Director Elsa Kremser forces us to rethink our relationships to the animals around us by putting us in their perspective. Following street dogs around Moscow and following space dogs through their Soviet training, Space Dogs is an unforgiving movie about how we treat our so-called best friends. (GPG: 4/5).
Review by Contributing Editor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
At the beginning of Space Dogs, I had a hard time telling if the film was a documentary or not. The opening images, which mirror the last view Laika had when she was alive, show the Earth from space, and the flames of re-entry into the atmosphere. The footage of crimson, purple, and blue flames is eerie, flling the screen with abstract flashes of light. The effect reminds the viewer that where we now have the International Space Station and uncountable satellites was once an unfathomable void, alien in every sense of the word. This void claimed Laika’s life in the end, concluding the story of a dog whose life took a trajectory she could never have understood, consented to, or imagined.
Before she was recruited to be a pioneer in the last frontier, Laika was a street dog in Moscow. The film’s narration informs us that legend has it Laika’s soul fell to Earth like a comet to roam the same streets where she grew up. The film follows two street dogs exploring the city in the same way Laika must have at the start of the space race. It also briefly follows a chimpanzee doing entertainment on the Moscow club circuit, also living a much different life than its cousins who were used as guinea pigs for space exploration. The first chimpanzee sent into space had a panic attack, leading it to be traumatized for life–it could never go into space again.
The street footage of these dogs takes a lot of cues from slow cinema, in that it’s incredibly slice-of-life and meditative. The dogs are shown doing a variety of daily activities, with very little cutting to make their lives more interesting. The everyday routine of a Moscow street dog is given an intimate appraisal as a way to connect us to the lost spirit that is Laika. We also get many glimpses into Russian culture and Moscow’s human population that remind us what the people of Moscow ultimately were willing to do to win the space race. Since the United States is hardly innocent on those grounds itself, it invokes a feeling that these dogs live in some ways in communion with humans but in many other ways at their mercy.
The footage of modern-day descendents of these animals is intercut with old Soviet footage of the training given to Laika’s successors. Laika herself isn’t shown in this footage, but there are several other Soviet dogs who are shown being put into roller-coaster-like machines to train them for the rigors of space travel. Later, a whole shuttle full of dogs is sent into space with cameras rolling the whole time. The dogs look confused, but interestingly they don’t look much more confused than any dog would in a new environment. Perhaps the reason that Laika could fulfill her mission and the chimpanzee went into a panic attack is that dogs are slightly simpler creatures, unable to manage the higher thought processes that might make a primate astronaut freeze up.
The score puts an eerie spin on everything in this film, on Earth or not. It’s the kind of music one might expect to find in The X-Files, or maybe a CSI derivative show. This tone-setting score is a way for the film to remind us that even when the dogs are on Earth, space is still out there, as are the humans who feel entitled to use these dogs as guinea pigs. That and the artistic depiction of space itself makes this an experimental documentary in my opinion, and likely an affecting one in the opinion of most viewers. One cannot look at this footage without imagining what it would be like to be shot into unknown territory without any warning, the first one to boldly go where no living thing has gone before.
All in all, the impression one gets from Space Dogs is one of alternating familiarity and dissociation. Humans know dogs almost as well as ourselves, and we’ve taken them with us everywhere we’ve explored. At the same time, catapulting our supposed best friends into space raises some complications in this relationship that for so long has been purely symbiotic. The juxtaposition of everyday dog behavior with the alien nature of space and the violating training and tests the dogs were put through, makes for a thought-provoking viewing experience that will change the way we think of the space race. After all, most people probably thought nothing of the fact that Laika was sent into space without consent; they may not have even considered how horrifying that might be for a dog. Space Dogs does consider it, from the viewpoint of the dogs themselves. That’s what makes this film so jarring–it doesn’t just make us think about the perspective of these companions to our species in the space race; it makes us experience their perspective as well.
Does Space Dogs pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
It doesn’t, because the main characters are dogs who don’t speak.
Top Photo: One of Laika’s successors.
Middle Photo: A space dog in a capsule.
Bottom Photo: A dog in training to go to space.
Photo Credit: Raumzeitfilm Produktion.