Saturday, April 07, 2018

SFFilm ’18: Salyut-7

For the last nine years, if America wanted to get an astronaut into space, we had to hitch a ride with the Russians. However, in 1985, the American space program was so competitive, the Soviets worried we could permanently leap-frog them if we recovered their malfunctioning Salyut-7 space station. In what could be dubbed the “Russian Apollo 13,” two cosmonauts were dispatched on an emergency mission to repair or safely scuttle the station. While the circumstances of the mission were blacked-out by the Soviet media at the time, they are now the heroic stuff of Klim Shipenko’s big-budget, big-screen treatment, Salyut-7 (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival.

In the atheist USSR, seeing an angel during a space-walk is more than sufficient to get Vladimir Fyodorov permanently grounded (it probably wouldn’t have gone over so well with NASA either). Nevertheless, he is the best pure pilot available to TsUP when a power failure sends Salyut-7 into a precarious rotation. Fyodorov’s mission (which he duly accepts) will be to manually hard dock with the space station, so mission engineer Viktor Alyokhin can restore power and bring it under control. However, it is rotating faster than anyone at TsUP estimated and water leaks shorted put most of the electricals.

Although some of the Soviet authorities are depicted as loutish hard-liners, it is probably a safe bet Salyut-7 would never have been made in today’s Russia if it ended in failure. Nevertheless, if you can overlook some propagandistic nostalgia for the old Soviet days, it is a rather rousing ode to the daring spirit of space exploration. The effects are also first-rate, capturing the awe of the galactic view of Earth in all its glory.

Vladimir Vdovichenkov is credibly square-jawed as the seasoned Fyodorov (based on Vladimir Dzhanibekov) and Pavel Derevyanko is serviceable enough as the more nebbish Alyokhin (modelled on Viktor Savinykh). Their comradery is matter-of-factly convincing, but the scenes of their respective home-fronts are awkwardly manipulative (you know one of them will have to have a pregnant wife). However, probably the best work comes from Aleksandr Samoylenko as the veteran cosmonaut now serving as flight director. He doesn’t quite have the fire of Ed Harris’s Gene Kranz, but he is still notably intense and driven.

Cinematographers Serge Astakhov and Ivan Burlakov give the film an awesome sense of scope and the CGI crafts all look scrupulously true to the real-life vessels. It looks great, so the cheap, tinny-sounding score is an embarrassment bordering on an outright travesty. Despite that distracting shortcoming, the film offers an intriguing peak into the Soviet space program (and should cause viewers to despair over our recent presidents’ costly shortsightedness). Recommended as a manageably nationalistic space-faring adventure, Salyut-7 screens tomorrow (4/8), as part of this year’s SFFILM.