Sputnik 2020 Directed by Egor Abramenko. A Russian scientist is tasked with examining a dangerous alien creature that lives in a cosmonaut’s torso. This film is in Russian with subtitles.
Tatyana Klimova, a brilliant and compassionate biologist, is recruited by high ranking military staff to join a secret project at a remote research base. After being housed in a secret compound, she is summoned in the dark of night to view imprisoned cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov. The recently returned national space hero resides in an armored cell at the heart of the facility, where he gruesomely vomits up a large alien slug at 2 am every single night. Once free of its host, the creature’s limbs unfold from within and it stands up. It resembles a long, gelatinous snake with pale arms.
The shocked Tatyana is bombarded with military data about the monster. It somehow bonded with Veshnyakov during his last foray into space. It can’t survive for more than 60 minutes outside of its host body. Like a human holding their breath and diving underwater for a few moments, it can only subsist on Earth’s atmosphere for so long. As it exits Konstantin, it emits a muscle relaxing toxin that knocks out the human host until the creature returns and safely enters him again. But why is it here? And if it can only safely survive our world inside a human host, then why does it regularly emerge and slither around every night? We learn that when Konstantin returned to Earth, his pod crashed and he was severely injured. While in military custody, he recovered from his wounds almost overnight as the creature healed him from within. Separating the alien and the human cosmonaut for more than an hour causes the latter to begin dying of his crash injuries again. Konstantin becomes weak and sluggish without his special friend.
By day, Tatyana interviews and medically examines Konstantin as he exercises, eats and watches television. He appears completely oblivious to the fact that he vomits up an extraterrestrial at 2 am, and has no idea why he’s being held at the facility. Tatyana and other staff members are ordered to keep the monster a secret from the cosmonaut.
By night, she interacts with the creature and discovers that it possesses the ability to learn. It also shares all of Konstantin’s memories. During a late night session, the alien responds with great affection towards a small rubber toy that Konstantin routinely brings on space missions.
Dealing with Tatyana, the monster remains at a small and submissive stature. And in the face of those it considers its enemy, it stands up to human height as a threatening and hissing presence. Konstantin and the symbiote are ultimately revealed to be connected by more than simple biological necessity. Their emotional states bleed into each other, causing the alien to respond to stimuli and social cues with unexpected complexity. This leads to scenes that are equal parts visceral and intellectually thrilling, as the man and the beast begin to mimic the other. During her nocturnal sessions, Tatyana takes some risks with her own safety that raise the eyebrows of her military overlords. And while researching the creature, Tatyana uncovers a horrifying secret related to the military that points to who the monsters really are.
What makes Sputnik stand out is that it rejects the usual tropes. The alien, while extremely dangerous, is not the central antagonist. It has an actual personality and emotional range, and when it has finally had enough of its captor’s bullshit, you can’t help but be thrilled. Characters make decisions based on who they are and what we know of them, and not for the sake of script or story convenience. No one occupies the stock hero role, although Tatyana is certainly the clear protagonist. We learn that Konstantin is deeply flawed and lives with daily regret for his past mistakes.
This is not at all another alien killing machine on the loose slasher flick. There is gore and several violent deaths, but the primary focus is a very rare exploration of morality.
Who is righteous here? The alien who kills simply to feed, or the military that takes life with vicious, thoughtless cruelty?
The brass in charge of the project only see the prospect of a new biological weapon to exploit. They are unable to understand the depth of the powerful bond between the man and the passenger within, and that blindness to shared emotion and empathy is their ultimate undoing.
The creature is impressively realized and detailed. It looks amazing in the dimness of Konstantin’s cell and in the clear light of day. Sputnik also boasts an unnerving score by Oleg Karpachev, which offers droning and throbbing synths that give off an oppressive atmosphere of doom. There are also moments of deathly silence throughout, such as when Tatyana first encounters the creature.
As far as subject matter goes, homicidal aliens are rarely shown cinematically as fertile ground for absorbing and thought provoking science fiction drama. Sputnik isn’t fast moving or filled with lens flares and explosions, and there’s no Michael Bay hottie running around in a bikini while she kills aliens. Tatyana does engage in revealing conversations that expose the casual inhumanity of her superiors, and she forms a bond with both Konstantin and the visitor from beyond the stars. Her compassion, empathy and humanity are the film’s core.
If you came here for easy answers and black and white definitions, this is not your movie. If you want happy endings, take a pass on it. Sputnik remains uniquely uncompromising and true to itself to the final frame. This is not cinema that supplies you with comforting optimism and square jawed heroes, but it will stir your mind with dark wonder about the prospect of life beyond our arrogantly simplistic perspective. It leaves you with something to chew on. Like the films of yore, it will make you think.
Remember when science fiction cinema used to make us question our own limited grasp on the universe?
Sputnik isn’t survival horror or sci-fi action or a futuristic war movie. It’s something more akin to Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 opus Arrival. It belongs to the genre of pure science fiction, a genre that more and more gets hybridized into horror or action.