The original “Alien” featured a first-class creature and a corporate drone eager to do its dirty work.
In “Sputnik” we’ve got another critter from the stars, but the bigger villains hail from the Communist state.
That’s where the two films diverge. “Alien” remains a near-perfect hybrid of horror and science fiction. “Sputnik” never lacks in ambition, but its ’80s setting aims at our cerebral cortex where the film’s morality yarn plays out.
Dr. Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina) is a heady combination of cocksure and talented, and we quickly see how that gets her into trouble. Her recent imbroglio draws the attention of the Soviet military. They want her to investigate a cosmonaut who can’t recall the final, critical stages of his return to earth.
Konstantin Sergeyevich (Pyotr Fyodorov, “The Darkest Hour”) endured something tragic, and unexplained, during his descent. It’s up to Tatiana to tease it out of him. Suffice to say Konstantin didn’t return to Earth alone, and the powers that be aren’t telling Tatiana the full story.
Do Communists ever share the truth?
Once again nefarious forces see a space alien as a weapon, not a threat to human kind. More importantly, first-time director Egor Abramenko embraces the novel setting and the questions raised by Konstantin’s journey.
He’s been called a hero so long it’s been imprinted on his psyche, but Tatiana learns the folly of that descriptor. And what of Tatiana herself? Is she as cold as she appears, or can she overlook her own flaws to save the cosmonaut and herself?
“Sputnik” isn’t afraid to show the Soviet Union’s dehumanizing tactics. It’s as frightening as the creature lurking somewhere (yes, the trailer spoils the location, but we won’t). The gelatinous beast is both original and haunting. Even more ominous is the film’s cold blue palette, part of the spare but effective production design eager to make the thrills pop.
Only there aren’t that many in the first place.
SPUTNIK -- “Crash Landing” Clip | Opens Friday 8/14 https://t.co/voTrlASO7F
— CineDump (@CineDump) August 10, 2020
The original “Alien” takes its time getting to the critter. We meet the ship’s crew, get a sense of their inter-personal dynamics and relish the textures of space delivered by director Ridley Scott. “Sputnik” is similarly patient, but the pleasures aren’t as tactile.
One the monster makes an appearance, though, we’re immediately invested in the story.
The leads handle the sci-fi elements well, grounding what could have been absurd in less capable hands. We’re left with characters who intrigue but don’t inspire, and a monster movie luxuriating in its unique setting without the white-knuckle elements the genre demands.
HiT or Miss: “Sputnik” deserves serious credit for expanding the much copied “Alien” template to greater effect than most shockers. Its pleasures, though, are mostly intellectual in nature.