REVIEW: Спутник [Sputnik] [2020]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 113 minutes
    Release Date: April 23rd, 2020 (Russia)
    Studio: IFC Midnight
    Director(s): Egor Abramenko
    Writer(s): Oleg Malovichko & Andrei Zolotarev

Victors are not judged.

Heroism comes at a cost, but rarely is it the hero’s to bear. They reap the benefits, bathe in praise, and maybe even start believing they’ve earned it regardless of whether the title was bestowed upon them for saving lives or simply being a “pioneer.” Those who suffer are the families left behind who compete for this hero’s time and those faceless strangers the hero trampled upon with a sense of entitlement and lack of remorse. A hero exists for what could be while that which already is becomes rendered obsolete. We as a species strive for greatness and worry about picking up the pieces later if idolatry dares allow it. We wish to be heroes to the world while those we love dream about getting theirs back.

So while a hero often travels the path to greatness alone, they aren’t alone in their sacrifice. Whether or not Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) understands this at the beginning of Egor Abramenko‘s 1983-set film Спутник [Sputnik] is uncertain, but it might be too late even if he does. Why? Because his life will forever be changed upon his return from space. He will be applauded by strangers and pushed and pulled left and right by the government’s whims as a “true Soviet.” He will ostensibly become property of the state and in turn have to make the difficult choice to abandon his personal responsibilities as a human being outside of that shadow (hero to the world) or risk abandoning the professional comfort such indoctrination supplies (hero to his son).

Screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev (the film is billed as an expansion on the director’s short film The Passenger yet its screenwriter Roman Volobuev‘s lack of credit suggests the connection is merely superficial) are therefore tasked with giving their audience a look at both options. The way they do this is by providing Veshnyakov a visitor while in space—a creature that has hitched a ride home within his body. They are inextricably linked on a physiological level so that neither can survive without the other even when the latter exits its daily incubator at night. The human half still retains an emotional bond to those people he hopes to see again upon release. The alien half is conversely cold, calculating, and, above all else, extremely violent.

The goal of his military handler (Fedor Bondarchuk‘s Semiradov) is to find a way to separate them. So when the head scientist (Anton Vasilev‘s Rigel) of their Soviet black site comes up empty, he recruits an outsider who might fare better because of her capacity to do what’s necessary despite orders to the contrary. It’s no surprise then that we meet Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) in the midst of a medical review board meeting by her superiors as they seek to figure out a diplomatic punishment for her latest transgression that (hypothetically) benefits all parties involved. Semiradov sees her as a kindred spirit in the way she excels at achieving success by any means necessary. Where his motivation is the puzzle, however, hers has always been the patient.

An invisible line is drawn. Semiradov seeks to be the hero who can stand before the powers that be with a solution surrounding control (the creature is his focus) and Tatyana only cares about saving the man whose life has now been placed in her hands. She can only do so much, however, while operating with incomplete information and they can only anticipate their next move on the basis of what they think they know. So everyone moves forward under a false sense of symbiosis until that which was shrouded in darkness is gradually illuminated piece by piece. The mission becomes muddied as the list of victims grows and we inevitably find that Konstantin’s dueling halves can’t exist apart in the abstract either. One must overcome the other.

This reality makes sense. To want people to vie for your attention means accepting that those who need you most will be left unfulfilled. The monster inside Konstantin could therefore be construed as that aforementioned cost incarnate. It’s a creature feeding off collateral damage left in the wake of the cosmonaut’s success just as it creates more for their trouble. So lets say Konstantin is released. Let’s say he makes good on the promise he made himself to claim the child he’s left in an orphanage to see his dream met. Will he be what the boy needs with this thing inside of him? Will it eventually escape to risk his son’s life? Or will it consume Konstantin whole and ultimately place us all in danger?

It’s an intriguing conceit that brings with it multiple layers of insight and metaphor about our collective ideas of heroics, power, and PTSD. There’s just one problem, though. Konstantin isn’t the lead. Not only that, he’s often relegated as a prop to the character that is: Tatyana. And while an effective reveal leading into Sputnik‘s epilogue does expose that more of what we’ve seen has been about her than initial assumptions, it doesn’t quite make up for the fact that most of the psychological impact and our intellectual engagement is pushed to the background for what becomes a generic race against the clock thrill ride. Villains are made overt and allies are cajoled out of their complicity as we await the only conclusion that could ever truly work.

Generic or not, the thrills are authentic. We invest in Tatyana and Konstantin even as their motives are usurped by the plot’s narrative propulsion. What we therefore lose is the resonant potency of an ending that should hit harder emotionally than it can by becoming the logical result of progress rather than the earned result of humanity. The direction, creature effects, and gore are all great, but the moment they take over from the actors and their characters is the moment we become onlookers instead of participants. We either need to know more about Tatyana before the final shot or we need everything to shift from her perspective to that of Konstantin. The fight within him shouldn’t have to compete with these two characters fighting for our focus.

[1] Pyotr Fyodorovas “Konstantin Veshnyakov” in Egor Abramenko’s SPUTNIK. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
[2] Pyotr Fyodorovas “Konstantin Veshnyakov” in Egor Abramenko’s SPUTNIK. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
[3] Pyotr Fyodorovas “Konstantin Veshnyakov” and Oksana Akinshinain as “Tatyana Klimova” in Egor Abramenko’s SPUTNIK. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

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