Directed by Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter
Icarus Films, 2019
Most readers are familiar with the tale of Laika, the first animal in space. A stray picked up off the streets of Moscow, Laika was flown on the second Sputnik satellite in November 1957, claiming yet another first for the Soviet space program. The flight was a one-way mission from the beginning, since Sputnik 2 has no capability to survive reentry. Laika, as later historical research revealed, likely died from overheating just a few hours after launch.
The Austrian film Space Dogs, making a limited release in US theaters this month and also available by video on demand, opens with that flight, or at least a surreal depiction of it: the spacecraft’s eventual reentry looks like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. An unseen narrator explains that, in Russia, some believe the ghost of Laika returned to Earth and lives among Moscow’s strays today.
The movie, according to a press release about it, “documents a pack of Moscow street dogs and traces the story of Laika, the first dog in space.” But in Space Dogs, there are far more dogs than space, a warning to those who might think of this as a documentary about Laika or the early Soviet space program.
Indeed, after that opening scene talking about Laika’s demise, the movie focuses on a couple of stray dogs wandering through the city, with extended periods with no narration. The dogs meander through city streets, scavenge for food, and, in one particularly brutal sequence, chase, capture, and kill a cat. It’s often left for the viewer to figure out the connection to Laika and the Soviet space program’s early use of dogs to determine if humans could survive spaceflight. (In one particularly odd tangent, the narrator discusses how Americans used chimpanzees instead of dogs; this is illustrated with footage of a chimpanzee being taken with handlers in Moscow to a birthday party and then a nightclub.)
There are some historical interludes in the film. The directors uncovered archival footage—rarely, if ever, seen before—of the early Soviet effort to send dogs to space. That includes preparations for their flights, like being placed in centrifuges and being instrumented for their flights. There’s also film from a later flight with dogs who did survive their mission and returned to Earth, and puppies later born from those dogs. That footage is interesting, but there’s far less of it than contemporary video of those Moscow strays.
Publicity material for Space Dogs says the film has “meditative pacing that recalls the work of Andrei Tarkovsky,” the Russian director of Solaris fame. That pacing is perhaps better described as ponderous, or simply slow, at times straining the patience of viewers who thought they were going to see dogs in space. The film is less about the “story of Laika” and instead an artistic interpretation of the journeys those dogs took into space, seen through the prism of those who, like Laika once did, roamed the streets of Moscow.