[Editor’s Note: The following story contains spoilers for IFC Midnight’s “Sputnik,” now available on VOD, digital, and in select theaters.]
While a space traveler’s greatest fear is typically what’s waiting out there in the great unknown, what they bring back to Earth could be much, much worse. That’s the premise of Russian filmmaker Egor Abramenko’s feature debut “Sputnik,” a sci-fi chiller with the stately echoes of Ridley Scott’s classic “Alien.” Set in the 1980s Cold War era, “Sputnik” blends creature-feature effects with heady extraterrestrial thrills. “Sputnik” is based on a proof-of-concept short Abramenko released in 2017 called “The Passenger” and, according to the director in a recent IndieWire interview, it’s unusual to see a sci-fi movie of such ambitious scale come out of Russia. Besides the one Russian name synonymous with soul-searching sci-fi, Andrei Tarkovsky, of course.
“We wanted to combine a very common setting for the Russian audiences, which is the U.S.S.R. and the ’70s and ’80s and the Soviet space program, obviously, and we wanted to bring these elements from outer space there,” said Abramenko. “Sci-fi is a rare genre for the Russian film industry.”
At the center of the movie is a horrifying alien that inhabits its host, a cosmonaut (Pyotr Fyodorov) returned back to Earth after a botched space exploration. The Soviet military recruits an unorthodox young doctor (Oksana Akinshina) to examine his condition at a secure research facility. She discovers that the thing living inside him from another planet only emerges from its host at night, and needs other people to feed on.
Yet there’s occasionally something adorable about the creature, when it’s not feasting on human bodies, because its consciousness is tied to its host, who has plenty of emotional baggage, such as an abandoned child, to spare. When the alien isn’t gnawing limbs off, it displays an unusual emotionality, intelligence, and sensitivity. That’s an idea that originated in his short film, “The Passenger.”
“With ‘The Passenger,’ it’s a weird movie in that we are showing our character, a cosmonaut living in his apartment with this creature, and our protagonist treats him as a pet. He was small, almost adorable,” Abramenko said. “But it was an alien predator! In ‘Sputnik,’ we had another goal. We needed to make him quite small, because he lives inside a human’s body, and on the other hand, we wanted him to be sort of a war machine, a creature capable of destroying an armed squad of soldiers.”
In developing the physicality of the alien creature — a slinky, slippery, writhing thing — the filmmakers looked to the anatomy of snakes, often at the top of the list of fears for many people.
“We’d been experimenting a lot with different animals, and combining their different elements and parts, and trying to come up with something original that would amaze the audience, and that would serve the story needs,” Abramenko said. Through the majority of the film, the cosmonaut host and his creature are confined to a dark, enclosed room, so that the doctor can analyze their behaviors from behind glass. “Sputnik” was shot in Moscow in the winter of 2018, at a biochemistry institute built in the 1950s that’s still operational. But the creature’s temporary habitat and prison was built on a soundstage, which forced the filmmakers to get creative about its comportment.
“We were thinking a lot about how he moves, how he crawls throughout the space. I sent over to the animators this reference of Komodo dragons, these huge lizards, and I was really inspired by how they move in real life,” said the filmmaker, who worked with Main Road Post to craft the creature’s design in post-production. During the production, the crew used a rubber puppet to interface with the actors.
“[The puppet] was mostly used for rehearsals and scaling, and unfortunately we couldn’t afford ourselves to do practical effects,” Abramenko said. Still, working with the puppet proved to be a challenge for the cast and crew, who had to wear dark colors on the set in order to blend into the pitch-black space.
“We had a sort of dress code. Everybody should wear black clothes. But sometimes during the shooting, somebody from the crew came up wearing something like a white T-shirt,” he said. “We had to cover all the objects we didn’t need to reflect or see in the frame in black clothes.”
Courtesy Main Road Post
Aside from feeding on actual humans, the alien is powered by the release of the hormone cortisol, part of the fear response, in its victims. “After dialogue with our consultants — we had a team of different scientists and doctors — we asked what could attract that creature. The cortisol appears in the human body when they are terrified. That’s a great metaphor,” Abramenko said. “Every human and every person feels fear, and in some ways, it’s a movie about how we overcome this fear, and become a real human being, or hero.”
While that may be the film’s central metaphor, “Sputnik,” for Abramenko, is also an homage to Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” and the great sci-fi movies of the ’70s and ’80s, at the height of the Cold War that “Sputnik” makes its still-timely setting.
“I saw ‘Alien’ when I was a kid. I saw just parts of it. Obviously I was a kid, but sometimes it was on TV and I just saw snippets that terrified me,” he said. “I thought, someday, I want to do something like that. I fell in love with this space, sci-fi, horror genre.” Next, he says he wants to make a film centered on artificial intelligence and robots, and it’s safe to say that the strange qualities of the creature in “Sputnik” — both humanlike and also decidedly not from here at all — will prime Abramenko for further explorations into the fantastic, and very creepy, unknown.