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Russia’s space blockbuster Salyut-7 is a fascinating look at cinematic heroism

Russia’s space blockbuster Salyut-7 is a fascinating look at cinematic heroism


The historical drama about a risky 1985 space mission closely resembles American blockbusters, with a few key differences

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Image: CTB Film Company

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.

In its opening moments, the Russian space thriller Salyut-7 feels like an alternate-universe version of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Two cosmonauts on a spacewalk in 1983 joke with a compatriot inside the Salyut 7 space station, theorizing about when the USSR government will want to experiment with sex in space, and how much time they’ll need to (or get to) spend in Earthside training simulators for the project. Then a minor welding accident punctures one cosmonaut’s glove. As her suit pressure rapidly drops, hypoxia threatens, and she becomes less and less cogent, her partner gently talks her through the rescue process. The music, the editing, and the taut, escalating drama of the scene all belie his perfect calm as he persuades her toward safety. Meanwhile, Earth abides below, beautiful but threatening, and dizzyingly far away.

This breathless, intense sequence is just the opening salvo in a high-tech thriller that’s familiar in many respects to American space blockbusters, from fiction like Gravity to historical dramas like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. Salyut-7 is also based on real history: it tracks the USSR’s dramatic 1985 mission to reboot and rescue the crippled Salyut 7 space station, after an accident left it unpowered and unresponsive to ground control. The station was empty at the time, which left ground crews with no way of determining how badly it had malfunctioned, or whether it could be repaired. The entire mission relied on a great deal of on-the-fly decision-making as the situation unfolded. And as it plays out in Salyut-7 — amid familiar space movie threats of dwindling supplies, malfunctioning equipment, unforeseen crises, and an uncompromisingly hostile environment — it says some fascinating things about how blockbuster moviemaking works, and how universal certain kinds of heroism are.

Note: the film played at Fantastic Fest with English subtitles, but there is no English-language trailer yet. This Russian-language trailer gives a sense of the film’s scope, visuals, and tone.

What’s the genre?

Blockbuster action drama, in space.

What’s it about?

After that opening sequence, where cosmonaut Vladimir Fyodorov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) walks his mission partner Svetlana back into the station’s airlock, he sees a bright light he can’t explain. Later, in debriefing, he flatly asks an interrogator, “What if I saw angels?” He’s promptly banned from space for psychological reasons. His grounding puts the Soviet space agency in a bind when Salyut 7 breaks down, and starts tumbling end over end in a gradual orbital decay. Docking with the twirling station without the usual computer-guided assistance is beyond the skill of any cosmonaut still on the roster, and there’s a long, tense lead-up to the point where flight commander Valery (Aleksandr Samoylenko) finally asks Vladimir to return to the program and pilot the Soyuz for a daring salvage-and-rescue mission.

Vladimir and engineer Viktor Alyokhin (Pavel Derevyanko) head into space to rendezvous with Salyut 7, with the understanding that they many not even be able to link up with it, let alone repair it. The mission is a long series of catastrophes and setbacks: dangerously cold temperatures, ice-rimed instrument boards, leaking water, misaligned solar panels, shorted-out boards, a power housing smashed by an asteroid, and on and on. Vladimir and Viktor have a slightly tense dynamic: they’re both practical, level-headed men, used to dealing with potentially lethal problems. But Viktor has an engineer’s calculating, problem-solving mind, and Vladimir is more of a loose-cannon flyboy, who copes with impatience by pushing the safety boundaries. Sometimes they reach points of personal tension that don’t mesh well with their dangerous surroundings and the extremely close working quarters.

Image: CTB Film Company

And since this is a big blockbuster drama, they both have concerns at home as well. Vladimir’s wife blows up at him when he wants to return to space, and their young daughter clearly doesn’t understand why he has to leave. Viktor’s fragile young wife is pregnant with their first child, and has to be reassured and given false promises after she has terrifying nightmares about his death. Salyut-7 isn’t the most progressive film about women’s roles: the wives are just there to provide tension and pathos, Svetlana (based on Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to walk in space) is only around long enough to endanger herself and be rescued, and the one prominent woman on the ground crew is constantly ignored and dismissed. It’s telling, from an emotional-labor standpoint, that she’s the one in charge of the cosmonauts’ health, and that she’s always the one raising red flags and urging caution and a premature end to the mission. Her entire role involves being a drag, while the men valiantly ignore the risks and press forward.

Still, those risks are portrayed in frequently stunning detail. Salyut-7’s producers say the film features 40 minutes of footage shot in zero gravity, with 20 minutes shot in space — which they claim as a first for any movie. It’s hard to prove these claims, but they’re certainly believable, given the shots of cosmonauts operating aboard the station, and in EVA sequences. (And what a prospect: a world where it was more cost-effective to shoot in space than to create digital effects of these same sequences.) As much as anything else, Salyut-7 is about spectacle, about one daring hair’s-breadth survival after another, and about how a resourceful, dogged team deals with an escalating series of potentially fatal situations.

Image: CTB Film Company

What’s it really about?

Heroism. American audiences will find Salyut-7 familiar in a lot of ways, based on its story beats and action design, and its idea of how a hero is defined. The protagonists are competent and cool in emergencies. They’re cocky enough to take risks, but rational enough to contain their fears when things get grim. They’re also noticeably the people who choose to put their own lives on the line when things need to be done. The film’s antagonists are the politicians and pencil-pushers who stay safely on Earth, judging how to spin propaganda out of the cosmonauts’ every move.

There’s a distinctly Russian spin to the film’s politics, with an understanding that the government is oppressive, ignorant, image-obsessed, and willing to kill the cosmonauts to protect the space agency’s secrets. The American press also takes on a villain role, with fear-mongering TV commentators questioning whether there are nuclear weapons on Salyut 7, and turning its potential crash-landing into a worldwide crisis. At every step, the film is about how brave men succeed where cowardly, selfish institutions fail.

Is it good?

Like so many blockbusters, it is at times melodramatic and corny. It’s nakedly obvious where it invents fictional incidents, or blows real ones up to outsized proportions. The major roles all share first names with real historical figures (cosmonauts Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh, and flight commander Valery Ryumin), but are given new last names to reflect how fictionalized and dramatized they are. It’s notable that the film doesn’t cover the real-life crew error that caused the Salyut malfunction in the first place, presumably because that works against the narrative that has the courageous space program facing off against an uncaring bureaucracy. The split-second, ultra-dramatic resolutions toward the end feel as contrived and artificial as the end of Argo.

But like Argo, Salyut-7 is an edge-of-the-seat experience even when it veers into obviously exaggerated territory. Vdovichenkov and Derevyanko make for sympathetic figures, carefully balanced between being warm enough to be approachable, and sternly confident enough to be admirable. Valery’s position makes for a series of gripping subplots, as he tries to avoid an international incident and incalculable scientific and military loss, while still keeping his men safe from a government that sees them as disposable. Even when the script (by director Klim Shipenko and co-writers Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Samolyotov) feels overwritten and overboard, the actors bring a dignity and soulfulness to it that holds the story together.

Image: CTB Film Company

And that alone gives Salyut-7 a quality not often seen in equivalent American blockbusters. The cosmonauts are in many ways drawn just like American movie heroes: reserved but relatable, jokey but skilled, capable of containing their emotions even when death approaches. But they also have their own distinctly Russian qualities — particularly their resigned world-weariness. Their fatalism says “We’re used to everything falling apart, we just have to contend with it.” And it comes with an inherent understanding that institutions will always fail them, and they’re better off calling the shots, rather than leaving decisions up to their commanders.

With that in mind, it’s fascinating to see how much back talk the cosmonauts give ground control in Salyut-7. Presented with orders, they largely ignore them and strike out on their own. And Valery and his crew act like this is entirely normal, especially given how often the results pan out successfully. Salyut-7 confirms that there are certain relatively universal aspects to dramatic heroism, but that some of it is culturally specific as well, and the film frequently shows exactly where that line falls.

Characters aside, the movie’s pacing and visual dynamics are both powerful. Shipenko packs the movie with incident, but also allows for downtime where the cosmonauts bond over smuggled vodka, or contemplate the surprising beauty of a space station filled with hanging bubbles of water. This is a frequently gorgeous film, and it gets significant impact from shots like the moment where the Soyuz, atop a column of flame, pierces the cloud layer and reaches for orbit. The vaunted zero-gravity scenes are immersive and seamless, and the action sequences are tight and propulsive. This is a $15 million film that looks like a $150 million film, and for space buffs, it’s a worthwhile experience just for the chance to be there in the station as each new stage of the situation unfolds.

Image: CTB Film Company

But above all, it’s fascinating to see this story from such a distinctly non-American perspective, from a point of view where Americans are troublemakers who designed the space shuttle specifically to steal Soviet technology, with politics that revolve around frightening the rest of the world, then presenting themselves as the heroes. In one particularly ridiculous yet moving scene, Challenger pulls a flyby on Salyut 7 after an especially tricky repair. The shuttle’s pilots look the cosmonauts over, then acknowledge their bravery and capability with a respectful salute. That’s what this entire film feels like: an overreaching but still enjoyable salute to space heroism, regardless of what culture it comes from.

What should it be rated?

There’s no sex or carnage; it’s a pretty PG adventure story. That said, it’s full of talky sequences, political machinations, and slow, thoughtful moments. Younger kids aren’t likely to have the patience for the slower stuff, and may be frightened by the tense action segments.

How can I actually watch it?

Salyut-7 has been picked up for international release, but currently does not have an American distributor.