The Russian word “Sputnik” is commonly known to mean “satellite” but it also translates as “companion” making it the perfect title for Egor Abramenko‘s first feature film. “Sputnik” is based on his short film “The Passenger”, which was an official selection at 2017’s Fantastic Fest, and would have premiered at this year’s TIFF, had it not been for the COVID pandemic. Instead, it was picked up by IFC Midnight and will be available in select theatres, digital and cable VOD August 14.
In 1984, during the midst of the cold war, a manned Soviet spacecraft returns to Earth with a sole survivor. Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is a known national hero but due to the circumstances regarding his return, is being held in a secret military research facility by a man known only as Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk). Konstantin seems to be in excellent health and miraculously healed from his injuries in only two days, but appears to be suffering from episodic amnesia. More troubling than that, he is harboring a parasite that only reveals itself at night. Semiradov calls in a psychologist, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), who is infamous for her un-orthodox procedures, to help determine Konstantin’s state of mind.
The film wastes little time thrusting us into this small world and introducing the players we’ll be with for the remainder of the story. It even reveals the creature far sooner than expected. For many creature-features, this could be a major mistake, but this parasite is quite fascinating. Not only are its design and features are unique it’s symbiotic nature with its cosmonaut host is compelling. Once revealed, the movie begins a slow burn which prods at a handful of concepts, some more interesting than others. Is Konstantin even aware he harbors a parasite? What is the nature of a “hero”, especially in that culture? Is there a way to separate or control the creature?
When the individual elements of the film are examined, they are all quite good, but as a whole, it seems to be lacking something. The writing and direction are great, as are the entire cast’s performances. Even the CGI creature is very well done, although the film is shrouded in so much darkness, it’s easy to hide flaws and corner-cutting. It may be the suspense that feels lacking, only because the stakes don’t seem big enough. At most, it only a few lives are at stake, and by the end of the film, we’re not entirely invested in any of them. With most sci-fi horror films of this nature, there are only a few ways it can play out, and after the first act, there are very few surprises. There’s also the inclusion of an orphan child that seems out of place in this story. It’s very likely this is an allegory for something that I’m missing due to cultural differences, but it leads to an ending that feels tacked on. But regardless of these minor issues, it is an interesting ride that most sci-fi horror lovers will enjoy and certainly worth adding to your quarantine queue.