On Tuesday, President Putin touted Russia’s dubious victory in the global race to find a vaccine for the coronavirus with the licensing of the injection solution Sputnik V. Its name alludes to the world’s first satellite, triumphantly launched by the Soviets in 1957, but millennials might confuse it with Egor Abramenko’s film Sputnik, which was a Russian streaming phenomenon this spring and is now available in the U.S.
A spawn of Alien, Sputnik is an acting showcase for Oksana Akinshina, 33, as was Lukas Moodysson’s harrowing Lilya 4-Ever, in which, at age 15, she gave an indelible performance as a teenage victim of Swedish sex trafficking. Initially, Akinshina is icy and obdurate in Sputnik as protocol-flaunting Moscow neurophysiologist Tatyana. Speaking via an interpreter in a recent Zoom chat, she attributes Tatyana’s stony reserve to professionalism and “internal work”—not her horrendous childhood.
Akinshina’s co-stars are Fyodor Bondarchuk (son of the great Soviet director Sergei) as a sinister colonel who, in 1983, flies Tatyana to a mysterious military facility in the steppes, and Pyotr Fyodorov as the cosmonaut Konstantin she’s been hired to examine after his crash landing in Kazakhstan. Then there’s the horrifying extraterrestrial parasite that oozes from Konstantin’s mouth at night to devour terrified convicts served up to the creature by the colonel.
Tatyana tries to help Konstantin evict his slimy tenant, who he fears is the Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll. However, Akinshina is quick to dismiss the idea that the cosmonaut and his doppelgänger could represent the divided Russian soul. He’s no Raskolnikov, and, nope, it’s not an allegory: “That’s a completely invented story, to my mind,” she offers. She dismisses, too, the child-abandonment theme that sheds light on Tatyana’s psyche. “It’s not the main thing in the movie,” she says.
She’s not one for introspection. Making Lilya 4-Ever “was not really traumatic. On the contrary, it was a fun experience—nice memories,” she breezily recalls, which strains credibility given Lilya’s physical and mental ordeal.
She’s something of a 21st-century Ninotchka, this soberly spoken, literal-minded Russian star—but she does laugh dismissively when explaining that seeing herself being dragged about by the hideous reptilian invader (a special effect added after filming) wasn’t remotely unsettling to her.
The Zoom camera showed Akinshina, dressed in an olive-colored top and blue jeans, sitting where two drawn black Venetian blinds meet in the corner of an office. No longer isolated with her two sons and daughter since Moscow “returned to normal,” the prolific actress will next be seen in Chernobyl: Abyss, Russia’s first epic about the 1986 nuclear catastrophe. Since few Akinshina films have been seen outside Russia (The Bourne Supremacy was one), Americans might be surprised to learn she’s done her share of romantic comedies. “To develop well in one genre, you have to switch genre from time to time, but I love drama more,” she says, serious to the end.
Graham Fuller is a film critic living in New York