Summer of 1996. The booming ’90s cinematic box 0ffice was graced with the arrival of extraterrestrial beings in hovering unidentified flying objects that lingered over large cities across planet Earth. Independence Day took ideas of science fiction classics like War of the Worlds, Alien, and E.T. and combined them together for a popcorn movie that helped reimagine what stories of invaders from outer space could look and feel like. It’s a big, loud, fun science fiction spectacle.
Summer of 2020. Science fiction films have evolved. Stories of alien beings have morphed into manifestations of comic book characters or the reemergence of the Star Wars cinematic galaxy in popular culture. We’ve seen brand new films in the Alien and Predator movie galaxy, more Cloverfield alien monsters, and another journey 20 years after the original film release with Independence Day: Resurgence. Aliens are everywhere.
However, this abundance of stories has led to something really exceptional when it comes to storytelling; smaller, sometimes more intimate and socially conscious, portrayals have come about. Films like the stripped-down alien-on-Earth Jonathan Glazer masterpiece Under the Skin, Denis Villeneuve’s emotional Arrival, and the ultra-joyous space monster run amok film Attack the Block, are just a few examples of how the evolution of science fiction films have found creative, inventive avenues to share experiences with the extra-terrestrials.
Sputnik, from director Egor Abramenko, is yet another example of how to tell an effective, exciting, and emotional science fiction story. Its effectiveness doesn’t rely so much on big-budget special effects or an alien that puts you in awe of its design, but rather in the cleverness of how it allows the viewer to enter the environment where everything happens, that being a military compound in Kazakhstan in 1983.
We are introduced to two Russian cosmonauts coming back from a mission in space, one that ends with a crash landing caused by mysterious occurrences involving some kind of creature, one that is cleverly left just beyond sight of the viewer. A no-nonsense psychiatrist named Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) is brought in to interview one of the cosmonauts. After a quick interview and hasty diagnosis, Tatyana is ready to leave the facility, however, she is asked to stay to oversee some other interesting symptoms that are happening. Later that evening she is brought in to witness a strange event involving the cosmonaut, one in which he falls unconscious and an alien creature crawls out of his mouth.
Sputnik, working on a lower budget, keeps a majority of the drama and action contained in small environments. This allows for some clever camerawork that slowly pulls the viewer from a spectator position to almost being trapped in the room with the alien being. It’s exceptionally executed and adds a building tension that heightens the drama of the story.
The budget constraints never keep the filmmaking team from exerting ambitious designs. While some of the special effect designs are ingeniously introduced, a few of them a little rough around the edges, it’s the set design and fantastic cinematography that really highlight the skill behind the team here. The alien design is somewhat minimalistic, which doesn’t accommodate some of the action set pieces, but the way the filmmakers turn to human reaction shots during menacing moments or hide the monster in shadows or with framing keeps effective tension.
Actress Oksana Akinshina is fantastic in the lead role, playing her psychiatrist with tough survival qualities and empathy for her cosmonaut patient. Add some thrilling action set pieces and a few well-timed moments of gore and Sputnik proves why genre films about non-human beings will never lose their ability to evoke a wealth of cinematic emotions.
Movie Score: 3.5/5