Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival merkulova English for kids, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. In its opening moments, the Russian space thriller Salyut-7 feels like an alternate-universe version of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.
This breathless, intense sequence is just the opening salvo in a high-tech thriller that’s familiar in many respects to American space blockbusters, from fiction like Gravity to historical dramas like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. Salyut-7 is also based on real history: it tracks the USSR’s dramatic 1985 mission to reboot and rescue the crippled Salyut 7 space station, after an accident left it unpowered and unresponsive to ground control. Note: the film played at Fantastic Fest with English subtitles, but there is no English-language trailer yet. This Russian-language trailer gives a sense of the film’s scope, visuals, and tone. Svetlana back into the station’s airlock, he sees a bright light he can’t explain. He’s promptly banned from space for psychological reasons. Salyut 7, with the understanding that they many not even be able to link up with it, let alone repair it.
The mission is a long series of catastrophes and setbacks: dangerously cold temperatures, ice-rimed instrument boards, leaking water, misaligned solar panels, shorted-out boards, a power housing smashed by an asteroid, and on and on. And since this is a big blockbuster drama, they both have concerns at home as well. Vladimir’s wife blows up at him when he wants to return to space, and their young daughter clearly doesn’t understand why he has to leave. Viktor’s fragile young wife is pregnant with their first child, and has to be reassured and given false promises after she has terrifying nightmares about his death. Still, those risks are portrayed in frequently stunning detail.
Salyut-7’s producers say the film features 40 minutes of footage shot in zero gravity, with 20 minutes shot in space — which they claim as a first for any movie. It’s hard to prove these claims, but they’re certainly believable, given the shots of cosmonauts operating aboard the station, and in EVA sequences. American audiences will find Salyut-7 familiar in a lot of ways, based on its story beats and action design, and its idea of how a hero is defined. The protagonists are competent and cool in emergencies. They’re cocky enough to take risks, but rational enough to contain their fears when things get grim.
There’s a distinctly Russian spin to the film’s politics, with an understanding that the government is oppressive, ignorant, image-obsessed, and willing to kill the cosmonauts to protect the space agency’s secrets. The American press also takes on a villain role, with fear-mongering TV commentators questioning whether there are nuclear weapons on Salyut 7, and turning its potential crash-landing into a worldwide crisis. Like so many blockbusters, it is at times melodramatic and corny. It’s nakedly obvious where it invents fictional incidents, or blows real ones up to outsized proportions. But like Argo, Salyut-7 is an edge-of-the-seat experience even when it veers into obviously exaggerated territory. Vdovichenkov and Derevyanko make for sympathetic figures, carefully balanced between being warm enough to be approachable, and sternly confident enough to be admirable. And that alone gives Salyut-7 a quality not often seen in equivalent American blockbusters.
The cosmonauts are in many ways drawn just like American movie heroes: reserved but relatable, jokey but skilled, capable of containing their emotions even when death approaches. But they also have their own distinctly Russian qualities — particularly their resigned world-weariness. With that in mind, it’s fascinating to see how much back talk the cosmonauts give ground control in Salyut-7. Presented with orders, they largely ignore them and strike out on their own. And Valery and his crew act like this is entirely normal, especially given how often the results pan out successfully.
Characters aside, the movie’s pacing and visual dynamics are both powerful. Shipenko packs the movie with incident, but also allows for downtime where the cosmonauts bond over smuggled vodka, or contemplate the surprising beauty of a space station filled with hanging bubbles of water. This is a frequently gorgeous film, and it gets significant impact from shots like the moment where the Soyuz, atop a column of flame, pierces the cloud layer and reaches for orbit. But above all, it’s fascinating to see this story from such a distinctly non-American perspective, from a point of view where Americans are troublemakers who designed the space shuttle specifically to steal Soviet technology, with politics that revolve around frightening the rest of the world, then presenting themselves as the heroes.