Sputnik is presented as a sci-fi horror, but it could easily be classified as a sci-fi horror-drama if such a genre exists. Despite there being a monster from space, a lot of the film’s interest lies in the characters and their individual motivations. In fact, had the film run longer and explored the characters further, Sputnik could be an even more successful story than it is. Instead, it remains an enjoyable film with strong acting and writing but falls short of its full potential.
It’s 1983, and the Soviet Union is exploring space. The Orbita-4 spaceship is ready to return to Earth with its two cosmonauts when the two men notice a strange organism outside their porthole attempting to enter their space capsule. When the craft finally lands, only cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) has survived, but he seems changed. It its attempt to understand what happened to him and the events on the Orbita-4, the Soviet government uses a secretive taskforce run by military officer Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) to investigate. He discovers that Konstantin has been infected by the alien organism but has no recollection of the event. So, Semiradov enlists neuropsychiatrist Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) to see if her specialization can help provide more insight and lead to a breakthrough.
Sputnik is a gem of a film because it captures the mystery and investigation that fits naturally with science-fiction. Unlike more procedural films like Arrival, Sputnik keeps the pace moving by giving audiences new information to consider while still maintaining a heightened sense of danger throughout. Sputnik does attempt to include a twist in the story, but it largely comes off as ham-fisted and unnecessary to the plot overall. Nevertheless, the film defies expectations and surprises with its production value, special effects, and unique story.
For that reason, it’s difficult to classify Sputnik as simply a horror film. While there are horrific moments, there’s never the kind of traditional dread hanging over the heads of the protagonists. Instead, the heroes are trying to solve a horrific problem, similar to how doctors might work together to save a patient from a terrible disease in a hospital drama. Horrific, yes, but not necessarily horror. So, viewers expecting something akin to Alien or The Thing might be disappointed initially. If they stick with the film, however, they’ll find a story with real heart.
The biggest fault of the film is that it doesn’t explore its rich cast of characters well enough. The main character, Tatyana, is no nonsense and willing to go to extraordinary lengths to treat patients even though she knows it will end poorly for her personally. There’s very little revealed about her backstory to explain these strong personality traits. She also seems to be attracted to her patient, Konstantin, but that relationship doesn’t get enough screen time to develop. As for the antagonist, Semiradov, he is beholden to the Soviet government, but doesn’t get a chance to demonstrate his level of indoctrination on a personal level. Sputnik is full of interesting characters who could have satisfying arcs, and it’s a shame that audiences don’t get to see them.
Sputnik is a cerebral and engrossing film that sci-fi fans will enjoy. It has a good balance of tension, action, and the unknown to keep audiences engaged to the end. It’s this same balance, however, that also keeps the film from being particularly memorable. Sputnik is competent and fresh, but without a standout component, the film is successful but not something one might recommend or revisit.