We think we know the nature of the threat in Sputnik with its opening scene. The year is 1983, and in Soviet-controlled Kazakhstan, a spacecraft has crash-landed after a day of radio silence. A local farmer finds the wreckage and the two cosmonauts piloting the craft. One is dead by grievous injury to his head and neck. The other is disoriented and bleeding from the eyes, ears, and nose. Something happened in space, involving a shape of some sort hovering outside their aircraft, but it offers enough of a picture that we truly think we know what’s going on here. It follows in the tradition of other movies about extraterrestrial threats boarding a human craft and killing or possessing the souls onboard.

That’s what we expect from the movie, and it leaves room for screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev to offer some surprises. Chief among them is an ultimate focus on the human characters in this story, which runs against our expectations from movies of this sort. We are trained to anticipate an otherworldly being that is smarter, more interesting and more defined than the random earthbound chattel that gets in its way. The humans might place themselves in compromising situations, such as intentionally getting too close to the threat or foolishly investigating strange noises coming from darkened corners.

Such movies are gridlocked by a lack of creative ambition and an insistence upon settling for cheap scare tactics, but debuting director Egor Abramenko has made a film that is intelligent about its mixture of science-fiction and horror and intimate in its portrayal of the complicated fragility of its characters. The surviving cosmonaut, Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), has apparently been taken over by the creature that was latched to the craft—a slimy thing with eyes like a spider’s and a skeletal frame that favors muscular forearms like a primate—and a division of Soviet intelligence, led by Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), must determine whether the relationship is parasitic or symbiotic.

To that end, Semiradov has hired Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina), a doctor specializing in psychotherapy, who is under fire for a controversial experiment involving a boy she nearly drowned to retrieve the breakthrough she desired. Her job is to secure Veshnyakov and the fallen cosmonaut’s reputations as heroes of the Soviet Union—an important outcome, to say the least, for officials acting on behalf of that particular socialist state. The military would rather believe that the creature is a parasite to be separated from its host, despite all the evidence of a symbiotic relationship (which, as a reminder, means that each party is mutually benefiting the other).

For Tatyana, it isn’t that easy. She has a duty to the Soviet Union, of course, and there isn’t anything in the development of her character to suggest that such a duty is being infringed upon. She does also have a duty, however, to the examination process, and she cannot deny the results, even if those above her would rather lie to their own superiors about the progress of a warm welcome home after a few weeks in quarantine. Semiradov has no such qualms. For him, the question of the facts is secondary to the optics of it all. Veshnyakov, who has not been told about the alien overtaking his body every night for an hour and a half but certainly senses something is off, would like the credit without any of the blame.

The alien doesn’t care about any of this, which means that we get the expected set pieces involving the bloodshed it causes (all of it graphic, sometimes literally head-splitting, and exceptionally well-crafted). That gore is also undeniably of secondary importance to the filmmakers. Perhaps the fact that the alien represents something of a loyalty test for these Soviet mouthpieces is fitting. That is in the spirit of Russian science-fiction, which has always been less forgiving than the offerings of other regions. Whatever the case, Sputnik is an unsettling film about ethical and moral responsibility, wrapped in the cocoon of a superbly mounted sci-fi/thriller/horror hybrid that works as pure nightmare fuel.

Summary
Sputnik works as pure nightmare fuel and as an unsettling film about moral responsibility.
90 %
Horrifying and Human
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