Thursday, June 14, 2018

Movie Review: 'Salyut 7' Is Sort of A Mess. You Should Still See It

"Viktor, did you know I did all of the vocal tracks for Thriller? Well, I did. That guy Michael Jackson is partying it up back on Earth, and here I am, my ass is stuck on this damn frozen space station." Screenshot from Salyut 7 movie.
Salyut 7 bears the name of the Soviet-era, pre-Mir space station that boasted many firsts, including the second woman in space and the first woman to perform an EVA (both records held by Svetlana Savitskaya). Indeed, the film opens with a (partially fictionalized) depiction of her famous spacewalk. However, in the months following this first, Salyut 7 would run into big trouble; ground controllers were unable to communicate with the space station, and it was believed to be irretrievably dead. A great article discussing the actual efforts to save the station, helmed by Soyuz T-13 cosmonauts Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh, is accessible through Sven Grahn’s website. Being fair to the subject, this remains one of the greatest “rescue” stories in spaceflight history. While Skylab was in desperate shape following its May 1973 launch, it wasn’t dead. Dzhanibekov and Savinykh resurrected the station following what seemed like irreversible death – the station was literally frozen upon entry, forcing both cosmonauts to don winter garb.

The real cosmonauts of Soyuz T-13, Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh. Photo Credit: Spacefacts.de
There are spaceflight-related movies that portray historic events in a manner that elevates the events’ status (Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff), and there are some that miss the mark entirely (1974’s fulsome TV movie Houston, We’ve Got A Problem, which was very, very, very loosely based on the events surrounding Apollo 13). The recently-released Russian film, Salyut 7, is sold as that nation’s equivalent to Apollo 13, but falls somewhere in the middle – at once portraying real-life events with startling accuracy and beauty, but also having moments that are completely over-the-top insane to the point of hilarity. That being said, I loved it. Note: there are spoilers below.

The movie’s “Vladimir” comes with a twist. Banned from spaceflight following an unfortunate attack of “seeing angels” during his flight with “Svetlana,” movie Vladimir is stuck on Earth in a modest Soviet-era apartment with his wife and daughter, smoking cigarettes, drinking vodka, and wearing the official uniform of Being Fired, a tank top, all the time.

Enter the plight of a suddenly-dead space station, and one intrepid, slightly physically violent flight director named Valery. Valery just happens to run into Vladimir at a gas station, and somehow after one awkward exchange and a lot of other failed potential mission commanders screwing up in the Soyuz simulator, our hero Vlad is named as the mission commander to save Salyut 7. This comes after a meeting on Earth where Cold War-era concerns about the U.S. sabotaging the space station are discussed, including possible interference by the space shuttle Challenger and an evil, sneaky AF French astronaut who happens to have a lot of knowledge about Salyut 7 (based very loosely on Jean-Loup Chr├ętien, who flew aboard Salyut 7 in real life).

...But enough of the plot line, because soon it won’t even make sense or really matter. One of the best things about Salyut 7 is its realistic depiction of what the dead space station must have looked like to Dzhanibekov and Savinykh upon first entry: all surfaces are covered in ice and “snow,” and the juxtaposition of the twinkly, icy/wet surfaces against Soviet-era space technology is quite breathtaking. The visual and practical effects are stunning, and Salyut 7 is beautiful film. Also, as someone who has very little first-hand knowledge of what the Soviet era was like, the film’s depiction of mid-1980s Soviet life is eye-opening.

But back to the good parts: after a completely unbelievable docking sequence, the crew tries to resuscitate the space station, to little effect. I won’t spoil too much of these parts, but at one point it all looks hopeless, and only the crew’s flight engineer is ordered home – dooming our hero Vladimir to certain death. Flight director Valery freaks out to great dramatic effect at this point, throwing a chair through a pane glass window to underscore the fact that THIS SITUATION IS OUT OF CONTROL. At this point, with no f--ks left to give, Vladimir lights up a cigarette inside Salyut 7 pondering nothingness. But have no fear, a life-saving EVA is just around the corner...along with a greeting from an international frienemy you’ll never forget! I ended the movie with a dry mouth and a migraine, wondering WTF happened.

So is Salyut 7 accurate? Well, there are parts that are accurate, and parts that veer very far from what actually happened. But you should still see this movie, even if some parts are slightly messy.

Salyut 7 is currently free on Amazon Prime.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

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