In Russian, “Sputnik” means “fellow traveler.” The Soviets used the term for their early Cold War satellites, perhaps to give the ships a sense of community, or offer a friendly invitation to extraterrestrial life (if they happened to speak Russian). In the 2020 film of the same name, a Russian spaceship picks up a “fellow traveler,” sometime in the 1980s. Sadly for the cosmonauts, this Sputnik is anything but friendly.
The easiest movie to compare “Sputnik” to is 1979’s “Alien.” In both films, parasitic extraterrestrials prey on terrified humans. Both also have riveting female leads. Ellen Ripley’s “Sputnik” counterpart is named Tatyana Kilmova, played by Oksana Akinshina (“Quiet Comes The Dawn”).
Like Ripley in “Alien,” Tatyana bravely meets every horrendous situation thrown her way and puts the inadequate, cowardly and power-hungry men around her to shame. There are wounds behind her steeled eyes, and Akinshina’s layered performance makes the movie worth watching twice, even once one knows the truth about her character.
“Sputnik,” like “Alien,” is also rooted in the sci-fi genre’s existentialist roots that trace all the way back to Shelly’s “Frankenstein.” While the aliens are scary and mysterious, the finely-drawn human characters are what bring viewers to the edge of their seats, clutching the arm rests with tears in their eyes.
From the first scene, this film’s focus on character colors its science fiction elements, because the viewer cares about who they affect. Viewers don’t even see the creature until almost 30 minutes in. More importantly, in the alien’s single “appearance” before its reveal, the camera stays on the astronauts’ horrified reaction to something lurking outside their tiny spacecraft. As they tremble and stare, wide-eyed and slack jawed, one does not need to see the Sputnik to know that it doesn’t come in peace.
When the monster is finally revealed, it comes with a twist that yanks the film out of “Alien’s” shadow in a startlingly touching fashion. While the twists are best left to the screen, one sublime moment is when the alien, laying on the floor, curls around a baby rattle. It was hard to decide whether to shudder or to cry.
The creature is no computer-generated plot device or excuse for jump scares. While immaculate on a technical level, it is both revolting and disgusting to watch this realistic parasite go about its slimy, predatory habits; the alien, like Tatyana, is also wrapped in thematic layers. It makes the characters question their lives, relationships with others and place in the universe. Human nature is explored through bloody, imaginative twists and turns right up until the credits.
“Sputnik” differentiates itself from “Alien” (and its inferior sequels and imitators) by taking place on Earth, at a Soviet research center. The juxtaposition of the drab late-Soviet aesthetic with the gooey interstellar monster is an original, arresting palate. It is almost instantly clear that, while the alien is no ET, the cold industrial environment certainly isn’t helpful, either. It’s interstellar entropy versus the Iron Curtain.
The emotionless authoritarians function similar to how Ash did in “Alien,” attempting to control the uncontrollable alien. To paraphrase Ian Malcolm from “Jurassic Park,” they are too busy thinking about what they can do to think about what they should do. Thankfully, like in “Park,” “Alien,” “King Kong” and all the other great monster movies, these exploitative fools get what’s coming to them. It’s absolutely thrilling.
“Sputnik” follows in the footsteps of iconic science fiction films while simultaneously pushing the genre forward. Even Ridley Scott, who directed the original “Alien” and returned to the series with 2012’s “Prometheus” and 2017’s “Alien: Covenant,” has never quite achieved this. It’s genuine, thoughtful science fiction that’s both escapism and an opportunity to contemplate humanity and its capacity for love and violence, friendship and tyranny.
Movie theaters in Michigan are shuttered, the fall semester is already chaos and things just look like they’re going to get worse. So, fellow travelers through 2020’s very real horrors, why not take a break with an unusually cute alien parasite, some Russians and a strong female lead? There are worse ways to spend one’s time.