In 1983, a Russian space mission crash lands back on Earth. The only survivor of the team, cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), is detained in a secret Soviet facility. No one knows what happened up there in the cosmos, but their vessel may well have returned with an extra passenger.
It’s almost a cliché at this point to note the ubiquitous influence of Ridley Scott’s Alien on science fiction cinema: anything vaguely scary set in space or other confined, sufficiently sciencey environment seems destined for unfavourable comparisons to the xenomorph classic. Nevertheless, the subgenre of claustrophobic alien-body horror has undoubtedly had a bit of a resurgence of late. Life and this year’s Underwater both paid worthy homage to Alien, while director Ridley Scott returned to the series proper with Alien: Covenant in 2017.
Russian director Egor Abramenko has decided to get in on the act in his debut feature Sputnik, a smart little creature feature with a great hook, but whose star beast ultimately only succeeds at nipping at our nerves. Faced with only one surviving cosmonaut – and amnesiac at that – top brass Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) brings in doctor Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to assess Veshnyakov and find out what happened up there. The mystery thickens as she comes up against secretive colleagues, doctored evidence, and that rather than being unwell, Veshnyakov’s strength and stamina are growing by the day.
The answer to Veshnyakov’s vitality is living inside his oesophagus. Incubating during the day, at night a creature emerges from Veshnaykov to prowl his cell and look for a means of escape. Flawless practical effects and economically-deployed CGI bring the translucent, slithering chimaera to life, its freakish tubular-based skeleton meaning that the two-metre terror can fold itself into any tight space – or a man’s throat. Design-wise, the thing is hardly original – think of a bigger version of the vaginal-cobra monster from Prometheus with legs – but the execution is top-notch, especially given Sputnik’s relatively tiny budget.
This is no ordinary, grab-em-and-slash-em monster, however. We’re dealing with a symbiote, feeding on Veshnaykov’s hormones, which are raised by its nightly excursions to devour the facility’s hapless inmates. Who, by the way, has to see it coming to get them because it likes the taste of fear. Are we surprised to learn that Semiradov wants to turn the creature into a bioweapon for the Soviet Union?
It’s a shame that Sputnik can’t stop there because things unravel badly from here on in. The thematic grab-bag of cold-war paranoia and national heroism reveals their shallowness as the screenplay bolts on a daft jailbreak climax unwarranted by the slow-burn tension of the preceding acts. Meanwhile, the standard sci-fi blue-grey aesthetic is perfectly functional but does little to deepen any commentary on Russian nationalism or enrich the immediate visceral experience. No amount of tight corridors and shots of CCTV monitors ever make protagonist Tatyana feel in peril: this, far more than derivative monsters and confusing themes, is Sputnik’s fatal error.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm