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RIP, Laika: 'Space Dogs' Will Break Your Heart

Some movies make people laugh until their sides ache. Others pry tears from dry eyes, keeping Kleenex in business with tearjerker endings. Horror flicks can make an audience jump, or flinch, or scream. The new documentary Space Dogs expertly elicits a more specific emotional state: Scooping up your pooch and hysterically sobbing Oh my God, I promise to never send you to space! in their perfect furry little ear immediately after watching.

Space Dogs uses archival footage to tell the story of the clever, docile, and doomed Moscow street dog Laika, the first mammal to go into orbit—and the first mammal to die there. In 1957, the Soviet Union sent Laika to space in the satellite Sputnik 2. Despite initial assurances to the public that the pup would come back unharmed, she was always intended as a sacrifice to scientific progress, as there was no way to return her to Earth at the time. For years, the party line from officials was that Laika had been humanely euthanized before the satellite reentered the atmosphere. In reality, she lasted less than a day before heat and stress killed her, turning the object of cosmic progress into her small coffin. The film doesn’t have footage of Laika suffering in space (thank God) but it does have plenty of clips of scientists putting Laika and a few other research dogs through a barrage of exercises—they spin in a centrifuge, dazed—and subjecting them to invasive, gruesome surgeries in order to rig them up with the necessary sensors to see how long they’d last alone above the planet’s atmosphere.

It is not a pleasant viewing experience. In fact, if I had to imagine the film I would least like to be forced to watch, Clockwork Orange-style, with my eyes pried open, it might be this one. It is a stylish and honest film—a rare combination!—but also merciless.

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Space Dogs weaves its ghastly tape of the Soviet space race with footage of a pair of contemporary Muscovite strays going about their daily canine lives. The camera follows these modern creatures low to the ground, with minimal narration, creating a roving, diaristic dog’s-eye view. They trot from city sidewalks to leafy resting grounds, digging and barking and snarling and playing. The cinematography is beautiful, almost dreamy, but the scenes are pieced together to unsettle, to make the viewer acutely aware of the gulf between human and dog. In one jarringly long and close-up scene, one of the dogs tortures and kills a poor neighborhood cat. Most honest nature documentaries following predators don’t shy away from showing the bloody reality of how they eat, but Space Dogs lingers over the cat’s limp corpse in a way that feels punitive, almost accusatory. Toward the film’s end, the camera follows another startlingly hideous moment: A litter of stray puppies is poisoned by a local man, for reasons unknown.

Directors Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter describe the relationship between dogs and humans and the story of Laika as “a bitterness that we choose to illustrate” in a promotional statement for the film. And it is a brutal and bitter movie, a more bracing testimony to cruelty than PETA has ever dreamed up.

Space Dogs will be available in mid-September through a few different venues, including the Alamo Drafthouse’s virtual release program. Its brutality is certainly not going to appeal to everyone. There is, however, something respectable and clarifying about its commitment to acerbity. The sad story of Laika has inspired artists and writers for decades since the guileless little dog burned up alone. She is often memorialized as a heroic creature whose martyrdom earned her immortality among the stars. The truth is, Laika’s life was collateral damage, and the decades-long Russian project to memorialize her as a symbol of national pride is little more than a guilt-assuagement exercise. Space Dogs offers dignity to its pitiable subjects by stripping away any pretensions that humans have been friends to the creatures they claim as their closest companions. But it’s hard to have a reaction after it ends other than: Woof.

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