New VOD Releases: Sputnik (2020)-Reviewed

 (Image Courtesy of IFC Midnight)

It's 1983. The Cold War is a few years away from its end but Russia and the US will be damned if they don't try to one up one another one last time. A Russian spacecraft malfunctions on its way back to Earth leaving one cosmonaut dead and the other, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) appears to be fine physically but is exhibiting frighteningly monstrous behavior. Whisked away to a government facility, hidden from the rest of the country, a Colonel (Fyodor Bondarchuk) recruits a controversial psychiatrist, Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) to try to get to the bottom of the monster inside of him. Quite literally. 

This is where we begin in Egor Abramenko's sci-fi/horror Sputnik. What's immediately fascinating about Abramenko's creature feature is that it's less concerned with killer aliens and more concerned with ethics, governmental overreach and body autonomy. You see, the alien isn't necessarily invading Earth. It's invading the body of Konstantin by living inside his esophagus and stomach, only coming out at night to feed. As their symbiotic relationship grows, the alien needing the body as a host, the body needing the alien to heal, the scientists become increasingly conflicted about how to remove the creature. 

Who is in control? Konstantin? Or the Alien? Or worse, are Konstantin and the creature one? And past that, can the government really claim ownership over their cosmonaut or the creature living inside him?

(Image Courtesy of IFC Midnight)

These questions are at the heart of the relationship that slowly builds between Konstantin and Tatyana. The film is a terrific monster romp on its own but the therapy sessions between doctor and patient are what make this a genuinely thrilling piece, well past the guns and gore. Both are hiding things about themselves and as their lives are laid bare, they become increasingly closer. Both knows more about their situation than they're willing to reveal to each other. The tensions that build off of this are captivating, at times creating a two-hander that wouldn't be out of place on the stage. 

The performances from Akinshina and Fyodorov drive these scenes because both are so compelling to watch. Both are filled with immense amounts of guilt, their pasts spilling out of one another as Tatyana tries to get through to Konstantin. Konstantin, unaware of the monster inside of him, doesn't understand why he's being held captive. He's told that his government thinks he murdered his co-pilot and she's only there because her license is under review after she used controversial methods on a child. Parts of Konstantin's past begin to reveal themselves through apparent flashbacks or asides, muddying the waters about what kind of person he is despite the creature. The suspense that begins to arise is less about the literal internal monster and more about the figurative internal monster. Abramenko does a ton of work to get you to care about his two central figures so that when the inevitable happens, you're invested beyond "wow, this is SCARY!" 

(Image Courtesy of IFC Midnight)

Thrilling character studies are one thing but you probably came to this movie for bloody genre goodness and it does not disappoint. The alien's design is almost mesmerizing, like a snake, bat and spider rolled into one, it's a terrifying being that's capable of ripping one's face off with the swipe of claw. Imagining this thing living inside your body is enough nightmare fuel for weeks. The alien feeds on the cortisol that forms in its prey's brain upon seeing it. The role the alien plays in being a physical manifestation of the Cold War isn't missed. The monster can only feed if you're afraid of it, the war can only be perpetuated if the people fear one another. On the nose? Sure but good stuff nonetheless. 

 Abramenko's inspirations are so clearly on the screen, the most easily identifiable being Alien but he manages to bring a surprising dimension to the creature. It being in a symbiotic relationship with Konstantin allows the creature to become more humanoid in its actions. When it emerges from his body at night, the government allows Tatyna to view it. As their interactions build, the creature's demeanor changes and it begins to act more like a person. It's brilliant how the film blurs the lines between monster, human, parasite and host. The central question of ethics that swirl around the film are constantly being examined and re-examined as the alien and Konstantin continue to bond. In being forced to view the creature as more than just a creature, you end up questioning everything you thought you understood about hostile aliens.

Sputnik is a solid horror film bolstered by an excellent central drama focused more on its characters and moral quandaries than it is on scaring you. But when it does go scary, it's terrifying. The balance between creature feature and kitchen sink character drama is almost astonishing, never throwing too much of one or the other at you. Abramenko has an acute understanding that you can only get so far with this kind of film if you don't lay down the character work. These kind of movies usually exist to wow you in the moment but leave your head a few days later. Sputnik lingers because of the questions it asks of its characters and the audience. None of them are easy and as the film twists and turns, you're continuously readjusting your viewpoints. You're as active as a participant as Tatyana and the experience is all the more rewarding. 

-Brandon Streussnig