Sputnik follows a woman who is brought to a top secret facility in 1983 Soviet Russia to analyze an astronaut whose body appears to be housing an alien creature.
Sputnik is another case of falsely attributed identity inspired by this modern day misguided propensity to misassociate present-day movies with esteemed classic cinema. The films fall victim to the impossibility of living up to the masterpieces that have become the standard of filmmaking in their respective genres. To be more specific...Sputnik was touted as the Russian equivalent of Alien, which puts such a massive burden of expectations that is more like stigma than hype.
But the blame falls partly on me for naively assuming these hype reviews are accurate time and time again...Let's start by saying two things that are of the utmost relevance to this review...
Sputnik is not Alien, carrying barely any similarities beyond containing an extraterrestrial being that has a parasitic-like interaction with a human.
Sputnik is a unique and well-made film in its own right.
As much as I am tempted to do it myself (and am guilty of committing the same crime in the past), we've got to stop calling films "the modern-day [fill in the horror classic]". It's got to stop. Has any film mentioned in the same breath as Alien, The Thing, The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Exorcist, Halloween, or countless others really out-done the original works?...Ever?...I'm actually sure there is an instance or two in which it has happened, but for the number of reviews that declare the film in question as "the next [blank]", those truths are a fraction of a fraction of the majority of complete hyperbole. And it's actually unfair to movies like Sputnik, which are great in their own right without association with anything from the past. (And I do think there is a difference between saying parts of a movie remind you of another film or they seem to share elements or play homage than saying something like "the next Alien" or "today's The Thing". There's a way to give someone the picture of what's to come without associating the hype along with it.)
But enough of that soapbox...let's appreciate Sputnik for what it is. The film is scifi/horror, but it's not scary. Not really. But that's not the point. This film puts far more depth into its characters, their relationships with one another, and an intriguing look into a dark time in Russian history. The value of the film is found in its use of science fiction and horror elements to drive the story of guilt and trauma meshing together through the two main characters. It tackles the morals and ethics of humanity, playing on "Trolley Problem"-like dilemmas, while also providing "good vs. evil"-like agendas to keep the plot engaging.
It gives a great glimpse into the political and military dynamics of the time, while playing on the human elements of how this climate affected those with even some level of power and influence. We have characters that make decisions that affect others that live in fear of the charges that may befall them should they be discovered. It's a subdued horror that is often more frightening than the creature itself. In fact, the creature isn't frightening at all.
Perhaps the greatest flaw of the film is the lack of proper treatment to the alien. It isn't particularly unique, like a baby version of the Cloverfield monster with a cobra hood. And it isn't frightening or intimidating in the slightest. While a majority of the runtime makes this seem intentional, there are portions of the plot that contradict this appearance (which is as much detail as I will go into to avoid spoilers), making it feel like a poor attempt to create something original and imposing. It simply lacks the qualities necessary to instill fear.
The CG effects are above passable, but aren't masterclass. The effects were never bad enough to remove me from the experience, but weren't particularly noteworthy either, which I could associate with the unimaginative creature design itself. It's almost as if the alien was secondary to the metaphors at play, and that's what makes Sputnik special and not a run-of-the-mill scifi/horror romp.
Rather than feed off the unknown, claustrophobia, and intense atmosphere of films like Alien, this film is more about telling a complete story, from the creature to the characters. In that way, it feels more like Arrival in its storytelling than Alien (though more foreboding, and Sputnik is still divergent in its approach). It makes the two films completely different, as they set out to achieve completely different ends. But Sputnik is a high-quality film from beginning to end, with fantastic writing, acting, cinematography, and score. It just isn't Alien (or Arrival for that matter, don't get me wrong). And that's not an indictment, it's a compliment. Not because it's better than Alien, it's just its own film, as both deserve to be recognized as such.
Horror Rating System
Horror Qualifier: 7/10
Horror Quality: 5/10
Film Quality: 8/10