There has been a recent renaissance of sorts in horror films that goes beyond familiar ghost stories, haunted houses, demonic possessions, and monsters. Like we’ve seen recently with films like Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid, Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona, and Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s The Platform, filmmakers are using the medium and the genre to examine the broader social context of the world where these stories take place. Sputnik joins that conversation with its simple, effective, very Russian brand of sci-fi horror.
With the cold war in full swing, a Soviet space mission encounters something prior to re-entry and crash lands with only one surviving cosmonaut. As the Russian state works to conceal the incident, the military authorities bring in one of the country’s top psychologists to evaluate the lone survivor and navigate his lost memories to find answers.
Director Egor Abremenko’s film sets an ominous tone early but it’s fair to say it stops being a horror movie after the introductory phase and gradually becomes more about the Soviet government and how the power structure affects the individuals within it, acting to please the state and save their own asses.
The horror elements in the screenplay by Oleg Malavichko and Andrey Zolatarev are strong and very effective early, so it’s a little unfortunate that wasn’t the emphasis down the stretch, but the fear of the Soviet government was a real thing too and it’s fair to have that represented in the equation as well. There’s a little bit of an imbalance as the narrative shifts because the government is everpresent in the background while the main issue seems like it should be the more pressing of the two. The environment cultivated in Cold War Russia is interesting in its own way, but there’s a tonal distance between the two ideas.
Oksana Akinshina was a strong lead as the psychologist Tatyana Klimova. She has a kind of stoicism that lends itself well to the setting and quiet charisma to carry it. Pyotr Fyodorov is solid as the Russian cosmonaut under observation but, even though his character is the catalyst for the events of the story, he’s not Klimova’s proper opposite number. That distinction goes to Fedor Bondarchuk as the opportunistic and morally bankrupt Colonel Semiradov. His phony patriotism makes him easy to dislike but he plays the role with efficiency. Anton Vasilev rounds out the primary cast as the antagonistic but ultimately cowardly lead scientist Yan Rigel who gets caught between his duties to the state and responsibilities as a doctor. All their performances are strong and build out the overall tone of the film.
The creature design was just creepy enough while also being functional and VFX presentation was well integrated into the storytelling without being over-blown or used as a crutch. Even with a great original score from Oleg Karpachev, there could have been more tension building had the filmmakers opted to portion out the reveal more slowly. Instead, they opted to lead with their best punch. It’s an interesting stylistic choice that leaves the second half of the film as mostly falling action.
Recommendation: See it for the performances and the intersection of totalitarian government and human responsibility in the realm of horror.