Sputnik

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sputnik
"There's a strong flavour of Quatermass about this deliciously dark first offering from Egor Abramenko." | Photo: Courtesy of IFC

Two cosmonauts are alone in their capsule, preparing for the return journey to Earth, when something slides across a window beside them - on the outside. In a US film this would likely be a prelude to action an adventure - it might even provoke laughter - but the Russian science fiction tradition is very different, and as the hatch above the men's heads begins, very gently, to rattle, viewers of any background will struggle to escape a deep sense of dread.

There's a strong flavour of Quatermass about this deliciously dark first offering from Egor Abramenko. We pick up the story after the vessel has made its landing, badly, with only one survivor, and those who remember Nigel Kneale's 1955 offering may suspect that something has happened to the man. This is what the authorities think too. As the film is set in the Soviet period, secrecy is a matter of habit. The ailing Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) is hastily carried off to a remote, secure research facility where his condition can be properly appraised. Psychologist Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina), who has recently found herself floundering before a review board and is therefore easy to control, is brought in to help with the process.

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Exactly who is she there to help? Konstantin seems normal, albeit understandably unhappy about his confinement. He recognises the extrajudicial nature of this and the risk that it could endure indefinitely. Tatyana knows that she's not being told everything. When she discovers the big secret, a big adjustment is needed, but there's a lot more to come in a film where nothing and nobody is quite what they seem. Not even the title.

Everybody here has a dark side, including Tatyana. They have all done awful things, or made awful compromises, for the sake of what they perceive as the greater good. They have all tried, with varying degrees of success, to leave pieces of themselves behind - to separate from aspects of themselves that they find monstrous. The film is driven as much by these internal conflicts, and their intersections, as by external events - and yet those who enjoy watching more visceral, bloody conflict will not leave unsatisfied. Indeed, the film tips more in the latter direction in the latter stages, entertaining a different kind of terror which Abramenko also handles well, and yet becoming something more ordinary in the process.

With this high concept science fiction thriller, writers Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev have bitten off a little more that they can chew, whetting the appetite of the viewer but not quite delivering on that initial promise. Nevertheless, this is an impressive piece of work. one can only hope that it will do well enough to renew Western interest in the vast quantity of good Russian genre work that's out there and still largely unknown in this hemisphere. There's a wealth of great material just waiting to be developed, and viewers of this film will be left wanting to see more of it through the eyes of Abramenko.

Reviewed on: 13 Aug 2020
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Sputnik packshot
The lone survivor of an enigmatic spaceship incident hasn’t returned home alone.

Director: Egor Abramenko

Writer: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev

Starring: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev, Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev

Year: 2020

Runtime: 113 minutes

Country: Russia

Festivals:

Tribeca 2020

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