Despite its name, Sputnik is not a space-set horror movie. Most of it takes place on Earth, within the confines of a claustrophobic military laboratory. We open aboard a Russian satellite, with two Soviet cosmonauts preparing for their descent back to Earth. After technical trouble and a run-in with an unseen creature, the spacecraft crash lands on Earth, with Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) the sole survivor.
Meanwhile, psychiatrist Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) is being interrogated by a committee because of the controversial action she took to save a patient; because she refuses to apologize, she faces likely dismissal. After her hearing, the mysterious Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), approaches her and offers to eliminate the charges in exchange for her services in a classified matter. Said matter is, of course, Konstantin; namely, attempting to help cure his amnesia regarding the events of the crash.
Soon after Tatyana arrives at the facility where Konstantin is being held, Semiradov reveals the deeper purpose of her visit: Konstantin is harboring an alien parasite inside his body, and it’s up to Tatyana and others to extract it. Though the military has been able to temporarily separate the creature from Konstantin, his health has invariably declined as a result. Working against the deadline of his publicly-advertised return, Tatyana and others must find a way to separate the extraterrestrial from Konstantin without killing him in the process. This proves to be even more fraught than previously thought, as Tatyana soon discovers that the laboratory harbors some very dark secrets.
Sputnik nicely captures the overwhelming grimness of its setting and period. The austere grays of the facility’s buildings are occasionally offset by bursts of warmth, but the overall impression is one of chilly isolation. Adding authenticity to the period setting are the movie’s depictions of analog technology, which are handled with enough subtlety to avoid stumbling into kitsch territory. Also key to the movie’s tone is Oleg Karpachev’s moody, dread-inducing score.
The creature itself is a convincingly weighty, well-realized bit of CGI, if not a particularly original one – its slimy, scuttling design has echoes of Cloverfield and The Mist. That said, the particulars of its physiology, which are too good to spoil here, are both clever and creepy. Sputnik’s is at its best during its slow, extended reveal of the creature’s true nature, and is far more successful as a horror movie before it’s completely shown its hand.
Tatyana makes for a likable hero, with Akinshina playing her as tough and smart but never invincible. Also great is the quietly charismatic Bondarchuk as Semiradov, an intriguingly unreadable and morally complex character whose true motives remain a mystery until the finale. Even the monster gets a bit of depth in the form of its bond with Konstantin; it isn’t just another insatiable killing machine.
Sputnik’s Achilles’ heel is that it’s not really scary; or at least not as scary as it should be. The creature attacks are decently staged, but fail to produce the spine-chilling thrills needed for a great horror movie. While it may be a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, the alien’s relatively small role in the plot renders it less threatening, and robs otherwise effective sequences of their suspense. The movie is also let down by a predictable third act and a safe ending, which shoots for poignancy but leaves one cold. Sputnik still contains enough solid performances and palpable atmosphere to be worth a recommendation, but one can’t help but feel that it could have been great with just a few adjustments.