What was the last really good movie you saw about space exploration? Not a science fiction film about landing on Mars or making first contact with an alien species. I’m talking about a realistic film about space exploration. Was it Alfonzo Cuaron’s Gravity? I’d argue that’s a survival thriller and not really a film about space exploration. But, even if I spot you that one, you’re looking at one or two films over the past five years or so. True space exploration films are few and far between. More often than not, any film involving space is set in a galaxy far, far away.
Enter Salyut-7, a Russian film about the damaged Soviet space station that threatened to fall out of orbit and crash to Earth in 1985. This crisis led to the first successful attempt to dock a manned vehicle with an uncontrolled craft in outer space. It is still considered to be the most technically challenging mission in the history of space exploration. It was not only a mission of scientific importance, but it was also an undertaking with significant political implications. At the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, the Russians did not want to appear incompetent on the world stage and needed to be seen as equals to their American aeronautical colleagues.
Salyut-7 works best when it’s portraying the minutiae of space exploration that can have life or death implications. What if a container of water burst on board Salyut-7 when it suffered a meteor strike? And what if that water is exposed to the cold air of outer space and crystallizes inside the space station? And then what if you have to melt that ice to get to the circuitry of the space station? How do you keep the wiring from shorting out and causing a fire? When that fire could consume the oxygen you need to survive and get home. The film wrings every moment of tension from every tiny logistical decision being made by the cosmonauts. As soon as our heroes troubleshoot one problem, another dilemma arises.
The cinematography in Salyut-7 is truly a marvel. Without the benefit of ground-breaking 3-D, the space walking scenes in this film still rival those in Gravity. The audience is literally there with the cosmonauts as they struggle to save the runaway space station from an embarrassing crash landing on Earth. Salyut-7 was arguably the best looking film at Fantastic Fest 2017, although the Hungarian film Jupiter’s Moon came in at a very close second.
Salyut-7 also touches on the nationalistic pride behind the mission. The Russians did not want or solicit American help to salvage the space station. They feared American espionage. An American shuttle launch coincided with the Soviet rescue mission. The shuttle was launched with an empty payload, and the payload bay was just large enough to store the Soviet space station in its hold. The Soviets were afraid that the United States intended to hijack Salyut-7 and pirate its technology.
The film never rises to the level of propaganda, but it will bring a smile to your face when the trumpets swell as the cosmonauts succeed in their mission under the watchful gaze of their American counterparts. You’ve seen this film-making technique used time and time again when American ingenuity triumphs over adversity. It’s interesting to see that other cultures pay homage to their heroes in such a similar manner. Whether you’re Russian, American or any other nationality, Salyut-7 makes for compelling viewing.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.