Egor Abramenko sends his regards from the 1980s space-obsessed Soviet Russia. Sputnik (2020) is a cosmic horror tale with a human heart, and there’s a lot to appreciate about its proceedings and design.
Sputnik (2020) opens with two astronauts who are set to return from their cosmic voyage. In a split of a second, their plans go south when a void-conquering alien life form enters their tin can. Upon landing somewhere in Kazakhstan, Konstantin Veshnyakov – one of the two spacemen – is held captive by the Soviet government, as he’s believed to carry this extraterrestrial inside his guts. With the government set to split the creature with its human host, the head of this secret operation Colonel Semiradov brings in an expert psychologist Tatyana Klimova who seems to possess the right set of skills required to do the job. However, things aren’t entirely as they seem to be.
Sputnik (2020) manages to steal your attention in an instant. The opening scene that depicts finds two astronauts chatting about coming home draws its claustrophobic unease from Gravity (2013) and Life (2017). Egor Abramenko effortlessly flips the lulling part upside down by revealing the cosmic terror within the first fifteen minutes. Be wary that the Russian director’s obviously a sucker for gore too.
Sputnik (2020) is defined by the depressing color palettes, but also the brutalist architecture that worked miracles in HBO’s Chernobyl (2019). Abramenko also benefits from the work of his cinematographer Maxim Zhukov. The climatic cinematography dipped in washed-off filters and dim lights cause the first act to feel every bit creepy and period-correct as it possibly could have. You can’t help but admire the meticulous visual design applied to Sputnik (2020), which relied on real-life locations such as the Institute of Biochemistry. That authenticity also boosts the stark contrast between inhuman interiors and the alien living inside the astronaut.
It should be noted that the time setting is more than just the spartan architecture. A film about space set in the 1980s in Russia cannot exist without the Cold War upbeats rampaging in the background, right? Back in the 1980s, the dream of conquering the world was still intact. But there’s more to it. The 1980s were key to Russian history because the country’s illusory stability was about to be severely fractured by Perestroika – the period that eventually led to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. And by weaving espionage into the story too, Abramenko leverages this particular period in a series of metaphors that connect an extraterrestrial with a portrayal of how dangerous it was to be involved in the space program.
Colonel Semiradov, a disciplinarian figure with a dangerously unpredictable twist embodies this threat. Along with a Nobel-craving scientist, the two gentlemen represent the dream of beating the “enemy” both ways – scientifically and militarily. To either of them, the hurting astronaut Veshnyakov represents means to career and the “greater good”; a necessary sacrifice that the country requires. You don’t have to be a history expert to know that devaluation of life echoes in Russian history through various eras and periods.
Fedor Bondarchuk who plays Colonel Semiradov nails his part as the ill-intentioned antagonist. The Russian actor patches a character made from cold composure, and passionate fire residing behind the military facade. Semiradov prevaricates whenever Tatyana attempts to learn what’s the real deal in the base, and he does so by appearing likable, friendly, and understanding. By the end of Sputnik (2020), it’s a far more menacing character than the alien itself.
Truth be told, the “greater good” aspect ties well with the series I have mentioned earlier, and it also makes up for one of the film’s subliminal messages. Abramenko channels his efforts on the destructive manipulation that treats lives as part of an experiment. The authorities stand as a symbol of disregard towards life that should be the core value of every nation. That may be even scarier than the computer-generated alien that takes delight in a very particular – and pretty graphic too – dish. People are the scariest in Sputnik (2020) and so are the lengths they’d go to turn the extraterrestrial being into a cutting-edge tech weapon.
Thankfully, Egor Abramenko isn’t too keen on making his horror film all about the clash of nations. That kind of direction would feel too pompous. On the contrary, Sputnik (2020) sticks to keeping things local and personal. The way the plot unravels – with its center spot occupied by Tatyana – meanders into a psychological drama rather than a big-scale CGI-fest.
Tatyana’s main concern revolves around the dubious morality of the experiment, but also trying to tie the varying expectations coming from all the stakeholders. Rebel or not, Tatyana belongs to the system, and it will devour her if she plays her cards wrong. Oksana Akinshina’s introvert role isn’t fragile though – Tatyana’s not fragile which makes her a true protagonist made of blood and tears.
In the third act of Sputnik (2020), Tatyana’s concerns jeopardize the horror though. Abramenko shifts the weight to Tatyana and Konstantin’s fate, and that could easily work without the alien on their shoulders, which isn’t a good thing. However, the director’s at least diligent in that sense – no matter how much of a space horror movie Sputnik (2020) appears to be, its main characters are human.
Least, but not last, I should spare a few words on the cosmic horror that lives in Konstantin. Alien in Sputnik (2020) stands out when compared to humanoid fellow creatures as seen in countless sci-fi movies. This design remarkably represents a being that combines numerous life forms we know – snakes, fish, but also humans. Sci-fi veterans will notice similarities to monsters from Cloverfield (2009), A Quiet Place (2018), and many other films.
At the end of the day, the plot of Sputnik (2020) isn’t as much a survival story of people vs. aliens, but a cautionary tale of how destructive humans can get despite the greater danger they’ve brought on Earth. Clearly, Egor Abramenko had more ambitions than by-the-book horror films. There’s enough going on in Sputnik (2020) to count it as one of the most curious sci-fi gems in recent memory.
Reverse Grade: 3/10
Director: Egor Abramenko
Writers: Oleg Malovichko, Andrey Zolotarev
Starring: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov
Cinematography: Maxim Zhukov