'Sputnik' steers Russian sci-fi tale into impressive territory
"Sputnik" - ★ ★ ★
In the years B.C. (Before Coronavirus), August became known as "the dog days of summer," a time when local theaters would offer a mix of B-pictures and shlocky, derivative horror movies.
The provocative Russian sci-fi/horror hybrid "Sputnik" qualifies neither as shlocky nor derivative, although it surely takes inspiration from Ridley Scott's "Alien," a TV episode of vintage "Star Trek," and especially the musical "Little Shop of Horrors."
Set in 1983 with the Cold War still raging, "Sputnik" tracks the experiences of Dr. Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina), a controversial Russian psychologist on the verge of losing her license for dangerous practices that nonetheless work wonders on her patients.
She's a fetching blonde rebel, don'tcha know, and exactly what USSR Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk, his mellifluous, cadenced voice dripping with Udo Kier villainy) needs.
Two Russian cosmonauts recently returned from space aboard the Orbit 4. One had half his brain eaten away. The other, Konstantin Sergeyevich (Pyotr Fyodorov), seems OK, but suffers from amnesia.
Semiradov brings Tatiana to a remote military research center in Kazakhstan under the pretense of helping the cosmonaut remember.
But the commander reveals his true purpose when he lets her see what happens every night between 2:40 a.m. and 3:10 a.m. -- the cosmonaut goes into a seizure and a slimy, mucous, spidery-eyed entity slithers out of his mouth, and slogs around the room before returning to its human host.
Tatiana replaces her initial fear with a desire to communicate with the alien. The colonel constantly refers to controlling the entity, prompting the psychologist to ask if weaponizing the creature is all he cares about.
"Yes," Semiradov replies.
Of course, there might be one more tiny detail Semiradov isn't telling her, and that becomes the point of Russian filmmaker Egor Abramenko's smart, cinematically impressive first feature film, that no matter how dangerous an outer-space creature might be, it pales in comparison to the ultimate inhumanity of humans.
Like Ridley Scott, Abramenko cut his cinematic teeth on TV commercials (and on music videos), developing a keen eye for visuals stuffed with quick and scientifically convincing information.
Sheer inventiveness and narrative drive of the film's first half win out, even over Oleg Karpachev's clang-bang percussive score, evidence that in space, every one can hear screaming instruments.
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Starring: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov
Directed by: Egor Abramenko
Other: An IFC Midnight release. At Chicago's Music Box Theatre, plus available on demand. In Russian with subtitles. Not rated; contains gory violence. 114 minutes