Director Egor Abramenko's first feature brings a new sci-fi movie monster to 1983 Russia.
I've spent enough time being obsessed with space exploration, Laika, and Ridley Scott's Alien that I knew this movie was right up my alley. And in a summer devoid of big blockbuster films, IFC Midnight's Sputnik, directed by Egor Abramenko, steps right into the gap. It was shot in Moscow for a couple of million dollars, but it feels expansive, features strong performances all around, and utilizes some truly stunning locations. The alien in Sputnik will satisfy horror fans with every slimy, bloodthirsty appearance.
In Sputnik, an Orbit-4 carrying three cosmonauts crash lands in Soviet Kazakhstan. Only one crew member, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), emerges intact, but with no memories of the crash. He's brought to a secret government facility, where psychologist Tatiana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is charged with finding the truth. She soon learns that Veshnyakov has brought back an alien parasite that slides out of his mouth every night, and government crony Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) hopes to use the creature as a weapon.
The period setting is another strength. In this story, it's 1983, and the Cold War looms. Tatiana Klimova mistrusts the military machine in charge of the whole operation and challenges authority at every turn. Her perspective helps give the film a human focus since she cares more about Veshnyakov and less about helping make the alien a new Soviet war machine.
Abramenko was kind enough to speak with No Film School via Zoom to share how he approached shooting his first feature-length movie. Let's get to it!
His "second film school"
Abramenko graduated from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in 2009. As a new, young director, he moved into commercials and music videos, working with brands like Google, BMW, Visa, Samsung, and Budweiser. He calls this work his "second film school."
"When I graduated from film school, I was literally [a] kid," he said. "I was 21 when I graduated... and I didn't know what to do, what kind of movies I wanted to shoot. I decided to try music videos and commercials and short form, which helped me a lot. It helped me to polish my craft. To understand what kind of tools I liked, what I admire. What's the best tool to achieve specific emotions, to create tension, to create action sequences?"
The film's biggest challenge
Beyond the normal issues any project has with staying on schedule and under budget, one of the biggest challenges for Abramenko was developing an idea that went beyond a standard, superficial sci-fi horror story.
"I think that from the beginning we decided to go with this genre, space horror," he said. "But we didn't want to do just another "summer movie." This genre, [these] aesthetics, this sense of dread, of terror, was just the starting point for telling a story. The biggest challenge I would say was to combine the universal human drama elements with this genre."
Viewers, he said, might expect a certain number of action sequences or jump scares while watching genre films. But that can get predictable and leave your characters thin and unrelatable.
"This genre, [these] aesthetics, this sense of dread, of terror, was just the starting point for telling a story."
"We wanted to bring some depth [to] that," he said. "To fill the story with 3-dimensional characters, with complex characters. And as I said, to tell a universal human drama."
Big conceptual movies often get built around a single idea, or maybe a key image during the development phase, and writers and directors can sometimes forget to include story elements like relationships, well-developed characters, or theme. But Sputnik does the additional work of fleshing out characters and giving several clear motivations, revealing more and more about them as the story progresses, including a final-act surprise that brings additional understanding to one character's actions.
Although it was a challenge for Abramenko, the hard work pays off. Even the film's alien gets this care.
"We decided to treat our creature not as a visual element, but as a character," he said. "A character that has its own beats, that has its goal."
Without getting too much into spoilers, the alien even has some human qualities that make it more compelling than a simple killing machine. (How? You'll have to watch the movie to find out.)
The importance of location
There are some great locations in Sputnik. The crash site is a dark field under diffused light while smoke and snow whirl. Later, the travel sequence to the secret facility reveals a gorgeous landscape of rolling plains and distant mountains, all brown and hazy and barren, taking the viewer into the Brutalist architecture of the military compound.
Most of the film takes place in that compound. The actual location was the Institute of Biochemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which was built in 1959 and provided the perfect Soviet-era visuals of long corridors and claustrophobic laboratories.
"From the start, we wanted to deliver a very authentic feeling regarding the Soviet period," he said. "And we wanted to find the true locations that would reflect the real history. But on the other hand, we wanted these locations, these interiors or exteriors, to fulfill the story needs. To bring the feeling of dread, the feeling of tension. We realized that in terms of visuals, in terms of architecture, that Brutalism [was] a great style that would fit our atmosphere. And it was very popular in [the] Soviet Union."
Almost 70% of the movie was shot in the facility location. A containment set was built on a soundstage for other portions of the production.
What's next for the director?
Abramenko talked about his experience on Sputnik as a learning experience. When asked if he would have done anything different for the alien VFX, he laughed.
"Sure, I would do everything different," he said. "That's, I think, the pleasure of filmmaking in some ways. You're doing something, you're [making] mistakes, then you fix it in the next movie. You do it absolutely differently."
He continues to watch movies and read books in quarantine, staying inspired while he works on a couple of new sci-fi projects, exploring ideas about aliens and artificial intelligence.
Sputnik opens in select theaters, digital platforms, and VOD on August 14th.