2020, NR, 91 min. Directed by Elsa Kremser, Levin Peter. Narrated by Aleksey Serebryakov.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 18, 2020
Given that I’ve been orbiting all manner of streaming platforms more than I normally would thanks to you -know-what, my televised fixations of late have been the hyper-melodramatic Netflix series Away, Apple’s For All Mankind, as well as revisiting the stranded Matt Damon in The Martian and a healthy dose of whatever Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s YouTube/tweeting. I am invariably accompanied on the couch by a pair of dachshunds, the younger male of whom was absolutely enthralled by Space Dogs, not because of the profoundly downbeat tone of this documentary, which recounts the Soviet Union’s use of some 40-plus canine cosmonauts in the 1950s and '60s in their efforts to prove a human being could withstand the rigors of space travel, but because there’s a lot of strange, four-legged compatriots barking, whining, and dying on the screen. Call it “For all Dogkind,” albeit with a decidedly downbeat Muscovite spin.
Laika, the stray street dog selected to be the first of her kind to exit terra firma for the black hell of space travel aboard Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957, is of course the most famous and posthumously exalted of all space dogs, but as Kremser and Peter’s documentary makes clear from the start, her journey into the history of space travel was anything but pleasant. As the spare, dire narration by Aleksey Serebryakov, speaking in Russian over footage of a purplish fireball reentering the atmosphere, “Once upon a time far out in the Earth’s orbit, a dead dog floated in a space capsule.”
There were dozens more animals – “experimental subjects” is perhaps a more exacting term – sent to endure the rigors of spaceflight and thus pave the way for humanity’s eventual small step and giant leap. Other dogs followed: Meanwhile, the United States Advanced Research Projects Agency – not yet rechristened NASA – sent its own mammalian test subjects. Yet Space Dogs is more meditatively Tarkovskian than History Channel fodder. Kremser and Peter employ plenty of archival and often painful-to-watch footage of these unwitting animal pioneers; they were not “boldly going,” but rather “uncomprehendingly sent.” Still, mankind got its moon rocks, eventually.
Between all the historical footage, Space Dogs ventures into its own parallel universe as the directors pick up the story of a Muscovite stray, earthbound and down. A counter narrative follows the flea-bitten, street-savvy cur and his mangy crew at surprisingly close distance (how the DP Yunus Roy Imer and his crew did this is a mystery unto itself). His life on Earth turns out to be as savage and brutal as that of his orbital kin. Friends of animals be forewarned: This anonymous canine and a bloodthirsty cohort savage and kill a neighborhood kitten but are foiled in their attempts to devour it by, of all things, its fur. Shortly thereafter, worse happens to a random litter of puppies, although here the assassin walks on two legs, not four. Space Dogs, in its poetic ghastliness, begs the question: Which is worse, the feral beast that does what its nature impels it to do or the allegedly civilized brotherhood of man that, by film’s dreadful end, commits unspeakable acts for fun and profit, whatever the moral and ethical cost.
Space Dogs is available as a virtual cinema release.