Last night I got around to watching Russian Sci-Fi / Horror film Sputnik which is a clever, compelling and beautifully shot post soviet rethink of the xenomorph body-horror genre.
Sputnik, is misleadingly not about the first satellite to orbit the Earth. Instead it’s a fairly well crafted sci-fi/thriller/horror set in 1983. Russian Cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) crash lands back to earth when something sinister causes his Soyuz capsule to malfunction. He has no memory of the catastrophic re-entry which may or may not have killed his Co-pilot. Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk), suspects something funny regarding his claims of amnesia and recruits unorthodox and controversial neuro-physiologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to treat him at distant military facility in Kazahkstan. Of course, as the promotional poster makes clear, Konstantin did not come back to earth alone..
Ok, but is it any good?
So this film is Egor Abramenko’s full feature directorial debut and certainly marks him out as one to watch in the future. The setting of the film at the just before Perestroika and subsequent fall of the USSR is particularly interesting as it makes it feel like Post-Soviet-Soviet film! No really. I’ve always thought that period of USSR history would make a brilliant setting for a whole series of films. (A vampire film set in Soviet Norilsk anyone? Mutant Siberian Tigers terrorising a gulag?)
Anyways the Eastern Bloc has a long and storied history of producing great science fiction films. If you haven’t seen any I strongly urge you to check out the films of Andrey Tarkovsky. One of the hallmarks of the classic Soviet sci-fi films is it they push well away from convention; ‘Stalker’ 1979 and ‘Kin-Dza-Dza’ 1986 respectively being both well-feted internationally as genre breaking films that don’t rely on the conventional sci-fi tropes.
However even within the well trodden science fiction conventions i.e. space ships, robots and aliens, etcetera, there are Soviet era films such as Ikarie X-B1 1963 and Solaris 1972 that have subtle cerebral and culturally salient takes on such thematic standards. That both those films are based on Stanislaw Lem stories is also rather telling.
In any event Sputnik is more akin to the latter genre of Soviet sci-fi films. For it is essentially a reworking of Alien (1979) and this isn’t a bad thing, but the parallels are fairly obvious:
For instance the main protagonist is a strong female lead and the creature is a violent, body-horror xenomorph not too distantly related to the H.R Giger vision we all know and love. That the powers that be also wish to control it in order weaponise it, and in so doing allow it to munch men in body armour like popcorn, also relates it to the second and third Alien films.
What Abramenko does do differently is add a more intimate and complicit relationship between man and xeno than we might normally expect. Without overly fetishising the creature itself as an intrusively sexual or pointlessly savage. Though visually the beast is well actualised via CGI, it’s not really anything genre aficionados haven’t seen before. But it is suitably alien both in design and behaviour, straddling the line initially between gross and disarmingly menacing. When we are shown it in full in the third act it is not disappointing as it still manages to be inscrutably intelligent and a credible threat.
VISUALS & THEMES
As far as looks go, Abramenko perfectly captures a stylised and aesthetically pleasing version of early 1980’s USSR. The sets and locations are striking and completely of the era and Abramenko makes full use of Brutalist space. The period buildings and internal sets are all heavy concrete and stained birch veneer. Their frontages and auditoriums both massive and gloomy yet seemingly empty and underpopulated. This is clearly the USSR of committees and reports. Indeed we are introduced to Dr Klimova, who is being censured for her unorthodox clinical treatments by just such a committee.
Although much of the film is primarily set inside a military base, there are exterior shots of the Kazahk steppe. Frequently Abramenko has the wide-open slate skies and distant rolling hills bisected by an almost needless chainlink fence. Which is a nice touch regarding other subtle themes about illusions of constraint and control present in the film.
The characterisations in Sputnick are fairly robust and well construed. Dr Klimova is suitably hard willed and humanistic, Konstantin the Cosmonaut is funny, rueful ambitious and sly. Anton Vasiliev as Dr Rigel provides a decent cowardly turn. But the standout for me though is Colonel Semiradov who rather than being the hard nosed military man associated with the stereotype in such films is warm, considerate and forward thinking. This also muddies the waters somewhat between whether there is a definite ‘good or bad side’ in the film, which is when it is at it’s most interesting.
My main negative criticism of the film is that I found the score un-necessarily intrusive at key moments, being thumping and fast paced. Others may not mind it so much. There is also a more schmaltzy subplot that does not detract from the film but does feel that it is there mainly to provide closure at the end. All in all I highly it’s an interesting film that provides a decent twist on the genre and it is well worth a watch.