Issue 70 (2020)

Egor Abramenko: Sputnik (2020)

reviewed by Denis Saltykov © 2020

sputnikA dark cosmic sky is seen through the porthole of a spacecraft. The title reads, “Orbita-4 Spaceship, 1983.” Once the Russianness of the image is confirmed by the text, two more national pop symbols appear: in the state of weightlessness, a matryoshka doll hovers in the claustrophobic space of the ship while one of the two cosmonauts sings, “A million, million, million scarlet roses / From the window, from the window, from the window you see.” The track, performed by star Soviet singer Alla Pugacheva, was a huge hit of the time and its tune mumbled by a character adds a nostalgic mood to the picture. Men briefly discuss their plans on Earth: Konstantin has some goals in the city of Rostov and Kirill dreams of taking a good bath. “And just let some jerk knock on the door! Just let him knock!” jokes Kirill—and just in a bit “some jerk” surprisingly knocks. The cosmonauts hear a noise; apparently, someone or something landed on their spaceship. In the next scene, a rider in Kazakhstan discovers a broken ship. Kirill’s head has turned in a bloody mess, but Konstantin is alive. He pukes blood and his eyes are black—at this point, there is no doubt the film we are watching is a sci-fi horror set in the late Soviet Union.

Sputnik is a movie that came out under very unusual circumstances. In Russia, it was released on video-on-demand services in April followed by a theatrical and digital release in the USA in August. A movie featuring a cosmic monster had been aiming at theaters, but the real monster of COVID-19 pushed Sputnik to the small screens. Those circumstances proved to make the film a critical success. While Russian reviews have been mixed (with positive ones predominating), non-Russian reviews turned out to be even more favorable. In Sputnik, alongside the creature feature runs a plot about a woman psychiatrist dealing with an ambitious but cowardly scholar and a cold-blooded colonel to help a deeply traumatized cosmonaut. The sci-fi horror elements, melodramatic tone, and late Soviet setting produced a curious combination of globalized narrative and national exoticism.

SputnikThe film is most often compared to US films Alien, The Astronaut’s Wife, Life, and Venom. The initial idea had been as simple as Alien in the USSR, for which the former critic and current filmmaker Roman Volobuev wrote a script about a cosmonaut catching a space parasite and bringing it back Earth (Golovanova 2020). The young director Egor Abramenko had turned it into a short, The Passenger (Passazhir),that was screened at Kinotavr in 2017. The short had sparked interest among several production studios and eventually was turned into a feature by a new big crew of producers and screenwriters. In Russia, Sputnik came out shortly after two recent films about Soviet cosmonauts (The Spacewalker [Vremia pervykh, dir. Dmitrii Kiselev, 2017] and Salyut-7 [dir. Klim Shipenko, 2017]), a horror sci-fi with a similar setting to Sputnik and the same Oksana Akin’shina as main actress (Quiet Comes the Dawn [Rassvet, dir. Pavel Sidorov, 2019]), and Fedor Bondarchuk’s two sci-fi blockbusters (Attraction [Pritiazhenie, 2017] and Invasion [Vtorzhenie, 2020]) where Abramenko worked as part of the crew. While not all of those films have been praised by critics, Sputnik still appeared as a new step in contemporary Russian genre cinema. It even seeks to establish some connection with the Soviet cinematic tradition by explicitly showing a sequence from the environmentally-concerned sci-fi Per Aspera ad Astra (Cherez ternii k zvezdam, dir. Richard Viktorov, 1981). And perhaps the HBO miniseries Chernobyl contributed to some new interest in the Soviet 1980s among global audiences.

SputnikThe main humanist idea in Sputnik pairs well with that of Chernobyl. It is the banality of evil (speaking in Hannah Arendt’s terms) that is rooted in every human being and their instinct to obey sometimes the cruelest orders. In Sputnik, Konstantin carries the cosmic parasite in his stomach and the creature comes out every night craving cortisol—the hormone of fear produced by the human brain. The cosmonaut and the alien have become symbiotic and neither organism can live without the other. The villain colonel Semiradov feeds interned criminals, to the alien. This practice seems to trouble only Tat’iana, the psychiatrist, who is capable of taking risks to save the patient. At the same time, the plot eventually reveals that virtually every character in the film knows about the practice and lacks the courage to oppose it. The scholar Ian Rigel’ justifies himself before Tat’iana by saying, “This is all Semiradov’s doing. What, do you think I’m a monster?” Shortly the viewer finds out while Konstantin also knows how the creature is fed, he is not willing (or refuses) to take responsibility either, “I didn’t decide to feed it people. I can’t be responsible for that. I haven’t endured so much, just to die here in the steppe.” The logic of “just following the orders” leads to more blood until Tat’iana challenges it.

Historically, 1983 is the year of General Secretary Iurii Andropov’s hardline politics, the fifth year of the Soviet-Afghan war (explicitly mentioned in the film by colonel Semiradov), and three years before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. These traumata, past and future, find echoes not only in the sci-fi and horror genres, but also in such films as The Train Has Stopped (Ostanovilsia poezd, 1982) by Vadim Abdrashitov, scripted by Aleksandr Mindadze, which shows detective Ermakov investigating a train accident which led to the death of the conductor. The detective discovers a number of seemingly small violations of rules by different people that finally caused the catastrophe. Ermakov stands for strict discipline and punishments, while his counterpart in Sputnik, colonel Semiradov, serves as the paradox of the era by embodying both Ermakov and those who disobey state rules.

Semiradov is played by Fedor Bondarchuk who, according to the director, “came up with this idea to do Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now like a crazy war god” (Saito 2020). Dreaming of transforming the extraterrestrial beast into the perfect weapon, Semiradov enforces a strict hierarchy on the military base while sending false reports back to Moscow. A military man, he does not stop at normal army discipline, but binds his team by making them participate in his crime: he commands them to feed the monster with prisoners and they are the ones who have to organize this gory feast. Like Ermakov from The Train Has Stopped, he lives for the state (the weapon should be used to win the war in Afghanistan), but unlike this character, Semiradov praises transgression. By lying to the authorities, he is trying to serve them better knowing that no one will judge him in case of success.

Sputnik By making Semiradov the villain, the authors of Sputnik allow the other characters to become heroes by rebelling against him. The rebellion is incited by Tat’iana, the strongest character in the film. Initially, she shares Semiradov’s ability to act beyond the limitations of standard procedures—and this is the reason the colonel recruits her to deal with the monster. However, Tat’iana’s morality does not allow her to participate in the execution of the prisoners (even if they are rapists and murderers, as Semiradov points out). There is enough moral strength is this female character to encourage both selfish cosmonaut Konstantin and ambitious scholar Ian to stop being cowards and take action against the colonel. Ian manages to call Moscow and reveal what is going on in Semiradov’s base while Konstantin not only turns his symbiotic monster against the guards to help Tat’iana escape but also takes his life to prevent further attempts of turning the alien into a weapon. Sputnik’s director claims that the concept of heroism is crucial for the film, “[t]o be a hero[—w] does it mean? Not in terms of Soviet propaganda that filled the minds of Soviet citizens, but […] in terms of universal human qualities” (Musnicky 2020). The melodramatic ending of the film shows that Tat’iana grew up in an orphanage and overcame a disability to survive the encounter with the alien monster, to defeat Semiradov, and to come to Rostov and adopt Konstantin’s son—female heroism is celebrated here in a self-consciously sentimental way.

The overtly melodramatic ending undermines the film’s darker tones, but overall, Sputnik is successful in its visual style and narrative that addresses the complex time of Andropov’s early 1980s. Unlike the Soviet cosmic crew of the quoted Per Aspera ad Astra, Sputnik’s characters are not capable of saving the universe, but according to the film’s understanding of heroism, this rescue should be limited to the Earth and its inhabitants. These stakes may seem lower, but at least on that level, contemporary Russian sci-fi can operate.

Denis Saltykov
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Golovanova, Iuliia. 2020. “‘Chuzhoi’ v SSSR’: rezhisser Egor Abramenko—o svoem zvezdnom saifai-debiute ‘Sputnik.’” Afisha Daily 19 April.

Musnicky, Sarah. 2020. “[Interview] Director Egor Abramenko for SPUTNIK.” Nightmarish Conjurings 14 August.

Saito, Stephen. 2020. “Interview: Egor Abramenko on Exploring the Alien Inside All of Us in ‘Sputnik.’” The Moveable Fest 13 August.

Sputnik, Russia, 2020
Color, 113 minutes
Director: Egor Abramenko
Script: Oleg Malovichko, 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, Petr Fedorov, Fedor Bodarchuk, 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 Denis Saltykov © 2020

Updated: 2020