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Review: Russian thriller ‘Sputnik’ imagines what happens when an alien makes its way to Earth

Pyotr Fyodorov and Oksana Akinshina in the movie "Sputnik."
Pyotr Fyodorov and Oksana Akinshina in the movie “Sputnik.”
(Mikhail Mokrushin / IFC Midnight)

The DNA of “Alien” is all over Egor Abramenko’s directorial debut, the Soviet-era-set sci-fi film “Sputnik.” Fortunately, this offspring of Ridley Scott’s classic is very much its own slick, engaging psychological horror-thriller, anchored by a strong lead performance by Oksana Akinshina.

Written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, and based on Abramenko’s short “The Passenger,” the film imagines what happens after most sci-fi films end. In the “Alien” franchise, Ripley spends most of her energy ensuring aliens don’t make their way to Earth. But what happens if one does? How would the Soviet superpower embroiled in a space race handle the situation?

This mystery unfolds from the perspective of Tatyana (Akinshina), a brilliant doctor interested in the field of neuropsychiatry, who has been disciplined for her extreme methods to produce results in her patients. This catches the attention of Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), a mysterious military man who needs her help with a recently returned amnesiac cosmonaut, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov). What Tatiana finds when she arrives at the facility is a charming subject, irritated about being held at a research facility in Kazakhstan for tests, and whose gory secret, buried under layers of bureaucracy, only comes out at night.

With her steely exterior and empathetic superpowers, Tatiana falls into the canon of sci-fi and horror heroines such as Ripley, of course, but also Lindsey Brigman in “The Abyss” and Louise Banks in “Arrival,” with shades of Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Although Akinshina is fantastic carrying and grounding the film as the brave Tatyana, the trope is a bit overdone at this point, and the script does not stray from this rather stereotypical characterization.

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However, there is so much to admire about “Sputnik,” with its immersive, eye-catching production design by Mariya Slavina and stylish cinematography by Maxim Zhukov (the film was shot on location at the Institute of Biochemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow). It’s the kind of film you can’t look away from, thanks to the lush look and performances, particularly by Akinshina and Fyodorov. The creature design and execution is also particularly impressive.

Everything is so perfectly placed that it’s jarring when Abramenko loses control, particularly in transitions where tightly wound lab scenes stumble into soaring drone shots accompanied by an intense yet generic-sounding score. The film swerves from sci-fi to horror to psychological thriller to melodrama, but in a way, it works. It’s clear Abramenko wants to serve a full-course meal of a movie, and in stretching the dynamic range of emotion he hits on moments that are at times operatic and at others somewhat soapy. But in doing so, brings a new layer of story that makes “Sputnik” feel epic.

That play with genre is what makes this film so compelling. It starts out paying homage to its classical science-fiction roots but goes its own way, adding melodrama and social and political commentary unique to its Russian setting and history. And it’s open-ended enough to be the kind of choose-you-own metaphor that the best kind of sci-fi always is. Give “Sputnik” a whirl, and it just might take over.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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‘Sputnik'

In Russian with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 14, Vineland Drive-In, City of Industry; also on VOD


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