The egg that hatched in the original “Alien” spawned an entire subgenre of science fiction horror, about invasive extraterrestrial creatures that treat the human body as camouflage or meat. The latest entry is “Sputnik,” a Russian thriller that has studied Ridley Scott’s movie closely, and drawn mostly smart lessons from it. Director Egor Abramenko stages the mandatory stalking and carnage with the right mix of elegance and bloody brio (you often think you see more than you do), but not so proficiently that you forget that you’ve seen this kind of thing done many times before. Luckily, the performances and characterizations add heft, and the very Russian vibe of soulful heaviness sets it apart from its American cousins.
“Sputnik” is set in 1983 during the last hot period of the Cold War. A duo of Russian cosmonauts engaged in an orbital research mission experiences something inexplicable while returning to earth. The spacecraft malfunctions on re-entry. Only one crewman, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), survives, and starts behaving, er, strangely. The elliptical storytelling at the start of the movie delays telling us exactly what’s wrong with him, but this is a horror movie, so you can be sure he didn’t turn into the Russian Mr. Rogers. (Spoilers follow.)
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Konstantin and his now-deceased partner brought a visitor back. He’s living inside of Konstantin, who has been confined in a military research facility under armed guard. The officer in charge, Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), seeks help from Dr. Tatiana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina of “Lilya 4-ever” and “The Bourne Supremacy”), asking if she can study Konstantin and figure out how to safely separate him from the creature. A phrase scribbled in Tatiana’s notebook sums up the gist of the challenge: “Parasite or symbiote?”
The best parts of the screenplay, credited to Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, zero in on the trio of Konstantin, Tatiana, and the Colonel, filling out their psychologies by pitting them against each other, and linking them to historical and political facts of life in the USSR nearly 40 years ago. At first, the Colonel seems like one of the most reasonable and sensitive men in the history of the Soviet military. But Tatiana is right to not trust him, and we start to see him as another kind of monster: allied with blind patriotism, warmongering, and obedience to authority even when he has a gentle fatherly smile on his face.
Without putting too fine a point on it, the movie links the beast inside Konstantin to all of those external, cultural forces. But it also associates the monster with the cruel and selfish decisions that people make in the name of ambition: Konstantin is a young widower who stashed his son in a cruddy, state-run orphanage rather than give up his childhood dream of going into space, and seems (on some level) to see his current situation as punishment for his own treachery and moral failure.
The relationship between Konstantin and Tatiana is multifaceted as well, always meaning more than one thing at a time, shifting among associations just long enough to let to focus on one version of it. The heroine is grappling with demons of her own (as a maverick female rationalist who’s employed by a crushingly tradition-oriented, very male government), and her interactions with Konstantin variously set her up as a thwarted love object (beauty to his beast); as the protective sister or twin-sister he never had; and as a self-appointed mother figure protecting an abused boy in a state-run facility from a malevolent father (which blends Konstantin’s own issues as father, “hero” and state prisoner into a potent Freudian cocktail).
I should confess here that when I sat down to write this review, I didn’t expect to have as much to say as I have. I should also repeat, yet again, that it isn’t the expected genre elements—the jump scares, the body-horror imagery, the Jackson Pollock sprays of blood—that lodged this movie in me like a parasite or symbiote. It’s the storytellers’ obvious empathy for their characters (even the Colonel, who in the New Testament sense, knows not what he does) that elevates the material. Even more so, it’s the actors’ compassion as they depict individuals trapped in a predicament that is impossible in every sense of the word, and that one cannot “win” no matter how hard one tries. The most moving horror accepts the tragic inevitability of the premise it has set up. This is one of those movies.
One of the most beautiful things about horror is that the genre is set up to allow storytellers to attack basic human fears, desires, and conflicts head-on by making metaphors into concrete threats to safety and/or sanity, without worrying that audiences will complain that they’re being either too ambiguous or too on-the-nose (a lot of the best horror is both). The symbiote-or-parasite living inside Konstantin comes from somewhere beyond Earth, but the way it’s used in the film transforms it into an abstract demonic or satanic force—a mass of sickly white insectile flesh that can compact itself into a wad small enough to fit inside a person’s stomach or unfold to five feet in height, unfurling its bony legs and arms like a mantis’ limbs. The creature design, by the director in collaboration with Main Road Post, is a masterstroke: staring at this thing, which looks horrifying from some angles and almost cute from others, you keep thinking you can see intelligence or motivation in that wet, many-eyed face, but then you decide it’s just your imagination—that you’re just projecting onto it.
Available tomorrow in select theaters and on digital platforms.