I never really asked myself whether I was culturally competent to be scared by something, before I watched Sputnik, but here I am, and I’m still unsure.
I decided early this year to review more foreign-language horror movies. There’s a wide world out there, and if I don’t want to wind up scraping the bottom of the straight-to-streaming, Paranormal Activity 43, The Conjuring Extended Universe: Annabelle’s Revenge barrel, I had better get to it. Sputnik is a Russian movie, one I happened to watch the week Putin invaded the Ukraine, and I love it. However, it is (among other things) a pretty blatant rebuke of Cold-War era politics and authoritarian Russian leadership.
Not being Russian, I’m not in a position to say how well it does either of those things. Being American, I’m aware that there’s only so far I can criticize another country before I have to start apologizing for my own. However, when I tell you the other thing Sputnik is — namely, the best Alien sequel since 1986 — you will see that I could not stay away.
Sputnik is a refreshingly blatant rip-off. The monster here is technically not a xenomorph, because those are copyrighted, but it’s more similar than most of the creatures in (say) Prometheus. The guiding assumption — which I share — seems to be that Alien is its own genre. We all know how those movies work, just as you’d be able to intuit large chunks of a movie’s plot if I said “werewolves” or “vampires.” Sputnik uses that blueprint to tell a new story, but declines to fix what ain’t broken. The results are good.
This particular Alien movie is set on Earth in 1983. Two Russian cosmonauts are sent into space; while orbiting Earth, they hear something moving around on the outside of their spaceship. You know and I know what that “something” is, and we know it isn’t good, but — barring a brief glimpse of the encounter’s bloody aftermath — we have to wait for confirmation.