Sputnik (R16, 114mins) Directed by Egor Abramenko ****
To the Russian public, cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is a hero.
To psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), he’s a heel who abandoned his illegitimate son in order “to sit in a tin can at the expense of the government”.
However, she hasn’t been called in after his return from his latest mission aboard the Orbita-4 spacecraft to assess his parenting abilities, but rather his episodic amnesia – and potential threat to humanity.
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All the authorities will tell her is that they lost contact with Konstantin and his co-pilot Kirill Averchenko (Aleksey Demidov) a day out from their return. They landed in Kazakhstan with Kirill dead and Konstantin suffering from neurological issues.
To her horror, Tatyana quickly discovers the real cause of Konstantin’s issues – he’s been infected by some kind of parasite that lives in his stomach and oesophagus most of the day – only emerging at night to feed. While it enters and exits without hurting its carrier, it has developed a taste for human flesh and cortisol – and there are those more than happy to provide “fodder” in order to keep their secret safe and very much alive.
Director Egor Abramenko’s 1980s-set feature debut plays on the same sense of Soviet pride that made last year’s standout TV shows Chernobyl such a compelling watch. Together with writers Oleg Malovichko and Andrey Zolotarev (whose previous works include popular Russian romantic-drama Ice), he does a terrific job of both ratcheting up the tension and making the audience wonder who the real monsters are.
The beastie itself is a nice combination of xenomorph and Gremlin, while the film evokes memories of everything from Arrival to the Alien franchise, with just a whiff of the haunting psychological horrors of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.
It also feels like an interesting companion piece to this year’s Proxima – a mirror-image, if you will. Instead of a prospective female space explorer coming to terms with leaving her family, we have a male one struggling to deal with his return to Earthly responsibilities.
Add in an engaging female lead in Akenshina (The Bourne Supremacy), some solid period production design and a real chilling sense of menace, and Sputnik offers terrific Halloween-weekend viewing.
In Russian with English subtitles.
Sputnik is now screening in select cinemas and streaming on iTunes and GooglePlay.