Sputnik is a classier affair then one might expect. It’s well-mounted and benefits from an exemplary 80s-era mise en scene, with the Russia setting certainly a novelty for a Western viewer. The film looks the part even if it often feels a bit stuck in its military base locale. An intriguing, ominous opening, gives way to a narrative that feels keener to build to a pay-off that is not quite fulfilled. But there are story elements that feel interesting with some unexpected turns. Characters are for more morally complex in Sputnik, with compromised figures capable of doing the right thing. The central figure of Tatyana is fascinating, cold and not always likeable, driven by complicated motivations that make her segments always watchable. Oskana Akinshina is exemplary in this role, thanks to subtle shifts in her performance. It’s another fine example of a female character that doesn’t need to be approachable if they are interesting, and she is one of the most interesting elements of Sputnik. She is capably supported by both Fedor Bondarchuk and Pyotr Fyodorov in particular.
For horror fans there are enough violent set pieces to keep them watching, even if Sputnik is at times a slog. There is a visual gloss to the film and some interesting creature design at work here, all mounted by exemplary special effects. The film shows its hand early, which is admirable but leaves it a bit stuck waiting for the big finale. You just wish the film would let loose more often and go for broke. It’s all effectively put together but feels like its waiting for a big moment that never quite emerges from the shadows that surrounds proceedings.
And yet Sputnik builds enough mystery into its tale and enough narrative divergences that it makes a fun sci-fi ride. Director Egor Abramenko shows genuine talent in this debut feature and I’d be eager to see where he goes next. If the film never quite matches its space-bound prologue that doesn’t mean there aren’t enough creative sparks to keep this viewer invested.