Sputnik (2020)

FEBRUARY 1, 2021


One of the things that really devastated me about 2020's (and, so far, 2021's) endless stream of cancellations is that I didn't get to go to any festivals of note. Screamfest and Beyond Fest had scaled down drive-in versions, but given my aversion to seeing genre fare for the first time on a murky drive-in screen, I didn't attend them as often as I would had they taken place in their usual venues. So I ended up only really going to the films that were already on my radar; as much as I love going in blind and discovering things at a fest, I couldn't muster up the energy to drive an hour and sit uncomfortably to see a subpar presentation of a film I wasn't already interested in seeing. But had these fests (or others, like Fantastic Fest) gone on as normal, I have no doubt that I would have seen Sputnik at one of them and been even more impressed than I was with the Blu-ray at home.

And that's because I wouldn't have been told beforehand how good it was. I rememberered hearing a few raves out of whatever virtual means it premiered on over the summer, and even if I hadn't, this very Blu-ray slaps a Rotten Tomatoes' FRESH! logo right there on the box art (studios: PLEASE stop doing this! Use a sticker on the cellophane if it means so much to you to tout an arbitrary accomplishment), informing me that those who saw it found it to be very blurb-worthy. Normally I bristle at these shenanigans, but luckily I still knew almost nothing about the film's plot, so beyond feeling ready to have a "what's the big deal?" kind of reaction (wouldn't be the first time with these particular circumstances) I was still able to have that same kind of blank slate that I would get at a festival, where I often just see whatever I can fit into my schedule without bothering to look into what it's about or anything like that.

Ironically, if I knew the basic premise I might have liked it even more, as my expectations would be happily subverted. The opening of the film shows two astronauts returning from a space mission (in 1983; it's a period piece though it rarely matters much beyond dated tech like a TV that needs an antenna) and discovering that they brought something back with them, which is, you know, the setup for 800 movies that air on Syfy. One astronaut is seemingly killed and the other is being kept in a military lab of some sort, where he is questioned about the mission and what he remembers about their return. Feeling they need more than they're getting from him, the government jerks bring in Tatyana Yuryevna, a doctor who has recently gotten into hot water for ignoring protocol in order to save her patient - i.e. just the sort of person that might be able to help the poor astronaut.

Why does he need help, you ask? Well, as it turns out (and as the film reveals in a wonderfully casual way), the poor sod is now infected with an alien parasite, one that exits through his mouth every night and leaves him unconscious as it does the sort of thing movie alien monsters tend to do. Then it returns, with the astronaut waking up and seemingly having no memory of the nightly ordeal or that he is carrying another being inside his body. The science behind it serves two purposes; not only does it explain how something so big can be inside of him (the oxygen in the air enlarges it, and it shrinks again as it returns) but also offers a sort of ticking clock scenario, as the two form a symbiotic relationship, so one can't live without the other.

Based on that you will probably assume eventually the thing doesn't WANT to go back inside the guy's body and it becomes a chase kind of movie, with the creature killing various military goons while our hero tries to find a way to save the man she is starting to get close to, but I will only say that that isn't true, and the story takes more surprising turns than the initial premise would have you believe. The runtime (just under two hours) should be enough to inform you that this isn't going to be a schlocky Asylum kind of movie, but what's great about it is that it DOES deliver those same kind of cheap thrills all the same. There are some splatter effects in this that rival the deaths you see in the likes of the Wrong Turn or Hatchet series, which I was certainly not expecting after the first act, which suggested something akin to Arrival, where science and logic were the order of the day.

And even without those elements, the film would still be a winner due to its two-hander setup, where you're rooting for both Tatyana and Konstantin the astronaut, who ultimately learns more about his situation and has a whole new set of problems to worry about. He is a flawed man, but not a bad one - this isn't like Species II where the guy turns into a villain as the alien parasite gets stronger, so you're always on his side even if he occasionally does morally unsound things. Ultimately, alien or not, he just wants to reunite with his family, which I think anyone can appreciate and might even take on more weight with certain viewers in the current climate. Obviously the movie was made pre-lockdown era (it was actually a victim of one of the first major cancellations, as it was set to premiere at Tribeca in April of 2020), but it's going to be much easier to sympathize with Konstantin - confined to a few rooms and devoid of much interaction with other humans - than it might have been a year or so ago.

It's even more impressive that this is the first feature from director Egor Abramenko. His previous effort was a short named The Passenger that this film is seemingly an expanded version of (same plot, per IMDb, and also the same composer - Oleg Karpachev, whose work here is incredible), though that short's writer isn't listed as a writer here, so I'm not sure what the deal is there. But whatever its origins, it never FEELS like an expanded short film like many such things do; the film may be long but it's paced well, doling out reveals at a steady clip while never losing sight of the characters. Even the villain gets shades of grey; you can tell just by looking at him that he's going to be an antagonist eventually (you might expect to see him in a police lineup with guys like Stephen Lang, Neil McDonough, and Gary Oldman), but he's got a strange honesty about him that made him more endearing than the average "we want the alien for weapons!" baddie. His underling, another doctor that gets somewhat sidelined by Tatyana's presence, also keeps things engaging as you're never sure if he will side with her or not. In other words, the gore visuals are great and appreciated, but they're the cherry on top, not the lone bright spot they sometimes are in these kind of things.

As for the creature itself, it's an all CGI creation, which is a bummer, but at least it's a largely well done effect. And more importantly, the design itself is good! It's not one of those JJ Abrams-y monsters that have no discernible thought behind them; you get the idea that Abramenko or one of the writers could actually tell you things about its bodily functions that are never important to the onscreen actions. I might even be able to recognize it from a still image five years from now, unlike say, the Cloverfield monsters (any of them) which left my head the second I walked out of the theater (or shut off Netflix in the last one's case). That's really all I ask of these beasties, yet so many modern filmmakers can't seem to manage, as they prefer to just go nuts with their CGI designs until it's just a giant blob of stuff with a vaguely human or animal form.

The disc is coming next week from Scream Factory, but as is sadly often the case with their IFC Midnight releases, there are no bonus features to speak of - just the trailer. Seems including the Passenger short would be a no-brainer, so I wish that had been included at the very least, though not as much as I wish it defaulted to the original Russian language track. It's there, as are English subtitles of course (there's also a descriptive audio track, which is nice), but it defaults to an English dub, and - at least on the PS4 - there's no way to just toggle the audio or subtitle track with its respective button. Instead you have to bring up the pop up menu and enable them there, which is just frustrating and takes much longer. Scream Factory's discs are among the least user friendly on the planet anyway (no resume play, no return cycling of the menu options, etc. Most of their initial releases didn't even have subtitles!) but this is a new one that is hopefully just some strange error in the mastering and not yet another simple accessibility option that they won't be offering for whatever reason. Get it together, SF!

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. The movie sounds like The Uninvited (the one with the cat) from space, though I take it it's a lot better than that.


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