'Sputnik' is a Russian spin on 'Alien' — and it's good
The clever and nicely gory "Sputnik" comes from Russia with love, slime, and an impressive lesson in efficient, low-cost pulp filmmaking.
How is the gore "nice," exactly? It's in the eye of the beholder. First-time feature film director Egor Abramenko proves himself an astute judge of when, how much and how many seconds to show his slithering extraterrestrial parasite yanking some poor Soviet-era convict's head off and feasting on human brains, mostly in quick, yecccccchy digital effects. Just as often, we imagine more than we actually see, by way of stupefied reaction shots of the human onlookers.
Expanded from Abramenko's 2017 short film "The Passenger," "Sputnik" confines most of its action to a remote military compound in Kazakhstan. The time is 1983. It's essentially a four-character piece. A granite-tough psychiatrist (Oksana Akinshina, excellent, with hints of both Michelle Williams and Cate Blanchett) is recruited by an Army honcho (Fyodor Bondarchuk, whose piercing gaze suggests its own otherworldly menace) to examine a cosmonaut (Pyotr Fyodorov, charismatically morose). The spaceman has recently returned from space, with an asterisk.
Here's the asterisk: Housed within the cosmonaut's body is a malleable alien, who comes and goes through its host's mouth. The cosmonaut isn't aware of his houseguest, since he suffers from "episodic amnesia." The base commander wants to weaponize the alien; the psychiatrist, with the help of a weaselly research scientist (Anton Vasilyev), comes to learn parasite and host are psychically linked.
Written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, "Sputnik" has been smoothly welded from various, familiar story parts. Ridley Scott's "Alien" is one, and Akinshina's formidable protagonist owes much to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. She also has some of the empathic alien communication skills of Amy Adams in "Arrival," though unlike that Denis Villeneuve success, this one can't wait to get to the viscera (John Carpenter's "The Thing" is another influence).
The camera, like the slithering creature, moves intentionally, gliding in, pushing laterally, revealing another group of hapless soldiers or a medic about to administer pills, or be stabbed with a syringe. "Sputnik" came in on a tight $2.5 million budget; its success in Russia pre-coronavirus is now being followed by a mostly streaming release in the U.S. Some theaters around the country are hosting this particular and worthwhile parasite.
No MPAA rating (in the R range, for violence)
Running time: 1:53
Premieres: Friday in selected theaters and via IFC Midnight VOD.