“Alien” casts a big shadow on “Sputnik,” a slick Cold War alien invasion thriller from first-time director Egor Abramenko, so much that it threatens to swallow the movie whole. Fortunately, Abramenko sneaks in a fresh angle before the chest-bursting extraterrestrial mayhem takes charge. Launching with a slick and eerie first act, “Sputnik” initially feels like the kind of slow-burn laboratory thriller that rarely gets made these days, yet feels timelier than ever. Russian machinations? Medical phenomena that confound modern science? You don’t say!
Sadly, the analogy doesn’t go much further than that. But before “Sputnik” settles into a run-and-gun routine that feels like business as usual, it’s a gripping and gross B-movie made all the more intriguing by the period backdrop that carries connotations of its own. It’s 1983, and after a trio of cosmonauts slam back to earth under dubious circumstances in the dark of night, one winds up dead, another in a coma, and a third can’t remember what happened. That’s Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), who’s locked up in a lab where troubled young doctor Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina) finds herself carted off to the secretive military compound for murky reasons. Once there, she gets the full creepy picture: During the day, Konstantin sits in quarantine, confused about his off-planet experiences and why he’s been detained; by night, the truth comes out — literally — as a slimy, spindly creature climbs out of his body, gnashing its sharp teeth in search of a late-night snack.
A blockbuster hit in its native country, “Sputnik” doesn’t deliver the most innovative onscreen monster, but it effectively embodies the spookiness surrounding its existence (made for around $2.5 million, it does a solid job of creating a big-budget vibe while mostly sticking to one location). Tatiana, whose career has already been tarnished by an earlier professional crisis and doesn’t trust the agendas of the authorities who brought her into this assignment, brings substance to an otherwise familiar cycle. When “Sputnik” hovers in the layers of bureaucratic secrecy surrounding the nature of her mission, and her general distrust of the military forces run by cheesy villain Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), it roots the sci-fi in deeper questions of institutional control. “Sputnik” makes it clear early on that, once again, evil comes from within.
Still, when Tatiana witnesses the carnivorous creature unleashed, and the bloody prospects of the Soviet military harnessing its power, her shock resonates because the creature preys on fear. So does the movie, which gets a lot of mileage out of the fundamental discomfort involved in watching its gross concoction writhe.
This monster has nothing on your average Xenomorph — and “Sputnik” never mines enough substance on its own to compensate for the derivative centerpiece. As Tatiana develops a bond with the imprisoned astronaut and contemplates an escape plan, the movie gradually devolves into a silly array of chase sequences and shootouts that eschew innovation and surprise for cacophonous sound effects and shocked expressions.
It’s clear that Abramenko did his alien homework, understanding — as Ridley Scott’s 1980 staple did so well — that these scenarios are as much about the survivors as the unsparing thing from another world. This movie barely manages to give its characters reason to make it through the ordeal before it speeds into action mode, as if working overtime to distract the country’s censors from noticing the institutional critiques.
Still, Akinshina makes for a commanding new-age Ripley, playing a fierce and determined woman keen on fighting back against forces she’s can only understand in piecemeal. “Sputnik” gives her plenty of room to stare down the authorities before it sells her short, and she deserves more opportunities to play a troubled warrior facing ethical dilemmas, perhaps ones with better scripts. Released in the middle of a summer blockbuster season with no Hollywood blockbusters, “Sputnik” is a reminder of the mixed-bag experience that so many of them offer: It’s an efficient, effects-driven ride with snippets of real ideas, but never quite willing to take them out of this world.
IFC Midnight releases “Sputnik” in select theaters, digital, cable, and VOD on Friday, August 14.