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Review: Nihilistic perspective squanders 'Space Dogs' documentary's intriguing premise

SPACE DOGS 02_Courtesy Icarus Films.jpg
SPACE DOGS (Photo: Icarus Films)

Space Dogs
2 out of 5 Stars
Elsa Kremser, Levin Peter
Writer: Elsa Kremser, Levin Peter
Starring: Aleksey Serebryakov
Genre: Documentary
Rated: Not Rated

SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) – Synopsis: A loose examination of Laika, the stray dog that was sent into space by the Soviets, and the idea that she continues to roam the streets of Moscow as a ghost.

Review: Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter set out to make a documentary on Moscow’s street dogs. That film eventually evolved into a film that meditates on Laika, a wild stray dog that was launched into outer space by the Soviets in 1957. Laika did not return; she disintegrated in the heat of her craft’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The film suggests that Laika’s ghost now inhabits the strays of Moscow.

That’s an interesting premise that could lead a narrative in any number of directions.

Unfortunately, “Space Dogs” isn’t really about Laika or her ghost. It’s mostly dogs aimlessly wandering through a city chewing on cars, eating refuse and killing a house cat (more about that later). From time to time a narrator, Aleksey Serebryakov, assigns historical context to the images that often isn’t really there. The directors use authentic footage of dogs undergoing experiments (some are grotesque) and newsreels that show the Soviet space program’s propaganda machine in full force. The archival footage is always more interesting, but the juxtaposition with modern stray dogs occasionally works. Laika, a worthless street creature, rises to become a Soviet hero.

The most effective moment in the film sees a chimpanzee dressed in a coat and a glittery hat who is rented as entertainment at clubs and parties. The narrator tells us the story of Ham, the chimpanzee who was sent into space by the Americans. Ham returned from his voyage to space, but his story hardly has a happy ending.

Later in the Soviet space program they switched from dogs to turtles. So, the filmmakers include a couple of segments focused on turtles. It doesn’t work at all.

“Space Dogs” might have worked as a 20-minute short film. It doesn’t work as a 90-minute feature.

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I question the importance of including an extended scene that focuses on a dog crushing the skull of a cat in its mouth. The camera lingers at a close distance, taking in every horrific moment. The audio is as excruciating as the visuals. No one needs to see this. It's a real, senseless death that excuses and validates the laboratory footage that immediately follows it. Is the heroic spirit of Laika vengeful? Does she revel in inflicting pain and ending lives? The scene undercuts anything and everything that made "Space Dogs" the least bit poignant. Should we consider the pain we inflicted on animals in the name of science? Or shrug it off because animals are cruel to other animals and humans are just a different kind of animal?

Later in the film Kremser and Peter subject us to visuals of two dog corpses rotting. Someone poisoned their meat. Should we care? The world is cruel.

If the documentary had any real focus, you might be able to argue that these are powerful metaphors. “Space Dogs” isn’t focused; it’s mostly just boring and occasionally vicious.