Your mother warned you about picking up hitchhikers. But sometimes, you don’t have a choice.
Say, for instance, you’re in a Soviet space capsule, circa 1983, heading back to Earth for some well-deserved R&R. You’re not necessarily expecting visitors up there: Cosmonauts Konstantin and Kirill certainly weren’t. But something’s sure tapping on the outside of their ship. Something’s certainly trying to open the airlock. Someth—
Next thing Konstantin knows, he’s back in the motherland, telling the authorities he has no idea what happened up there or what happened to his fellow cosmonaut or why he’s being kept a virtual prisoner—locked behind thick glass in some forgotten section of Kazakhstan.
Why, Konstantin seems as much in the dark as Dr. Tatiana Klimova does—who came to Kazakhstan almost as swiftly and almost as mysteriously.
Just a day or two earlier, Tatiana was fighting for her professional life back in Moscow. She’d been called on the carpet for some, shall we say, unorthodox treatment methods (specifically, nearly drowning a patient as treatment for some neuroses he was suffering from). The next day, she’s talking with a Soviet general, begging her to take on a new patient: Cosmonaut and national hero KonstantinVeshnyakov. “It appears there was an incident in space,” General Semiradov says cryptically. He could use her expert opinion regarding Veshnyakov’s … state of being, adding that he’ll be happy to make her legal problems just go away.
Tatiana agrees. And when she first talks with the guy, she initially suspects that the cosmonaut is simply suffering from PTSD.
But late one night, Semiradov calls her back to start at Konstantin through the glass again. As she watches, the man begins to convulse, and fall to the floor, and retch, and …
And then, something slithers out of him.
You mom was right: Hitchhikers can be dangerous. Especially when they’re hitching a ride in you.
The Soviet Union was officially an atheist state in the movie’s time period, but that doesn’t keep the subject of spirituality from coming up now and then.
A nurse asks Konstantin whether he believes in God. “I believe in what I can see,” he says. “I didn’t see God out there.” When Tatiana asks Semiradov why he doesn’t just bring Konstantin back to Moscow and get a bevy of experts to look at him, Semiradov says, “I am asking the mountain to go to Mohammed.” (It’s a twist on the famous proverb, “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain,” first written, or perhaps quoted, by Francis Bacon.) A worker at an orphanage tells a child, “God loves everyone.”
We see Tatiana briefly in the shower. Her bare back and the side of her breast is visible.
Tatiana and Konstantin are attracted to one another and may even fall in love, though circumstances don’t allow for a lot of romance here. (They do eventually kiss, however.) Konstantin also invites a star-struck nurse to watch a movie with him: She falls asleep on his shoulder.
Tatiana deals with a threatening advance from someone as she jogs around the military facility. (He grabs onto her wrist and leers at her until someone forces the guy to release his grip.) We learn that some of those working on the base are convicts of the worst sort. Semiradov says one was convicted of raping and killing his 12-year-old neighbor.
We learn that Konstantinhad a child out of wedlock—a blemish on Konstantine’s otherwise spotless official reputation.
[Spoiler Warning] That child, now nearly 7 years old, has a curious conversation with one of the workers at his orphanage. When she tells him that everything’s going to be “all right, little fellow,” he insists that he’s not a boy. “My name is Tanya,” he says. But Tatiana, who comes to adopt the boy, also uses the familiar name Tanya, and when she calls him by his given name (Lyosha), he accepts it just fine. It could be the movie is suggesting a strange, symbiotic link between the boy and Tatiana facilitated by Konstantine’s alien encounter.
Konstantin might have an alien lurking in his innards, but compared to his partner, he got off lucky.
After their space capsule lands in Soviet territory, a local man discovers the wreckage and sees what would seem to be Kirill—his suit wrecked and bloodied and a good chunk of his brain exposed. (He looks dead at first, but later we see him in a hospital bed, comatose and clearly very seriously injured.)
Konstantin and his unwanted guest are kept imprisoned, as it were, because the alien is a violent little critter. We see photos of one of its first victims, and they look pretty horrific. It attacks others, too—once launching and latching onto Tatiana’s leg when she tries to touch it. (She’s finally pulled free, leaving a bloody smear as she’s dragged to safety. She limps for much of the rest of the movie.) It attacks, kills and eats many other people, often by ripping off its victims’ heads (or, even more grotesquely, part of their heads). That’s not all: It seems to feed on people’s fear as much as their blood and bodies.
People are shot, too—sometimes fatally, sometimes not, and sometimes as an act of self-destruction.
We come to understand that Konstantin and the creature have a symbiotic relationship: They cannot be kept apart for very long, which means that until and unless the creature grows out of his dependence on Konstantin’s body, the wellbeing of each is dependent upon the the other—an important plot point, obviously. Equally obvious: The monster’s exit and re-entry to Konstantin’s body is pretty gross.
Someone painfully injects himself with a drug. A man seems to take pleasure in watching a videotape of Tatiana being attacked by the creature. A child falls. A vehicle crashes through, among other things, a security fence. Tatiana suggests to Konstantin that the authorities think he’s a murderer. Someone coughs up blood, spraying it across the inside windshield of a vehicle.
None, according to the subtitles. But this is a Russian-language movie, so it’s always possible that crass language wasn’t translated. For those who speak Russian, I make no promises.
In addition to the natural sedative that the alien supplies Konstantin with as the creature makes its grotesque exit, Konstantin is often drugged by authorities, as well. A nurse is secretly given a sedative.
Given the film’s gross violence quotient, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprise that so many observers throw up. Tatiana vomits when she sees the creature preparing a midnight snack. Konstantin repeatedly and involuntarily regurgitates the alien. He tosses his cookies after landing back on Earth, and he vomits up a pill as well.
We hear a reference to someone’s feces. Lots of people lie and engage in misinformation.
Sputnik was a runaway hit in its home country, and it’s earned quite a bit of praise elsewhere, too. While it certainly owes a great deal to Ridley Scott’s classic film Alien, Sputnik is its own creature, brimming with a gloomy, Soviet-era menace and a wonderfully slow-burn buildup.
But once the blood starts to fly, this Russian horror film drowns in its own vat of hemoglobin.
Sputnik revels in its grotesque excesses and wallows in its own gore. Whatever messages the film tries to ruminate on (and try it does), they get lost in the film’s own splatter.
The film spends a lot of time considering what it means to be a hero—a real hero, not just one who’s paid to sit in, as Tatiana tells Konstantin, a “tin can.”
“Heroes don’t abandon their children,” she tells Konstantin, referencing a son he left in an orphanage to pursue this mission.
You know what else parental heroes don’t do? Let their kids watch Sputnik.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.