Interplanetary contamination has always been a concern. Before the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into space, science fiction films had preyed on fears about something bad brought back from orbit. Three plot variants appeared in early sci-fi. First, an astronaut returns to Earth, but he isn’t the same. During the mission, an unknown entity infests him.

Now, back on Earth, he flies into homicidal rages and feasts on human blood. “The Quatermass Xperiment” (British 1955), a.k.a. “The Creeping Unknown,” was one of the earliest to exploit this fear. Second, after blasting off from a planet, the astronauts discover an evil alien stowaway. In “It: The Terror from Beyond Space” (1958), the crew wages war with a hideous monster. “It” would serve as the prototype for “Alien” (1979).

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Third, asteroids, comets, and miscellaneous space junk survive entry, crash, and alter both flora and fauna. In “Monster from Green Hell” (1958), a rocket carrying wasps into orbit conks out, and its payload is exposed to cosmic radiation. After crashing in Africa, the wasps escape and wax gigantic.

In “Sputnik”, The latest interplanetary contamination outing is freshman Russian director Egor Abramenko’s “Sputnik” (**** OUT OF ****), about a cosmonaut who comes back with something the Kremlin might weaponize. Set at a secluded military facility with airtight security, this gripping, white-knuckled, low-budget chiller relies neither on goofy comic relief nor gory splatter.

Mind you, the alien inside the cosmonaut is a spooky shapeshifter. Abramenko doesn’t shrink from showing off this phantastic creature again and again for shock value. This cadaverous fiend walks on its knuckles initially before it later swells to imposing height.

Happily, Abramenko doesn’t stoop to obligatory jump scares to frighten us. Just watching this monster is enough to make your skin crawl. Characters ranging from a daring female physician, to a conscience-stricken scientist, and a sympathetic cosmonaut find themselves at odds with soulless Soviet sycophants.

“Sputnik” is set in 1983 during the last decade of the Cold War. The oppressive Soviets still rule Mother Russia with an iron fist. Meantime, two Soviet cosmonauts Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) and Kirill Averchenko (Aleksey Demidov) are preparing to disembark from the Soviet space station.

They discuss their long-awaited plans to celebrate their return home. Kirill dreams about a hot bath. Konstantin mentions a business trip to the town of Rostov. Clearly, he is preoccupied about something other than the mission. Konstantin and Kirill catch a glimpse of something outside their capsule window. Suddenly, without warning, their spacecraft malfunctions. After he regains consciousness, Konstantin cannot remember anything.

His mind has been wiped clean about what happened between the time Kirill and he saw something mysterious outside their capsule. An arrogant scientist clad in white-coat, Yan Rigel (Anton Vasilev) has lost patience with Konstantin because the cosmonaut defies his efforts to hypnotize him. Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk of “9th Company”) has monitored Rigel’s sessions with Konstantin, and he shares the scientist’s despair and frustration. Time is running out for them.

Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina of “The Bourne Supremacy”) is a psychiatrist who is facing disbarment by the State Health Ministry for her peculiar methods, when Semiradov invites her to provide a fresh perspective. Rigel has impugned Konstantin’s patriotism and criticized his refusal to cooperate. Actually, Konstantin has suffered a bout of genuine amnesia.

Tatyana enters the investigation to manipulate him. She achieves greater success than Rigel with her unorthodox methods. Eventually, she suspects both Semiradov and Rigel have been suppressing crucial data about Konstantin’s condition.

Imagine her shock when Tatyana learns an alien creature has taken refuge like a parasite inside Konstantin. Although the cosmonaut knows little about his intruder, he shares an uncanny psychic connection with the organism! The cagey Russian psychologist plays a game of cat and mouse with Konstantin, and he rewards her questions with greater candor.

Tatyana insists on a vis-à-vis encounter with the beast in the same room. Clad like a cosmonaut, she enters Konstantin’s quarters. Earlier, the troubled cosmonaut had hawked up the creepy monster. It ventures out of his body during the early morning hours. The creature trails slime as it slinks away from the inert cosmonaut.

When she faces this skeletal devil, Tatyana struggles to suppress her anxiety. Slithering across the floor, the creature hoists itself aloft and puffs out its hood to stare at her. When Tatyana slips accidentally in its’ slime trail, the startled shapeshifter strikes like lightning. Seizing her foot in its jaws, the creature tows Tatyana deeper into the room.

Soldiers burst into Konstantin’s quarters and rescue her. Eventually, a reluctant Rigel shares more info about the creature with Tatyana, and she calculates that it thrives on cortisol. Furthermore, she vows to separate Konstantin from it. Later, Tatyana is appalled when she learns how Semiradov satisfies the creature’s voracious hunger. Naturally, the parasite couldn’t survive on Konstantin’s meager diet.

Clearly, Abramenko and his writers pay tribute to Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi chiller “Alien.” Instead of occurring in space, “Sputnik” unfolds primarily on Earth, at a Kazakhstan military outpost, and the shapeshifting monstrosity here is formidable in various ways.

The first 20 minutes lack the intense urgency of the ensuing 90 minutes because the filmmakers must assemble their characters, flesh them out, and then foreshadow what lies beyond. “Sputnik” surpasses itself as a slow-burn exercise in fingernail-gnawing suspense.

Obviously, the predatory creature with its blood lust is the star attraction, but the clashes among the humans make them no less compelling. You cannot take your eyes off Oksana Akinshina as the tenacious shrink. This heroic feminist proves every bit as resourceful as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was in “Alien.” Tatyana achieved what no man could accomplish.

Meantime, Fedor Bondarchuk’s soft-spoken but ruthless Colonel Semiradov allows her considerable autonomy to doodle with Konstantin and his parasite. Indeed, when the humans aren’t contending with this ravenous extraterrestrial, “Sputnik” generates more than enough drama among the scientists and soldiers. Sadly, the trigger-happy, bullet-riddled finale between Konstantin and the parasite rules out any hope for a “Sputnik”  sequel.

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