Producers: Mikail Vrobel, Alexander Andryushchenko, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Ilia Stuart, Murad Osmann, Pavel Buria and Vyacheslav Murugov   Director: Egor Abramenko   Screenplay: Oleg Malovichko and Andrey Zolotasev   Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Pyotr Fyodorov, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Anton Vasilyev, Albrect Zander, Anna Nazarova and Vasily Zotov   Distributor: IFC Midnight Films

Grade: B-

Egor Abramenko’s sci-fi movie isn’t all that original: you can trace its inspiration not only back to “Alien” but much further, to Val Guest’s “The Creeping Unknown” (1956)—and the concept of an astronaut returning to earth bearing some sort of alien creature inside him was them repeated in episodes of TV shows like “The Outer Limits” (“Cold Hands, Warm Heart”). There is a difference here, in that the creature isn’t technically a parasite that takes of its host, but a symbiote (like Venom in “Spiderman 3”) that comes out and goes back in again, but that difference hardly invalidates the comparison. 

The story is set in 1983, during Vladimir Putin’s idol Yuri Andropov’s brief tenure as Premier of the USSR.  During re-entry from a space mission, a trio of cosmonauts suffers a traumatic episode.  One of them, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), survives, but is unable to remember what happened.  He’s now permanently ensconced as a patient-prisoner in a Kazakhstan research facility, where smooth Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) rules the roost. 

Willing to go an unorthodox route to deal with the PR debacle the man’s condition threatens, Semiradov invites Dr. Tatyana Klimora (Oksana Akinshina) from Moscow to diagnose Konstantin.  He chooses her precisely because she’s just gotten in trouble with her hidebound superiors for her unorthodox treatment of a patient, nearly drowning him to break his unhealthy dependence on his mother.  Semiradov wants her to take similar risks with Konstantin, a fellow who seems completely normal apart from his partial amnesia, and is understandably tired of being locked up in a glass cage, and who’s needed to serve as a national hero.

After some cursory questioning, Tatyana diagnoses the cosmonaut with PTSD, but Semiradov reveals he has a far more disagreeable condition: every night while he sleeps, a grey creature with prominent ears, a snakelike tail and—apparently—retractable tentacles emerges from him, crawls around for a couple of hours and then returns to its host, who has no idea of what’s happened.  Fascinated, she decides to remain and research the phenomenon.

What follows is a plot that goes off on several tangents.  One focuses on the relationship of trust and support that develops between Tatyana and Konstantin.  A sidebar concerns an illegitimate child that Konstantin has left in an orphanage in order to pursue his high-flying career.

Then there are revelations about the symbiote and Semiradov, which Tatyana uncovers by prodding the scientist (Anton Vasilyev) who had previously been the colonel’s point man in dealing with Konstantin, to spill the beans about what’s been happening.  Both turn out to have some horrifying implications.  In the end, however, terrible plots are foiled, though self-sacrifice of a particularly terrible kind is required.  After all, it’s now a quarter-century later, and the world is still here, even if the USSR isn’t. 

“Sputnik” isn’t without longeuers—especially in the sometimes sluggish middle section—but Egor Abramenko’s direction is generally smooth, as are Maxim Zhukev’s cinematography, Maria Slavina’s production design and the editing by Alexander Puzyrev and Egor Tarasenko.  The visual effects are also fine, and Oleg Karpachev’s score is properly eerie.

For a film like this to work, however, the performances have to convey a sense of seriousness that can overcome the essential absurdity of the narrative.  They do so here.  Akinshina conveys Tatyana’s rigidity, though she can show outbursts of emotion when needed, while Fyodorov makes a stalwart hero and Vasilyev a properly conflicted researcher.  Best of all is Bondarchuk (also one of the producers), in whose hands Semiradov takes on a creepily bureaucratic mien.

The Russian state recently named its potentially “breakthrough” coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V, presumably to indicate pride in again being first in technological achievement, as when it launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, in 1957.  Abramenko’s film might not break any new ground, but it’s a tidy, unsettling sci-fi thriller in “Alien” mode.