In 1957, Laika the dog became the first creature from Planet Earth to reach space. She did not do this of her own volition, of course, she was a stray picked up from the streets of Moscow and experimented upon like many others to see if she could withstand the rigours of the trip, and when it was decided she had what it took, she was blasted off into orbit and the mission was judged a success. Laika may have disagreed: she never returned from space, she was left to die in her capsule and after a while the vessel re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and burned up, reducing the animal's body to nothing. Is it better for her to have achieved this legendary claim, or would she have been better to live out her days as a stray, scavenging and fighting with her fellow dogs?
This curious Austrian documentary did have footage of the Soviet space dogs programme, but it did not apply it extensively, for it preferred to follow a couple of pooches like Laika around the streets of Moscow in more contemporary surroundings that had never quite changed as far as the plight of strays went. Yet this was no dewy-eyed, sentimental look at pitiable creatures, they were shown to be very able to look after themselves without the help of people, and what people we did see were the dog catchers or, in archive footage, the scientists who exploited the easy access to test subjects because there was nobody there to advocate for the animals. So there was an animal rights issue here, but there was a lack of authorial voice to indicate how we should react.
Much of that was left up to the viewer, for most of this was simply those two mutts getting up to their daily business of survival, with occasional voiceover building up Laika and her fellow subjects to legendary status, implying the dogs we saw here were capable of something similar, but subtly wondering if it was anything for them to be proud of, since they would have no idea what they were participating in. Other sequences were far from subtle, and animal lovers not already warned away by the premise will have their stomachs turned by the vintage clips of hounds being experimented on, with valves stuck in their bellies, strange throat operations and blood drained for analysis. The scenes of the Laika stand-ins from 2019 were not much kinder, especially where they chase and catch a kitten, then savage it to death over a long five minutes or so of screen time.
Some would find the strays material going on for too long if they wanted an examination of the original Laika, but Space Dogs was not really a scientific documentary, it was actually a nature documentary with pretensions. The reason the camera concentrated so much on the strays was, it appeared, to see what these animals got up to, the residents of Moscow either taking them for granted, ignoring them or rounding them up to be trapped in endless rows of cages. It seemed to be a real problem for the city which shooting them into space would be one solution that would at least lend them a heroic distinction rather than the status of pest to be eliminated. Not that it mattered to the dogs either way, they would not even be aware they were the stars of a movie, and this obliviousness was part and parcel of a half-romanticised, half-unsentimental approach that marked the film as more art movie than anything else. If you were after information, well, there was a smattering, but mostly you would be here to observe Laika's ghost double struggle through its neglected existence, and that held the attention rather grimly. Music by Jon Gurtler and Jan Miserre.
[Click here to watch on MUBI.]