Film history is littered with mad scientists and brilliant geniuses who just happen to be a bit nutty, the vast majority of which are male. It’s rare that audiences are gifted a female scientist, at the top of her game, conducting bizarre experiments without interference from higher-ups. The most recent example is arguably Juliette Binoche in High Life, but even she was suspended in space, essentially on a suicide mission. In Sputnik, the debut feature from Russian filmmaker Egor Abramenko, a female mad scientist is front and centre, but it’s this woman’s essential humanity, rather than her dangerous methods, that makes her endearing.
The film opens with two lads enjoying a bit of banter onboard a spaceship, suspended in the silence of the Great Nothingness, when suddenly a barely-glimpsed something attaches itself to their pod. Next thing they know, the ship is hurtling towards Earth, killing one of its passengers in the process. The other, Pyotr Fyodorov’s Konstantin, barely survives and is rushed to a mysterious compound. Consisting almost entirely of dark, twisty corridors, the place is creepy, isolated and utilizes prisoners for hard labor. It’s not the nicest setting in which to recuperate, but Konstantin isn’t doing too well under the circumstances regardless.
Enter Tatyana (the extraordinary Oksana Akinshina), a psychiatrist with some dodgy treatment methods who, when she’s first introduced, is being grilled by a council of experts due to almost drowning a patient. The higher-ups at the compound, in which Konstantin is being kept, reckon Tatyana is the ideal candidate to extract whatever knowledge he’s keeping under lock and key in his disturbed psyche. The only problem is, upon meeting Konstantin, the doctor realizes there’s something else lurking just under the surface that, aside from almost killing its host if separated from him, poses a serious threat to all of humanity.
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Sputnik is set in 1983 but feels resolutely 70s, from the drably evocative color palette to Oleg Karpachev’s moody score (which sounds as though it’s been transplanted from an old school spy movie). Abramenko’s film, which was written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, is a potboiler through and through, but the sci-fi and horror elements are well-considered and neatly threaded into the narrative. The creature at the core of the story looks terrific, all icky slime and spindly limbs. It appears to be a combination of CG and practical FX, lending it an innate tactility. The head recalls a Gremlin but also a cobra’s frills, marking it as cute but deadly. This unnamed creature feeds off the fear hormone cortisol, making it an especially terrifying foe, but Tatyana’s growing attachment to it is understandable since her maternal instincts are clearly being exploited by the all-male team she’s working with.
Flashbacks establish a parallel between an abandoned child in an orphanage and the creature itself that, at first, feels tacked on. But its intricacies are slowly unravelled, lending weight to an already knotty premise. Tatyana’s backstory is similarly fleshed out, first with a shot of a big scar snaking down her spine, and later in her interactions with Konstantin, which are charged with a tentative romantic energy but never fully spill over into physical action. The stakes are high but personal as this brilliant scientist tries desperately to do her job while staying true to who she is as a person.
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Although the focus is on Tatyana, with Konstantin understandably playing second fiddle due to his rapidly debilitating condition, every character in Sputnik‘s relatively small cast has depth, from the leader of the facility to the doctor who betrays him by helping the fleeing duo. Their various interactions, most of which are work-based, suggest lives well lived, regardless of whether these are good or bad people. When the question is posed about how Konstantin’s partner perished, the ominous response is “like a hero.” Everybody is addressed using their full name, adding a formality to the setting that further emphasizes the cold, clinical atmosphere.
There’s real bite and weightiness to Sputnik. There are several compelling mysteries at play, not all of which are fully revealed, which should make watching it an unsatisfying experience, but the payoff is well-earned and fittingly opaque. Akinshina’s performance carries the film, and her gentle chemistry with Fyodorov provides some much needed warmth. Typically, a woman in this kind of role would be either cold and clinical or maternal and sweet, but Tatyana impressively gets to be both. Akinshina communicates a wealth of conflicting emotions through her eyes, with her posture gradually softening as she becomes accustomed to her new surroundings. It’s an intensely physical performance. Most of these actors will be new faces to audiences outside of Russia, but it’s easy to imagine Akinshina, in particular, enjoying a long and varied career.
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Overall, Sputnik is a thoughtful, knotty sci-fi thriller that’s firmly character-driven and also boasts a horrifyingly beautiful creature. It’s a remarkably solid debut that functions as both a study of human nature and a frightening indictment of military intervention; a must-watch for fans of horror, sci-fi and everything in between.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.