Just when you thought it was safe to go back into space again, “Sputnik” has arrived to put a damper on things. If you thought “Gravity,” and “The Martian” seemed to herald a new era of more optimistic space adventures, such as “Hidden Figures,” “Interstellar,” and “First Man,” think again.
All is certainly not rosy in the 80’s set Russian sci-fi thriller “Sputnik,” which is pretty short on nostalgia, or even the wonder that literal out of this world experiences typically inspire. From the moment “Sputnik” kicks off, the Russian crew of the spacecraft getting ready to head back to Soviet ground are totally bored and only looking forward to life back to Earth. Anyone slightly aware of the movie’s premise knows that at least one of these guys isn’t gonna have a safe landing, but when they start talking about just what they’re going to do when they get home, that’s when you know “Sputnik” intends to get right to the point.
And they do, even if it seems to get somewhat sidetracked at first. The real protagonist just isn’t among the stars, but on ground that quickly becomes unsettling on its own terms. In this unsteady environment, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is revealed to be something of a prodigy, only not for her considerable set of skills. It probably takes an exceptional health professional to be accused of extreme methods in Soviet Russia, but that is exactly what psychologist Tatyana faces.
Her dismissal seems to be a given until intervention arrives in the form of Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), a high-ranking military official who says he’ll change her fortunes for the better. Of course, a favor is required, which in her case is a visit to a remote facility where Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) the sole survivor of the spacecraft that made a very damaging, messy landing, is being held. He’s apparently suffering from partial amnesia and can’t remember the crash or what caused it, and Tatyana is tasked with helping to unravel not only what happened, but what’s causing the mysterious symptoms Konstantin is exhibiting, which quickly get a lot weirder.
This is a setting that guarantees secrets underneath secrets. “Sputnik” doesn’t really have to do much to unsettle, since the daily realities of life would unnerve the best of us. Some things seem to be truly universal though, such as gratuitous shower scenes. Director Egor Abramenko, who’s making his feature debut, keeps up the pressure from the start, with even the spacecraft windows acting less as frameworks to something bigger than ourselves than unblinking eyes, emphasizing the constant surveillance that hovers over every citizen, no matter what bleakly bureaucratic gray corridor they happen to find themselves in.
Even the remote facility, which is swarming with guards and all kinds of threatening undercurrents, is less like a strange new world than one which has dropped nearly all pretenses, and will drop the rest by the end. It’s a place designed to keep the secrets authorities don’t want revealed, and their control seems so complete even Konstantin, a supposed national hero for his space adventures, isn’t allowed to inform his mother of his whereabouts, and seems ignorant about just why he’s there, and the otherworldly creature that’s followed him home.
The movie’s major disappointment is ironically Tatyana herself, who spends much of the first half as a complex personality bent on discovery, only to deteriorate into a one-dimensional heroine who becomes practically angelic by the end, existing solely to inspire or change the men who are guided by a love of power or complicit cowardice, whether it’s platonically or through a clumsily inserted romance.
Such angels are always guarded by a higher power, and Tatyana is no exception. She quickly forms a kind of connection that all but ensures her safety, and the creature becomes far less of a menacing threat because of it. “Sputnik” does try to give us an even better, if cliche, villain, namely humanity and our inhumanity to each other, but really, what’s left when the human characters feel so unnaturally far from where they started by the end?