Traveling Companion through Monster Country: Josh Pearce and Arley Sorg Discuss Sputnik

Originally pitched as “a Russian Alien,” this low-budget SF horror film opens on a promising scene: it’s 1983, and two cosmonauts orbit the Earth in a Soyuz capsule. Their spacesuits are exactingly replicated from the real deal, and the Soyuz interior is also Cold War authentic, down to the fonts on the control panel. A wooden doll floats gently around the two men, serving as a zero gravity indicator.

Then something knocks on the outside of the hull.

Arley: That opening shot in space was a preface and had little to do with the rest of the movie.

Josh: I like science fiction horror and am a total sucker for Soviet space program aesthetic, so at first I was extremely excited for this. With that opening I was like, “All right! This is gonna be amazing,” but I ended up wanting so much more from this movie by the end. There was no tension or action, and there should have been one or the other.

After the Soyuz spacecraft crash-lands, the surviving cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) is taken to a top-secret scientific research facility and kept under guard by Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who also recruits unorthodox psychiatrist Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) to evaluate Konstantin and learn what he remembers of the crash.

Arley: So, it was billed as SF horror (I mean, look at that poster), but it’s really about Tatyana’s relationship to Soviet bureaucracy and her relationship with the cosmonaut. Everything else is in service to that. It’s more of a personal drama punctuated by moments of violence than a sci-fi flick. The theme is set when the mysterious Semiradov shows up to recruit her, right outside the room where a board just threatened her with dismissal or prosecution for disobeying orders and breaking protocol. He says, “Orders are not effective for highly intelligent people,” and Tatyana casually replies, “Isn’t that anti-Soviet?” The relationship plotline is predictable from their first conversation, where he meets her chilly professionalism with his fairly gross, macho assholery, essentially negging her via nonchalant dismissals.

Josh: The Chernobyl show is a perfect example of Soviet bureaucracy being the main hindrance and the heroes sacrificing themselves to save the world anyway. Chernobyl is almost science fiction already, just in terms of world-ending scope and solution engineering.

Tatyana quickly learns the truth — that Konstantin is carrying an extraterrestrial life-form inside him, which emerges from his body every night for a few hours before crawling back down his throat and curling up inside his body. And, Colonel Semiradov tells her, Konstantin is completely unaware of its existence.

Josh: So now we’re locked in this isolated facility with an alien. It’s the perfect opportunity for some paranoid, claustrophobic tension. I read how they filmed in the Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry, built in 1959, and even found a collector of Soviet-era computers to supply them with the appropriate electronic equipment. Everything looks properly science fictional, with that brutalist architecture that we in America (or, at least I do) associate with dystopian SF. Which makes sense, because a lot of that so-called classic science fiction was an allegory for the perils of communism, so quasi-Soviet architecture and design was sold to American audiences as dystopia (1984, THX 1138, A Clockwork Orange, etc.) just these blank, soulless, antiseptic buildings. Or maybe that’s just how people envisioned the future during the Cold War.

Arley: The alien effects look cool. And one cool throwaway line was, “For [the alien], he’s kind of a spacesuit against a hostile world.” What a great concept! Aliens using humans as spacesuits? Yes, make that movie!

Josh: It was definitely an interesting creature design. I wish they’d spent more time exploring it. Konstantin has a frog in his throat. He’s also basically a matryoshka doll. Or a turducken.

Sputnik is, in one sense, a classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. Konstantin has this monster inside him, and when it (inevitably) starts ripping heads off, it becomes a matter of determining who bears the responsibility for the deaths. In the meantime, Konstantin learns that he has a son, abandoned to an orphanage, and insists on leaving to reclaim his child. This is clearly an impossible proposition, since the hungry alien feeds only on human brains, and separating it for too long from Konstantin’s body will kill the cosmonaut, blurring the line between parasite and symbiont.

Arley: I was more interested in the concepts they were presenting than in the actual story they were showing. Tatyana is an archetype character — misunderstood, doesn’t follow rules, gets results through sketchy actions, in trouble with superiors or the mainstream; similar to Daniel Jackson in Stargate or about half of the cop-as-protagonist-action movies ever made. It’s a role usually played by a man, so I appreciate casting a woman here. But I sometimes felt like the plot undermines their attempts to have a strong female protagonist. I also thought the moment where she finds out Konstantin doesn’t know about the alien was interesting. In an American movie, she would’ve been like, “This is immoral, we have to tell him there’s something in him.” Here, she was like, “Okay, cool. Was just wondering. So where’s that other dude?”

Josh: That might be another aspect of the Soviet program, that blind loyalty. It’s hard to critique this through our lens. How much of this is Russian cultural stuff that we just don’t get?

Arley: And even more than that, this is a movie made by Russians today reflecting a past Soviet era, so that’s another level of interpretation to try to understand. Ultimately, we both wanted this to be something else, with different visions of how it could’ve been better.

Josh: Maybe we’re not being fair to it on its own merits. I don’t want to dismiss all our disconnect from the story with the fact that it’s a foreign film. I keep thinking of the 1972 Solaris — it’s got that same cultural divide, but it’s still recognizably a good movie.

Arley: And we liked The Wandering Earth for what it was, regardless of whatever cultural elements we were missing. Well, Sputnik was marketed wrong. Even the opening scene made me think it was something different.

It’s hard to properly compare Sputnik to an analogous film. It lacks the creature terror of Alien or The Thing. A corollary might have been Apollo 18 (a space race horror movie, but from the Americans’ side) or Life (astronauts on the ISS ingesting an alien life-form, and then dying horribly) if Sputnik had concerned itself only with bloody violence.

If we must keep comparing it to the Alien franchise (by the filmmakers’ own standards) then this is most like Alien3 — all the budget presumably went toward the CGI creature, and the rest of the film suffered for it. Not the worst of its type, but not the best, either. And Sputnik lacks any character with even half the charisma of Ripley.

Arley: Another major theme of the movie is heroism and that heroes are not what they seem. Konstantin is a Hero of the Soviet Union by virtue of being a cosmonaut. He brags heavily about being a hero from the outset, saying things like “Only the mentally strong are sent into space… I cannot be hypnotized” and actually referring to himself as a hero. Tatyana tells him, “Heroes don’t abandon their children.” Throughout the movie other characters toss the term “Hero” around, which is evenly counter-argued through Konstantin’s behavior and elements of his past. This does double duty as a critique of the propaganda machine, since the “heroes” are heavily used as public icons. In the end, this movie becomes a bad guy comeuppance story: corrupt people get killed, and the alien is punishment for abandoning the son.

Josh: That’s a good point. You left one kid so now you get another to take care of. I was expecting more interesting deaths. And they could have added low-budget ways to increase tension, like the alien slithers into different people’s mouths and you don’t know who’s hosting this parasite at any one time. Just making it this incredibly paranoid story.

Arley: Unfortunately for this leaning into drama, neither of us really cared about Tatyana achieving her goals, or any of the other characters for that matter.

Josh: I completely didn’t believe that they fell in love.

Arley: They didn’t sell it to us. It’s more… assumed.

Josh: I don’t think that was a fault of the acting, because the performances seemed fine, though it’s hard to tell in a different language.

Arley: For the first quarter or third of the movie, a lot of Tatyana’s acting was done through eye movement. The colonel was a super cliché character.

Josh: I thought so at first, too, but then he started to seem agreeable, and then you find out what he’s really up to and your feelings toward him switch again. Same with the other scientist, same with the cosmonaut.

Arley: They were messing with your mind!

Josh: They weren’t messing with it enough. I wanted to like this movie so much, but I’m not sure I can really recommend it without caveats. It is a technically well-made movie, it looks good, and it holds up well considering its budget, but it just moves too slowly to sustain my interest.

Arley: I think there are those people who like movies, which are essentially drama with a science fictional lean. I’m thinking maybe Passengers (although I didn’t see it), maybe K-Pax (although I barely remember it), I don’t know what else. I mean, this is visually drab, somewhat plodding, with moments of “cool” and fairly predictable plot points. I feel like some people might actually like it, and it’s here for them; but it’s not really for me.

Directed by: Egor Abramenko

Written by: Oleg Malovichko & Andrei Zolotarev

Starring: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Anna Nazarova, Aleksandr Marushev, Albrecht Zander, Vitaliya Kornienko & Vasiliy Zotov

Josh Pearce, Arley Sorg (by Laurel Amberdine)

ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.

JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.

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