Issue 70 (2020)

Egor Abramenko: Sputnik (2020)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2020

The new sci-fi horror / thriller Sputnik by debutant Egor Abramenko has no shortage of disconcerting imagery: cosmonauts in distress, an alien parasite/symbiote, gory mayhem, a late-Soviet state that disdains human life.

SputnikBut the creepiest thing about it may be the wired radio on a wallpapered wall in a non-descript dorm room. These contraptions were a ubiquitous, vaguely Orwellian presence in Soviet interiors going back to the 1930s. This particular greenish grilled box appears in a seven-second shot, the camera tracking slowly towards it as it emits static and the light diminishes, as if the thing might suddenly pounce at the viewer. I will not spoil the plot overmuch by mentioning that that does not happen. But the brief scene, along with others like it, subtly speaks to the complicated relationship present-day Russian filmmakers and film viewers have with the Soviet past. (More on that below.)

Set in 1983, Sputnik involves cosmonaut Konstantin Veshniakov (Petr Fedorov), who has developed bizarre physical symptoms after crash-landing from a botched mission in Earth orbit. A competent, no-nonsense neurophysiologist, Tat’iana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), is tapped by rogue KGB Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) to examine the patient, who is being kept in isolation in a remote Kazakh research institute, behind thick glass. Klimova soon discovers (part of) the truth: a parasitic alien creature has bonded with Veshniakov. The nightmarish prodigy looks disturbingly fetus-like as Veshniakov regurgitates it nightly onto the floor in a perverse birth, so that it may venture forth to feed. But far more, Klimova discovers, is going on.

Sputnik was the first major Russian film to forego release in theaters due to the coronavirus pandemic, and premiere exclusively on online streaming platforms. Bondarchuk, the hardest working man in Russian cinematic sci-fi, who directed The Inhabited Island (Obitaemyi ostrov, 2009), Attraction (Pritiazhenie, 2017) and its sequel Invasion (Vtorzhenie, 2020), also co-produced and starred in this one.

SputnikWell-crafted and smart, Sputnik stands out among a mostly undistinguished field of 21st-century Russian horror films, at times bringing a genuine pathos to the proceedings even as it navigates familiar formulae. I found none of the main characters particularly likable, from the taciturn Klimova to the swaggering Veshniakov to the envious Dr Rigel (Anton Vasil’ev) to the megalomaniacal Semiradov. And that’s a good thing. Horror movies tend to err when they try to make their protagonists too upstanding, forthright and “good” (in the case of women, read: virginal)—a not uncommon misstep of much contemporary Russian horror cinema. The alien, though, does look semi-cute (sort of Gremlin-like) when it’s not ripping people’s heads off.

Much of Sputnik’s viewing pleasure comes from its self-awareness. It has drawn comparisons to, and knowingly winks at, everything from the Alien films;[1] The Thing From Another World (dir. Christian Nyby, 1951) and its remake, The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982); to The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo Del Toro, 2017); The Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016); and Stalker (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979). But the film it most resembles, oddly enough, is ET The Extraterrestrial (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1982), in that it spends much of its running time parsing the telepathic identity-blurring symbiosis between Veshniakov and the alien. Prolific screenwriting duo Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev[2] set themselves a difficult task: to create a monster that intimidates and looks scary, but which also becomes to a certain degree sympathetic.[3]

SputnikThey also load the movie with enjoyable callbacks to Russian nauchnaia fantastika (NF) and Soviet popular culture. Veshniakov and his co-pilot sing Alla Pugacheva’s early 1980’s hit A Million Scarlet Roses[4] while orbiting the planet. Veshniakov kills time in his dorm room watching the NF classic Per Aspera ad Astra (Cherez ternii k zvezdam, aka Through Thorns to the Stars, aka Humanoid Woman, dir. Richard Viktorov, 1981), about another visitor to Earth. When a believer asks him what he saw “up there,” he answers with Iurii Gagarin’s much-quoted line: “I didn’t see God.”[5] The alien’s design is also reminiscent of the extraterrestrial from Abram Terts’ 1957 short story “Pkhentz.” And so on.

These allusions do more than pay homage or poke fun at the past. Many strip the veil off Soviet mythmaking, recalling Viktor Pelevin’s satirical novel about the USSR’s space program, Omon Ra (1992). In one scene, an enraged Veshniakov watches fictitious TV news footage of his “successful” mission and landing. Veshniakov himself—garrulous, brusque, grotesquely ambitious—does much to deflate the notion of cosmonauts as moral, patriotic paragons. For one thing, he abandons his son to an orphanage a week before his space flight. (Even though he had planned to make amends upon his return from space, Veshniakov seems monstrously callous.) The film does not flinch from exploring the psychological and emotional toll taken on such Soviet “supermen,” as seen in the historical example of the world-famous Gagarin’s drinking troubles. 

In addition, the filmmakers delight in shots of retro plumbing fixtures, mirrors, linoleum, corridors, diaphanous curtains, televisions, giant VCRs, the wired radio, etc., all evocative of Soviet byt. Only the clothing stands out as willfully wrong—as if Abramenko wanted to inject one false note so the others looked more authentic by contrast.[6]

SputnikRelatedly, Sputnik expands upon the Soviet Gothic in contemporary Russian cinema (see Alaniz 2020). Here I have in mind the infrastructure, architecture, material culture, mise-en-scene, in short the Soviet era’s structure of feeling, recast in dark, even terrifying tones—the Return of the Soviet Repressed.[7] Other post-communist films set in the Soviet era have mined the period for complicated nostalgia such as The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaia imperiia, dir. Karen Shakhnazarov, 2009); The Thief (Vor, dir. Pavel Chukhrai, 1997); even Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem, dir. Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994), patriotic fervor (any of several World War II films), or humor (Blind Man’s Bluff [Zhmurki, dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 2005]); the Soviet Gothic does it in the service of horrifying today’s Russian viewer. The past is never past.  

To wit: in Sputnik, the proceedings are utterly suffused by an undercurrent of terror—not of slimy aliens, but of the unspoken presence of a much larger monster: the Andropov-era Soviet Union. And even though everyone, from the colonel on down, is undermining state central authority, lying to it, cheating it, twisting it to outlaw ends, acting on their own initiative for selfish or noble reasons, they all fear exposure more than anything else on (or off) Earth.

We see the Soviet Gothic incarnated most explicitly onscreen in two different registers. First, near the end of the film, black Ladas with their headlights on ominously approach from the distant horizon. Escorted by army trucks, they presumably carry late-Soviet brass come to render judgment on Semiradov’s unsanctioned operation. The other instance emerges through a twist in the denouement, which involves a disabled child at an orphanage. This child—like countless others cast to the margins of Soviet life, unseen, unloved over the decades—haunts the center from the periphery, until the ending’s dramatic revelation.

In this sense, the film seeks a partial reconciliation between, so to speak, the light and dark aspects of the Soviet Gothic; history can be confronted and redeemed by acts of kindness.


Notes

1] To name one of copious examples: When trying to overcome her fear of the creature right in front of her, Klimova too sings A Million Scarlet Roses, as Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) did with her rendition of You Are My Lucky Star to like purpose in Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979).

2] They wrote the scripts for Attraction, Invasion and Ice (Led, dir. Oleg Trofim, 2018); Zolotarev wrote the script for Ice 2 (Led 2, dir. Zhora Kryzhovnikov, 2020).

3] In Russian, sputnik (“companion”) captures a sense of the two’s odd connection. The English translation’s retention of the original title misses out on that nuance, presumably banking instead on the non-Russian viewer’s association of that word with the USSR’s space program.

4] The song has lyrics by of all people the poet Andrei Voznesenskii, which is a bit like having W.H. Auden write the lyrics to a 1980’s Cher single.

5] This despite the fact that the first man in space never said those exact words. Khrushchev encouraged their use in Soviet propaganda just the same, in advancement of scientific atheism. See, for example, Vladimir Menshikov’s 1962 poster There is No God! (Boga—net!), with its smiling cosmonaut floating far above an onion-domed church. “Gagarin flew, but he didn’t see God” [Gagarin letal, a boga ne vidal] became a popular jokey catch-phrase in the 1960s and after.

6] Russian critics did not overlook costume designer Uliana Polianskaia’s eye-grabbing creations. Stanislav Zel’venskii, for instance, wrote: “I would like to single out the costume designer, who created here some sort of Soviet Uniqlo: pared-down cut, functional, bluish in the film’s Fincheresque blue-orange color scheme; Fedorov’s bomber jacket; Akinshina’s gray long-sleeve, jacket and nostalgic track suit. Bondarchuk walks around with his hair nefariously combed back, in a terribly elegant military tunic with a colonel’s shoulder straps.” In the comment to KinoPoisk, meanwhile, viewer Sun_Gun noted, “The costumers messed up ju-u-u-ust a little. Soldiers in weird helmets and equipped with modern vests… there was no such thing in the 1980s. It leaps out at you. And the colonel in a beige outfit is somehow not convincing.” I would defend the soldiers’ definitely “weird” helmets as a sly reference to those in Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

7] Though somewhat related to chernukha, the Soviet Gothic can deviate from it stylistically to a large degree. The horror may come in daylit, polished or even “cutesy” guise—as in the toy Veshniakov wishes he could give to his son.

José Alaniz
University of Washington, Seattle

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Works Cited

Alaniz, José. 2020. “Pavel Sidorov: Quiet Comes the Dawn.” KinoKultura 68.

Sun_gun. 2020. “Trevozhnaia muzyka v sovetskoi obstanovke.” Kinopoisk (21 August).  

Zel’venskii, Stanislav. 2020. “Saifai-khorror Sputnik: russkie ‘chukhikh’ ne brosaiut.” Afisha (20 April).


Sputnik, Russia, 2020
Color, 113 minutes
Director: Egor Abramenko
Scriptwriters: Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev
Cinematography: Maksim Zhukov
Production Design: Mariia Slavina
Costume Design: Ul’iana Polianskaia
Music: Oleg Karpachev
Editing: Aleksandr Puzyrev, Egor Tarasenko
Cast: Oksana Akin’shina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Petr Fedorov, Anton Vasil’ev
Producers: Mikhail Vrubel’, Aleksandr Andriushchenko, Fedor Bondarchuk, Ilya Stewart, Murad Osmann, Pavel Buria, Viacheslav Murugov
Production: Vodorod, Art Pictures Studio, Hype Film, National Media Group, STS
Release date: 23 April 2020

Egor Abramenko: Sputnik (2020)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2020

Updated: 2020