The horror genre is inextricably linked to the supernatural. Ghosts, demons, poltergeists and plenty more are brought to life by the near countless directors who venture into the realm of fear. It is not those that should scare us the most though. Ultimately, we can say for sure those paranormal creatures are not real; they are only wraiths appealing to our paranoia. However, aliens pose an entirely different question. Are we alone in the galaxy? Probably. Are we alone in the universe? We may well never know. Meaning extra-terrestrial horror stories could be the ones that wind up having far more truth than their creators ever intended. 

Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik is one such film from that vein, and it pits a ferocious alien symbiote against members of the Soviet military and space force in 1983. Our first protagonist is cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), whose recent, ill-fated expedition to space ended when he lost contact with his command centre and blacked out. Now he cannot remember what happened and needs our second lead, controversial psychotherapist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), to help him. Before Konstantin can gain assistance, it becomes clear to Tatyana that he brought something back with him. Something that is now living inside him and that will kill him if it exits him for too long. 

Most of the first half of Sputnik depicts investigating this symbiote, and as such, it is a rather pulse racing hour drenched in the dread of the unknown. Tatyana finds herself constricted at every turn by strict Soviet confidentiality, for every piece of information she discovers she finds more bureaucratic secrecy blocking her way forward. This uncertainty makes for a few genuine thrills and scares, but unfortunately, we get one too many answers leaving the second half incredibly formulaic. A movie that was beginning to promise some of the depth of films like Arrival suddenly becomes much less compelling and far more predictable. 

The look of the film is far more consistently likeable. Altogether it is dark and drab, often hinting to the many twists and turns hidden in the shadows. Sometimes the camera does a little too much, for instance, the overly dramatic, transformers-like establishing shot of the research facility Konstantin finds himself in. However, it is mostly well filmed and undoubtedly quite daunting in the period before the mystery unravels.

Above atmosphere in the list of Sputnik’s strengths lies only one thing, and that is the booming sonic score composed by Oleg Karpachev. The music, and sound mix in general, throughout the entire film is expertly done, ramping up the intensity at all the right moments with expert precision. I will rarely finish a film and find the sound of note, but in this case, it would feel unfair not to mention it. 

There is an element of the film particularly hard to criticise, and it is the performances. There was no awe-inspiring moment of brilliance yet, nor was there a moment of complete failure. Fyodorov and Akinshina almost simply get by, and it is unclear if that is what they were going for or not. During moments of, what to most people would be, complete insanity, they both remain oddly composed, as if acknowledging that this is strange yet instantly accepting it. Maybe we have just been spoiled by the recent massively praised hysterics provided by Hollywood horror, but I am leaning more towards these performances merely being par at best.

Overall, Sputnik works as a horror movie with the characters lost and searching for answers but fails when it becomes a monster driven thriller more concerned with racing to a conclusion than with actually trying to say something. 

Dir: Egor Abramenko

Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Pyotr Fyodorov, Fedor Bondarchuk

Prd: Alexander Andryushenko, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pavel Burya, Vyacheslav Murugov, Murad Osmann, Ilya Stewart, Mikhail Vrubel

DOP: Maxim Zhukov

Music: Oleg Karpachev

Country: Russia

Year: 2020

Run time: 113 minutes