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by Jay Seaver

"A Soviet Apollo 13 because love of space defies borders."
4 stars

As someone who was 11 years old and into space in 1985, I feel like I should remember the mission portrayed in this film more clearly (or at all); as someone who likes movies now, I'm grateful that I happened to be in Canada during the right window to catch it on the big screen, as it seems to have gone straight to streaming services in the United States. It's a terrific story and if the movie sometimes seems a bit dry, that's more because astronauts (or, in this case, cosmonauts) tend to be extraordinarily capable people rather than the situation not being dramatic.

Though the film is based upon actual events, it does change characters' surnames, fudge the timeline a bit, and apparently enhance the drama, starting by showing a micrometeorite impact on the Soviet Salyut-7 space station that causes it to shut down and lose contact with Earth while uninhabited in between missions. Simply abandoning it is not an option, as the station would fit neatly in the cargo hold of an American space shuttle (and the latest mission would include a French astronaut who had previously visited Salyut-7), so a mission is hastily prepped with engineer Victor Alekhin (Pavel Derevyanko) and commander Vladimir Fedorov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who had been grounded for claiming to see angels on his previous spacewalk, but is probably the only pilot who could manually dock a Soyuz capsule with the station, which is spinning on all three axes at a rate of over 1 degree per second. On the ground, Valery Shudin (Aleksandr Samoylenko) tries to give them the support they need, although many in the military advise shooting the station down before the Americans can recover it.

I am, I admit, a little disappointed to discover after a quick visit to Wikipedia that this film takes plenty of liberties with actual events, although another part of me is willing to accept the story being told because it is great drama and because few individual moments play like something unlikely or simple bad science. The filmmakers present a believable set of cascading disasters, smart solutions, and cold-war concerns that make for a thrilling film. It's a vivid illustration of just how many things must be carefully attended to for manned space exploration to work, and the incredibly thin margins when something goes wrong. It may not have really happened this way, but it certainly could have, so the tension on display is real.

And so, similarly, is the beauty. Some of it is questionable (you either enjoy the kitsch of mid-80s Soviet tech and decoration or you don't), but the visual effects crew does a terrific job here, from thoroughly believable docking scenes to the nightmare scenario of a space station whose inside is somehow covered in snow - with the inevitable question of what happens when it melts one of the more eye-popping uses of 3D in the past year or so. Free-fall is handled very well, but what catches my eye most is how director Klim Shipenko and the visual effects team do the tricky work of quickly shifting between showing relative motion - that is, how Soyuz T-13 needs relatively small nudges when trying to dock with Salyut-7 because they have matched velocities - and the absolute speed of objects that are moving so incredibly fast that they circle the Earth sixteen times a day. It's a very specific bit of visual storytelling, but one many space movies don't much consider.

The cosmonauts themselves are in pretty good hands, with the cast mostly made up of people who can honor real-life heroism but also put forth humanity. Vladimir Vdovichenko, for instance, finds just the right amount of ego for Fedorov, a veteran cosmonaut who, though friends with Alekhin, initially feels himself a bit detached from those who have lived their entire life on Earth. Pavel Derevyanko makes Alekhin nervous (he also has a first child on the way) but not to a comedic effect, and not weak when he becomes overwhelmed. Aleksandr Samoylenko handles the dedicated man on the ground with aplomb.

In fact, both Vdovichenko and Derevyanko were nominated for the Russian equivalent of the Academy Awards for their performance, with the film itself winning best picture. That makes the film a bit more noteworthy beyond audiences who like space stuff, and more a shame that it's just skipping theaters entirely in many places. If you can catch it during its (likely brief) run in Canada, give it a shot; if you can't, it's likely still worth checking out at home.

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originally posted: 07/26/18 23:09:53
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