Before space became humankind’s final frontier, canine-kind led the way.
Space Dogs recounts the history of the first Earthling shot into space, a Moscow street dog named Laika.
But if you’re looking for a straightforward account of Laika’s rise and fall, you’d better shift course, because Space Dogs occupies an entirely different documentary sphere.
This pensive, impressionistic tale — from writer-directors Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter — does include extensive archival footage showing Soviet scientists preparing multiple dogs for space flight.
They’re strapped into whirling anti-gravity simulators — and wired with multiple medical sensors that will record the impact of multiple weightless days beyond the Earth’s gravitational pull.
“Only the strongest and bravest Muscovite street dogs were suitable for space travel,” intones narrator Alexey Serebryakov. “They were to be so brave as to pass their training, so obedient that they might serve the people and so beautiful, so fearless in their appearance that they should personify the enchantment of heroic explorers.”
Alas, Laika — and many canine compatriots — never made it back to Earth alive. (Unlike No. 65, the pioneering U.S. chimpanzee astronaut, who had a panic attack during flight and spent his remaining days in a zoo.)
Legend has it that Laika’s ghost still roams the Moscow streets — as do the street dogs who explore whatever open space they can find in the Russian capital of today.
From parks to parking lots, from nightclubs to abandoned railroad tracks, various strays wander through Space Dogs, searching for food, roughhousing and fighting, growling and grinning.
Occasionally a human pauses to pet one — or throw one a bone excavated from a trash dumpster. One takes refuge in a junked car. Another dog on the prowl pounces on a neighborhood kitten and transforms it into his own personal chew toy. (He never does figure out how to get beneath the dead kitten’s fur to the meat underneath.)
Most of the time, this footage runs without narration or musical accompaniment. Every so often, however, narrator Serebryakov returns to augment the tale in soothing, bedtime-story style.
John Gurtler and Jan Miserre’s music, along with Jonathan Schorr’s sound design, add suitably spaced-out electronic undercurrents to Kremser and Peter’s artfully assembled but oh-so-lofty observations.
As Space Dogs suggests, between the savagery of the natural world and the inhumanity of the human one, maybe Laika was lucky she never returned to Earth at all.