Sputnik is a Russian monster movie. Like all great monster movies, it tries to figure out, between the creature and the humans, who the real monster is. Sometimes the answer isn’t so simple.
Egor Abramenko methodically unfolds the story, teasing out bits and pieces of information, as it goes along. He uses a minimalist style that tells us the most crucial information visually. The film’s dialogue, while sparse, is as exact as Abramenko’s aesthetic.
I would love to read Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev’s script. The way Sputnik is brought to life I am deeply curious as to how Malovchko and Zoloatrev described the great valley of silence that fills the movie’s run time. For it is in these moments that Sputnik lives the most vividly.
Set during the Cold War, Sputnik uses the mistrust and bleak atmosphere of the Soviet Union as a backdrop for a story about traumas and how they infect, effect, and affect us. Oh, and there’s astronauts, space aliens, intrigue, and gunfights. But it’s all set dressing, the meat of Sputnik is how we deal with the trauma of our past.
Abramenko is so subtle though that it does not become clear until the final scene exactly how clear and simple the movie is being. In many ways, it reminded me of Annihilation, a movie that seems impenetrable, but in hindsight is actually quite open and clear about its intentions. Sputnik may not be as trippy but it is every bit as engrossing and can’t help but tickle the senses with the score, sound design, and sparse visuals.
Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) is the surviving astronaut of a crashed space pod. The pod has crash-landed after re-entering the atmosphere, leaving Konstantin, as the only survivor. Wounded and barely alive we are left more than a little confused when we next meet Konstantin without so much as a cut or bruise.
Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) recruits a young neurophysiologist Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) to come to join him at a secret base to try and figure out what is wrong with Konstantin. Having just been disciplined by a review board for doing what was necessary to save a patient, she is eager to leave Moscow.
To us, the audience, we know that something is wrong with Konstantin purely because nothing is wrong with him. But we will soon learn that even we don’t know the full story. Sputnik is the type of movie where each scene contains a morsel of a revelation.
It never feels as if it’s building up steam so much as each scene is a piece of a puzzle being put into place. Some pieces are bigger or more revealing than others but all of them are part of a whole. The biggest piece of them all being the alien.
That will be all I will say, for much of Sputnik is a journey of discovery. All I will say is that the alien and it’s relationship to the other characters is the naked metaphor for how we carry the trauma of our past with us. We can not overcome it, but we can figure out a way to live our lives as best we can, carrying the trauma forever with us.
Abramenko along with his cameraman Maxim Zhukov, pack the frames of Sputnik with as little as possible. Rarely do prolonged scenes have more than two people and when they do they feel crowded and claustrophobic. Zhukov moves his camera with an exactness, in time with Oleg Karpachev’s haunting and moving score. The camera movements combined with the almost subconscious nature of the music draws us to the edge of our seat.
Sputnik is like an old fashioned card trick. It’s a simple but delightful sleight of the cinematic hand to behold. Abremenko is like the man on the street corner, asking us to try and find the Queen of hearts. It is a deception, but like all good sleight of hand, it is an honest deception.
Akinshina’s Tatyana is a cold distant heroine with a steel spine; literally and figuratively. Something that comes in handy deep inside a secret Soviet Cold War military base. While her colleague Yan Rigel (Anton Vasiliev) is concerned with winning awards, she seems to be truly concerned with Konstantin’s well-being.
Her performance is exceptional in how she tells us so much merely by how she sits and stands. Tatyana has a stiff walk and hunches over as she sits, all clues to her past. It explains why she understands Konstantin’s loneliness so well.
Fyodorov as Konstantin has a more difficult role. Much like Akinshina, he plays his character close to the chest, only giving us glimpses at who he is through the inflection of his voice and a flicker of his eyes. But he has the added weight of a man who is unaware of his fate. Or is he?
Konstantin is the piece that doesn’t quite fit into the puzzle-but only until we realize it’s because we’re looking at it wrong. The moment we do is a spectacular moment and Fyodorov and Akinshina play the moment perfectly and never oversell it. That the moment never feels immediate or threatens to upset the movie is a testament to Abramenko’s talent and skill.
The final scene is the cherry on top. Sputnik is a simple movie and it’s ending, refreshingly, attempts to reveal rather than confound. It is, to be perfectly honest, one of the few truly perfect endings I’ve seen this year.
Other directors would have been tempted to make Sputnik a thrill ride. But Abramenko chooses tension over frills and a revelation over a climax. He is more interested in the psychological landscape of his characters rather than hollow spectacle.
Sputnik is a quiet meditation on how we heal ourselves from the wounds life inflicts upon us. It just chooses to do so inside the skin of a story with monsters, secret military bases, and Soviet-era spaceships. In the process, it reminds us that while humans can be monsters, our humanity is our saving grace.
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