Ostensibly an alternative biography of Laika, the stray mongrel who became the first cosmonaut, this film faithfully tracks her from her time on the streets of Moscow to her lonely demise in low Earth orbit. Incredible archive footage shows us Laika and a number of other dogs being subjected to a relentless barrage of exercises designed to mimic the incredible stress of space travel; it’s hard not to be affected by the footage knowing, as we do, that Laika is being led to an excruciating end.
Space Dogs documents a cruel period in human history but the bleak tone the film-makers pursue throughout may not be the best way of dealing with it. It is designed, perhaps, to numb you to the horror of what you are witnessing but the unspeakable acts are presented without comment or context.
There’s a secondary narrative here, with Laika’s story interwoven with the tale of a pair of strays navigating the barren streets of modern Moscow. Their story, presumably, is intended to mirror Laika’s intrepid journey, but the unremarkable footage acts as a drag on the film’s momentum.
Narration is sparingly employed throughout, which is a shame given the quality of the writing; this is one of those films that could actually do with more exposition and insight. We see, for example, the post-mission project designed to memorialise Laika as a symbol of Soviet ingenuity – but we don’t hear from the men responsible for this state-sponsored torture. A defence of their actions would have given this otherwise beautiful-looking film a third dimension it’s lacking.
Laika’s dead body is wonderfully described as a “cosmic flotsam” over the opening credits. It’s hard to shake the feeling that a genuinely arresting documentary was cast adrift somewhere along the line.
• Space Dogs is available on Mubi on 10 September.