starring Oksana Akinshina, Pyotr Fyodorov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Anton Vasilev
written by Oleg Malovichko, Andrey Zolotarev
directed by Egor Abramenko
by Walter Chaw It should come as no shock that there were so many superlative horror films in 2020--not because 2020 was a year of horrors, but because horror films have always been the canary in the coal mine. That a few of these warnings are arriving in the middle of the end carries the added melancholy knowledge that none of this is was unexpected. I think I even said something that November night in 2016 about how we were about to get some real bangers in genre cinema the next few years. It didn't take a genius to figure it out. Clearly. Once the dust settles and whatever's left of us finds a moment to compare notes, a few of the worst will try to say that no one could have seen this coming. But everyone knew, everyone knows, and yet here we are anyway. Tiresias posed the rhetorical question a few millennia ago, "How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise?" It's terrible, Terry. The fucking worst.
Egor Abramenko's glorious Sputnik is a punk version of The Shape of Water featuring another human/monster symbiosis, love in an unlikely circumstance, and a secret government facility intent on exploiting something fantastic for potential military applications. "You know why weapons are important?" asks stentorian Col. Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk). "Because they help to keep the peace." It's a parroting of Margaret Thatcher's famous speech on the importance of escalation and maintaining a nuclear arsenal at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s--when, incidentally, Sputnik is set. Semiradov is the ranking officer of a military research facility on the Asian Steppe to which Cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) has been spirited after a botched reentry left his comrade dead and Veshnyakov infected somehow. It's not viral this time, more something in line with Alien's parasitic hitchhikers. Early on, a brilliant, unconventional psychiatrist, Tatyana Klimov (Oksana Akinshina), is brought in to try to figure out a way to separate the thing from the man. She wonders in her notes whether the thing is a parasite or a symbiote, and then we spend the rest of the film wondering the same thing.
It seems Veshnyakov doesn't know why he's being kept in isolation. A Russian hero deserves better treatment than this, after all. They won't even tell him the fate of his co-Cosmonaut, and he rails against the secrecy of his captors. The plan is to remove the thing in his chest from his body without killing them both, but it's not going well. And then it seems Veshnyakov maybe is more aware of his situation than he lets on. For her part, Tatyana has been censured by her governing body and is on the verge of losing her license for the rough way she's "counselled" one of her disturbed charges. Getting pulled into a top-secret government program fuels her curiosity, of course, though it feeds her ego more, affirming that she is right about things and smarter than everyone else. I love movies like this, where an iconoclast is confronted by their arrogance in an impossible scenario against an unfeeling, idiotic administrative power. I love movies about space bugs, too. Sputnik is a throwback Cold War paranoia picture that nevertheless feels contemporary, given the current state of affairs between the United States and Russia's successful infiltration and subjugation of the same.
There's gore (imaginative stuff seen in darkness or, Predator-style, from an infrared point-of-view), yet the power of the piece is embedded in the ideas around nursing monsters to your breast and the interests of the collective being at odds with the interests of individuals. What is the price of a small percentage of human lives in the grand scheme of all life? To what do we ultimately owe our souls: global morality or personal morality? And why is it that they are so often not one and the same? I was reminded of E.T. a time or two during Sputnik in the image of an alien symbiotically (parasitically?) entwined with a human host: feeling the same things, getting sick when the other gets sick, gaining strength from the psychic bond. (I like, too, that where E.T. looks like a scrotum, the monster here resembles a vagina, making its location inside the man grist for scholars of Jung's anima theory.) The thing in Sputnik can leave its host for a few minutes at a time to feed but has to return to heal itself and recuperate from its adventures in a hostile, foreign landscape. It's hard to believe the Cosmonaut isn't aware this is happening.
Tatyana suspects the thing is beginning to mimic its host's empathies, if not developing its own. In a series of dangerous experiments, she puts her body at risk to test her hypotheses. Don't all women gamble with their lives when they decide to trust a man? Scenes of Tatyana and Veshnyakov conversing across a table in a glassed-in room highlight her physical peril from, if not the man, then the beast the man is sheltering. There are so many threads to pull in Sputnik that it's unsurprising there is this one about women in science and the sexual threat they experience from colleagues and superiors--but it's a surprise all the same for how fulsome are the rewards in unravelling it in this way: If the monster is coded as feminine for how it looks, what does it say that it's a female scientist who understands its larger purpose? More, what does that ultimately say about its relationship with its male host? Sputnik is not unlike the great The Quiet Earth, and in closing scenes that unfold in an empty, expansive landscape, it even begins to feel like Geoff Murphy's masterpiece of Cold War nuclear anxiety, allegorized in the fraught interplay between the sexes.
When the Russian satellite Sputnik was launched into low orbit in 1957, it set off the "space race," spurring the United States to match the Soviet escalation of launching potential weapons into space by starting the Apollo program. Sputnik is about how the horror of our unfettered bellicosity isn't something as romantic as a thing of metal and wire slipped its Earthly bound, but a monster wrapped around our hearts, beating in time with our better nature. We are in an age of golems, where the things we created out of mud, blood, semen, and bile have shambled out of our control--alien, though they are as essentially of us as our children. I think it's pointed that there are two emotionally-stunted children in this film who have found success but not validation in their separate pursuits, each looking for someone to love them. We are responsible for our own destruction. At the end of Sputnik, Tatyana promises a hero of the Soviet Empire that she'll figure something out, whereas Veshnyakov already has. His solution is eloquent and should have been Harry Potter's ultimate solution as well, were Harry Potter written by a person of vision, morality, and character. As metaphors for this ugly moment in history go, Sputnik is one of the best.