Anyone streaming the new Russian science-fiction film “Sputnik” and expecting a story about the pioneering Soviet satellite risks disappointment. To better anticipate the adventure viewers are in for, they should to refer the common Russian translation of sputnik, meaning “spouse” or “traveling companion.” A more direct American translation for the movie would be a title that’s already taken. “Alien,” perhaps, or “Parasite.”
Oksana Akinshina, most famous stateside for her appearance in “The Bourne Supremacy,” plays Tatyana, a brash and unapologetic neurophysiologist whose tactics are unorthodox and who doesn’t suffer fools. Her career is facing a major setback when she’s recruited by a shadowy Russian colonel (Fyodor Bondarchuk), who promises to wipe her slate clean if she assists him on a most unusual case: a cosmonaut named Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), who survived a crash landing from low-Earth orbit but has no memory of the nearly fatal incident.
The longer she spends analyzing the patient—a lantern-jawed spaceman with a tortured backstory that belies his anointed status as a “hero” of the Soviet Union—the more she learns about what his government is hiding. Namely, that he has been harboring an extraterrestrial creature inside him since he alighted on terra firma, and that it slithers out of his mouth every night, around 2:45 in the morning, to feed. Its sustenance of choice? That I won’t spoil, though for your own gastrointestinal health, I recommend watching “Sputnik” on an empty stomach.
The story is set in 1983, and it captures both the mood and the movies of its era, for better or worse. Cold War contretemps are the background noise hiding its science-fiction signal: “Weapons guarantee peace,” insists the sinister colonel, in a line out of the Orwell/“Dr. Strangelove” playbook, as he justifies his efforts to mine the cosmonaut’s slimy companion for military applications. And buried in its action-cinemas rhythms is a critique of autocratic Soviet mythmaking—no contravening information may puncture the picture of Konstantin as a hero of the Russian federation—that still pervades Russian state media today.
But beyond these temporal and geospatial specificities, “Sputnik” is a fairly schematic and rote thriller, with villains straight out of central casting. As its mysteries dissolve into absurdist violence and sink into convenient plot holes, it loses the intellectual muscle it accrued in its first half.
In the annals of ET cinema, some audiences may liken it more to “Aliens,” James Cameron’s shallower actioner, than to Ridley Scott’s more terrifying and claustrophobic “Alien.” Younger audiences, attuned to the retro setting, may see a bit of “Stranger Things” in its evocation of a secret deep-government laboratory, and the beings it is trying, and inevitably failing, to imprison. And just as “Stranger Things” has grown weaker each season, so too does “Sputnik” struggle to maintain the integrity of its initially rich premise.
Akinshina’s Tatyana, though, is an archetypal heroine—a fearless role model with a moral center that’s anomalous in the corrupt USSR. She’s the only one who can see through the paranoia of the era to uncover this, and many a sci-fi film’s, message: that we’re the monsters, not the strange creepy entity from outer space. This durable irony has stood the genre’s test of time for a reason; it’s still relevant. I just wish the journey getting there wasn’t so equally familiar.
“Sputnik” is available through most streaming services starting today. For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.