Sputnik: Aliens or Soviets, Pick Your Poison
The more things change, the more they stay the same. It feels like a lifetime ago that I wrote about Underwater, but it’s been a mere seven months and — despite the world being in a drastically different place — we have yet another spin on the Alien formula in Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik, which asks what Soviet-era Russia would have done if they got their hands on a xenomorph. It’s a question that didn’t necessarily need to be asked, given that it boils down to essentially the same result as Alien’s “what would a interplanetary conglomerate do with a xenomorph” (hint: nothing good), but by setting the film in the USSR circa 1983, Abramenko and writers Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev are able to mine the country’s history for thematic resonance to go along with the creature-based carnage.
There’s nothing especially innovative about the premise: astronaut returns to earth but he didn’t come back alone, the government gets a hold of him, things eventually go bad for everyone involved. But where Sputnik shines is in its ability to weave in anthropological study, taking its cues from the genre’s tendency to excel when futurism serves as a frame to examine the day to day. Our alien-plagued astronaut is Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) and the expert brought in to diagnosis his extraterrestrial condition is Tatyana Klimova (an excellent Oksana Akinshina), a doctor willing to take risks to save lives, much to the chagrin of the review board. The film depicts them as two sides of the same coin: both obsessed with the notion of what heroism means in a world where you can’t necessarily trust the definition. Veshnyakov yearns to be a true Soviet Hero, willing to sacrifice anything and everything to bring the country glory; On the other hand, Klimova’s version of heroism borders on medical vigilantism as she remains determined to follow her own code, country be damned — a dangerous attitude for the particular time and place in which she lives.
Other era-appropriate themes are peppered throughout — the Russian government’s only true interest in the alien concerns weaponization, fear is presented as a potential energy source — but ultimately take a backseat to the hybrid sci-fi/horror elements of the film. To their credit, the filmmakers aren’t hiding the ball here; unlike Alien, our E.T. shows up in the first half hour. For a film that seems to have cost a relative pittance (approximately $2.6 million US if my calculations are correct, though a dollar may go further in the Russian film industry), the production value is high, with impressive creature design and actualization, and the overall aesthetic leans into the retro trappings of the plot, cleverly using dated technology and a synth-heavy score by Oleg Karpachev. The film loses steam in the third act, with a series of setpieces that feel somewhat rote, but it sticks the landing with a final sequence that recontextualizes a portion of what came before by returning to the core themes of heroism and individuality. The most watchable of the Alien derivatives succeed through either style or substance — and Sputnik gets by with a little bit of both.