Taking place near the end of the Cold War, Sputnik begins at the end of a space mission. Two cosmonauts are returning to Earth, but their flight does not go smoothly. By the time they are on land, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is the only one of the duo alive, though badly injured. Rather than allowing him to go home, he is brought to a secret government site to be studied.
Doctor Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is brilliant and empathetic, but her creative solutions to medical emergencies upset the ministry of health. Luckily, she has caught the attention of the military officer who is leading the study of Konstantin, and he wants her opinion of the case. Tatyana quickly establishes herself as the best doctor there, though it is far more complicated that she could have ever known.
You see, Konstantin did not come back alone. The survivor has some sort of parasitic alien living inside him, and Tatyana has been brought in to try to separate them.
Though Sputnik spends little time wondering how Konstantin got paired with the creature, or any other typical questions we are often faced with when it comes to extraterrestrial encounters (What do they want? Are we no longer alone?), the film does do some good service to keeping the mythology of the creature in terms of how it affects Konstantin. We learn how it lives symbiotically with him, and how it behaves. Much like any new creature, it is dangerous and misunderstood, though our fear of it may or may not be a product of its own terror and overreaction to being prodded by strangers.
Sputnik takes this all very seriously, and for the characters of the film it means life or death. Considering Soviet Russia’s lack of sensitivity and flexibility when it comes to matters of the government, and particularly the space race, this is no time for anything but heightened senses and secrecy.
Both Akinshina and Fyodorov are incredible in Sputnik. They are able to convey their emotions behind their strict countances, and at the moments when they are able to let their guards down their chemistry feels natural. The characters are written to need each other, much like Konstantin and the alien, but their performances make us believe.
The creature design of the hitchhiking alien is also incredible. Visually it is beautiful and otherworldly. Just interesting enough to reward the long gazes the camera traces along its surface. Had the thing looked cartoonish or unbelievable, the film would have suffered greatly, but it delivers its unearthly brilliance.
Sputnik also has a killer score that does a lot of the emotional lifting at times. We can see from the look of the Soviet base- rimmed in barbed wires and drenched in dull beige and sharp corners- that this is not a place for levity or enjoyment. The oppressive music at just the right moments makes us feel that without needing a single heartbeat to process the thought.
Sputnik has its own approach to aliens, relative human morality, and the clash of science and government. It has a lot to say about what makes life valuable and how far you should go to give life validity. It also happens to be a visually intriguing monster movie that starts out in space. But, like many of the scifi greats before it, Sputnik uses the intersection of these elements to its best advantage.