-earth orbit, preparing to re-enter the atmosphere after a successful mission in space. The cramped, claustrophobic interior of the Soviet Soyuz capsule (still in use) is well represented here as are the famous sticks used to operate control panels that are just out of reach for the hermetically sealed spacemen. After a routine undocking from the Salyut 7 space station, the tiny, spherical Soyuz module begins experiencing trouble as events we do not fully understand begin to go awry. We get a hint of what is to come when we catch a glimpse of, er… something, outside one of the tiny portholes in the craft. Alarms sound and the screen is bathed in red while our boys struggle to maintain control. The next thing we know, the craft crash lands with only one spacefarer, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), still alive.
We learn in short order that Konstantin is undergoing both medical and psychological treatment at an isolated bio-medical facility on the arid steppes of Kazakhstan. As much a prison as it is a medical facility, it comes equipped with small living quarters for the medical staff, a cafeteria, experimental equipment, and isolation chambers. It even has its share of shaven-head inmates, responsible for the construction and maintenance of the camp.
At their wits end with Konstantin, the desperate team of isolated Soviet medicos, scientists, and technicians seek help by pressuring the brilliant Dr. Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) – already in hot water for her controversial medical/psychiatric techniques – to join them at the desolate lab in their attempts to reach through the cosmonaut’s PTSD, stemming from the space accident. She is pressured to link up with the team by a uniformed meany, one Col. Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk). Much like life behind the iron curtain, there is far more to these three central characters than we expect. Each harbors secrets that evolve as the film progresses.
As we move along in the Oleg Malovichko/Andrei Zolotarev screenplay we learn that Konstatin harbors within him, a space alien which exits his digestive system nightly in order to feed upon the bald inmates, provided by Semiradov. It’s okay though (or at least we rationalize) because these men are criminals of the vilest category who would have most likely received a death sentence for their heinous offenses in the regular Soviet prison system anyway. Tatyana is initially repulsed by this set-up yet goes along with it for several reasons; she has few options since her controversial methods have authorities about to pull her medical license, is fascinated at the implications of her new mission, and is somewhat smitten with the young spaceman. For his part, Konstantin has secrets of his own… he plays dumb by claiming to know nothing of the creature within him, but he is, in fact, very well aware of its existence. Guessing that he’ll never get out of the facility if his medical captors know what he knows, he says he is oblivious about the creature, – a symbiont – in the hopes he will one day be allowed out to be with his orphaned child. Semiradov isn’t just a cartoon villain – he has plenty of secrets of his own – including his murderous feeding routine, and the establishment of the medical base without official approval. Everyone works for dual purposes here and no one is to be trusted. It is as much a critique of the sluggish monolith of communist bureaucracy as anything else.
The plot unravels a bit into familiar territory as the picture moves into escape mode, with Tatyana attempting to save Konstantin from the beast within him and from the physical confines of the facility itself. It’s here the flick begins to wander into familiar mode, which is a shame, and cracks begin to appear. It is precisely the quality of such a production that minor flaws stand out so glaringly in the Malovichko-Zolotarev screenplay. We are asked, for example, to accept there are but a handful of electronic bugging devices within the compound. This, in a police-state environment in which half the population is watching the other? Not likely. Far more probable would have been video and audio surveillance devices in every lamp, shower head, and bookshelf. We are, I suppose, expected to accept the clandestine nature of the secret base and the haste with which it was constructed as the culprit here. Yet, we may justifiably ask, would the construction of such a facility, hidden from Soviet authorities, even be possible in the early 1980s?
The ease in which the good doctor and her charge escape, both within and outside the scientific prison is also suspect, as is the obligatory gate crashing scene. (Have you EVER seen a chase sequence in which a roadside fruit stand WASN’T annihilated in slow-mo, watermelons and bananas flying in all directions?) Ditto for high-speed vehicles and wire security fencing.
The picture’s final twenty minutes fall headlong into cliche-ville, which is sad. One was almost hoping for an It’s Alive ending in which baby-monster two was discovered just as baby-monster one was destroyed, but that sequel setup is also fraught with its own, tired formulaic issues. The ending may be predictable but it is at least well done.
The design of the monster itself is interesting. It isn’t an outsized Godzilla or even a big baddie like in Alien. It is more akin to a pint-sized beastie related to the glowing aliens in the 50’s classic I Married a Monster From Outer Space. The fear of the human-scale creature comes from its slimy extraterrestrial design, its ferocity, and its blinding speed. Director Abramenko is not afraid to reveal the monster but whets our appetite initially with brief glimpses and night vision camera videos at the start of the mayhem.
The leads are each outstanding in their own ways and each plays victim and perpetrator with aplomb. Akinshina is terrific as our heroine, a world-weary physician of superior skills who dedicates herself to new medical techniques to satisfy her innate curiosity and as a refuge from the conservative medical establishment in a police state. The actors portraying cosmonaut Konstantin and the evil colonel are not simply cardboard cutouts, either, but are doing what their warped system is forcing them to do in a society that allows them few options. Special effects are gory but not too radical, although everyone does seem to throw up every chance they get. The SFX is both realistic and understandable.
Back to the subtitles. It’s tragic that western audiences would prefer even a poor English dubbing over the written word because the rich nuances of the Russian language actually add to the horror of the plot in Sputnik. Foreign films rarely do themselves honor when dubbed by voice actors. There is an authenticity to storylines that’s simply lost when the vocals don’t match the lip movement or facial expressions of the actors on screen. It’s often comical to see dubbing done that way and in no way is this film – with a dramatic, ominous soundtrack and abrasive stinger – a comedy. Better to let the sounds of language flow naturally, while improving your reading skills at the same time.
Sputnik wins on almost every level. Be a winner and read it.