For a movie about an alien that orally falls out of a human’s mouth every night and feasts on the brains of fear-ridden people, Sputnik left me indifferent as hell. The latest indie thriller from IFC Films’ Midnight wing — striving as always to give you low-budget, genre entertainment now that Dimension Films is basically dead as a doornail (thanks a lot, Harvey!) — comes to us from Russia, a place that has always found a way to scare the hell out of Americans in some form or another.
Set in 1983, near the tail end of the Cold War, Sputnik follows Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), a Russian psychologist recruited by a colonel (Fyodor Bondarchuk, basically a Russian Stephen Lang) for a mysterious, top-secret mission. She’s eventually whisked off to a heavily-guarded location to evaluate a cosmonaut (Pyotr Fyodorov) who comes back to Earth after an “incident in space” left him with episodic amnesia and his fellow cosmonaut dead.
While our protagonist only thinks she’s going to be there for one night, she later realizes she has quite the journey ahead of her when she discovers why she’s been bought there: to separate the alien parasite this national hero unfortunately brought back to Earth. It seems this slimy, scaly thing climbs out of the guy’s mouth for a couple hours late at night, crawling back into dude when it’s done munching down on the cortisol-affected brains of people, since it’s literally fear this creature feeds on. (Don’t worry — the colonel brings in scumbag prisoners for the alien’s supper.)
Sputnik seems like a boilerplate sci-fi/thriller, the kind of suspenseful, occasionally gross popcorn pulp that makes genre junkies moist. And even though the movie is the feature-film debut of commercial/music-video director Egor Abramenko, it’s not as slick or stylish as you would expect. Despite setting his film in the memorably garish ‘80s, Abramenko seems to take great relish in showing how immaculately dull the Soviet Union looked back in the day. From the dried-out interiors to the pitiful wardrobe choices, this movie hits you with a numbing sense of dread even before the damn monster shows up.
Without a doubt, this extraterrestrial creature feature is the work of someone who watched the Alien movies too much when they were a kid. Abramenko does create a nice Ripley clone out of Akinshina’s doctor; she’s certainly the most entertaining part of the film, playing a smart, cynical heroine (and obvious audience surrogate) who enters this situation knowing damn well things aren’t what they seem.
But even with all that working in its favor, Sputnik may leave you a tad bit confused. Things get kinda berserko in the second half, as screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev pack on the twists and red herrings, not to mention a subplot where we keep checking in on a disabled kid in an orphanage. This is supposed to give the film some emotional gravitas — but don’t be surprised if you end up screaming “Really?” when it’s all over.
With the oppressive, lingering cloud of Gorbachev-era Communism hanging over this story at all times, it probably won’t come as a shock when you see our girl Klimova wondering who’s the bigger menace: the alien parasite eating people’s brains, or the men who want to control it. However, as much as Sputnik wants to be a gory hit of space horror with a paranoid, political bent, the movie ends up cold and needlessly convoluted — much like the land it came from.