“Sputnik,” for those who’ve forgotten their Space Race history, is the Russian word for “companion.” It was cute that the Bolsheviks chose to name the Earth’s first satellite that, a tiny radio-transmitting metal ball launched into space, Earth’s first man-made “companion.”
It’s also the perfect name for a space travel creature feature. What’s the last thing a cosmonaut wants to bring back to Earth after a mission in orbit? An alien “Sputnik,” it turns out.
Director Egor Abramenko’s debut feature is a Soviet era thriller abot what happens when a couple of cosmonauts go into space in 1983, and they bring back a third passenger, probably the one that rattled them by scratching on the hatch of their capsule after they uncoupled from the Soyuz space station they’d been working in.
It’s a bloody scene a Kazakh horseman comes upon when they land on the steppe in the dark. Only one cosmonaut, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), survived. The other fellow’s head was bitten off.
Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina), a risk-taker among the Soviet state’s hidebound psychotherapists, is summoned by Col. Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) to a base on-lockdown. That’s where they’ve been trying to get Konstantin to talk.
The expert on duty (Anton Vasilev) can’t get the guy to submit to hypnosis. Maybe Tatyana can get through to him.
“PTSD” is her snap judgement. She even thinks he killed his co-pilot.
Ah, but Comrade Doctor Tatyana Klimova. There is more to tell you. Slowly. OK, not so slowly. Come by again after dark. That’s when the “Hero of the Soviet Union” leans over the side of his bed and upchucks giant gekko with the multi-eyeballed head of a cobra. He lives inside our “hero” during the day, and only comes out at night.
Akinshina — you might remember her from a late Bourne movie — gets across the shock of this realization, going slack-jawed and weak-kneed. Then, training and instinct kicks in. It’s her job to get this “parasite” or “symbiote” to leave the cosmonaut for good, and do it without killing Konstantin.
Her colleague (Vasilev) may smell “Nobel Prize.” “Go back to Moscow while you still can,” he warns (in Russian with English subtitles). She wants to help people, and save Konstantin.
“Sputnik” is an intellectual exercise in its early scenes, with the doctor trying to draw out her patient, figure out what secrets he’s hiding and what he knows or doesn’t know. It shifts into shock and horror as we see the slippery thing that will kill, if it gets a chance. The third act becomes all about Soviet era intrigues — what everybody’s REAL motives are, what further horrors they could lead to.
I found the jump into the third act a stretch, not quite buying into character motivations, not believing Semiradov’s shifting attitudes and security concerns. Perhaps some of that is merely East vs. West mindset, but you’d think “The Andromeda Strain” concerns would kick in, even in the Byzantine Soviet system, where paranoia ruled and “public safety” rarely figured into considerations.
But we still get a pretty entertaining thriller out of what’s here, no matter how the finale sets up and how the picture resolves itself.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic, bloody violence
Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov and Anton Vasilev
Credits: Directed by Egor Abramenko , script by Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev. An IFC Midnight release.
Running time: 1:53