A Russia-set creature feature whose intensely serious tone belies some awfully silly stuff in its plot, Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik locks an Alien-inspired parasite up in the steppes of Kazakhstan and waits to see if humans can figure out how to handle it. Suffering a bit in the charisma department, the film moves sluggishly for the hour or so that it takes to get on its feet, finally giving its humans something interesting to do. While its digital star — a human-sized killer who seems to owe DNA to earthbound insects, del Toro-styled beasts and, well, lots of things you’ve seen on screen — suits the pic well, Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev’s script neither brings it to life nor quite has us rooting for its destruction. Stateside prospects are not good, but it’s reportedly chalking up tons of streams in its homeland.
It’s 1983, and a Russian orbiter carrying two cosmonauts experiences some strange malfunctions shortly before its scheduled return to Earth. Things subside after a minute, and the men are relieved — until they glimpse what might be a tail flicking past a porthole. By the time they land, one of them is near death, and one has had his skull cracked open by something with a taste for brains.
Cut to Moscow, where a young neuropsychiatrist (Dr. Klimova, played by Oksana Akinshina) is being grilled by a government tribunal for her part in a tragedy that will never be adequately explained, not even when it’s used to justify what comes next: A mysterious Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) seeks her out and requests her services on “an interesting case” that will require her to fly to a remote military base in Kazakhstan.
There, while she’s trying to decide if she’s a prisoner or not, Klimova meets the surviving spaceman: Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), a mildly arrogant “national hero” who can’t remember the trauma that befell his ship. Everybody in the lab knows something Konstantin doesn’t: Each night when he’s asleep, the man barfs up a monster that will kill anybody but him who gets close; after stretching its legs, the beast shrivels up and climbs back down the sleeping cosmonaut’s throat. Klimova’s job is to do what the main researcher here, Dr. Rigel (Anton Vasiliev) can’t: “Find a way to separate parasite and host.”
Apart from the creature design, most of the picture’s echoes of Hollywood sci-fi are half-hearted. Compassionately observing the alien through a giant pane of thick glass, Klimova might remind us of, say, Amy Adams learning to speak with aliens in Arrival. But that film (like Ted Chiang’s source material) really invested in the scientific observation and deduction its plot required: Here, the screenplay just plops crucial discoveries into its hero’s mouth whenever convenient.
All of this is considerably duller than parasite-killer-alien yarns should be, at least until the movie’s hints of completely human villainy become overt. Military men in sci-fi movies who don’t want to immediately kill aliens, after all, are only holding off because they hope to turn ET into a weapon. Being the only one around here with a conscience, Klimova will have to figure out what kind of jailbreak is called for.
Unfortunately, demonstrating Klimova’s humanity seems to require the introduction of a B-story about a lonely, crippled orphan in some far-away child’s home. Abramenko cuts away to that tot on occasion, for reasons that seem obvious but are ultimately laughable. This grandiose-feeling pic is long enough it should have ditched these unproductive minutes entirely — or if not, used the time to give us more than the one or two small scares we get from that nasty-looking monster.
Production company: Art Pictures Studio
Distributor: IFC Midnight (Available Friday, August 14 in select theaters, digital platforms, and cable VOD)
Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasiliev
Director: Egor Abramenko
Screenwriters: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev
Producers: Aleksandr Andryushchenko, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pavel Burya
Executive producer: Michael Kitaev
Director of photography: Maxim Zhukov
Production designer: Mariya Slavina
Composer: Oleg Karpachev