Issue 57 (2017)

Dmitrii Kiselev: Spacewalk (Vremia pervykh, 2017)

reviewed by Natalija Majsova© 2017

vremya pervykhSpacewalk is director Dmitrii Kiselev’s first addition to the archive of post-Soviet Russian cinematography on outer space. Produced by Timur Bekmambetov, Evgenii Mironov and Sergei Ageev, Spacewalk was conceived as a monumental contribution to the consolidation of the cinematic imagery of the Soviet space program. The film was produced on an impressive budget of 400,000,000 rubles and premiered on 6 April 2017, just six days before Cosmonaut’s Day, the anniversary of Iurii Gagarin’s first spaceflight.

Like most post-Soviet outer-space-themed films, Spacewalk was inspired by historical milestones of the Soviet space program. At the same time, it is not a documentary that would aim at meticulously recreating the story of Leonov’s pioneering spacewalk, executed in 1965, but rather a grand and poetic attempt to convey the greatness of the cosmonaut’s achievement while firmly anchoring it within a specific historical context and contributions of certain individuals.

vremya pervykhOver two hours, Spacewalk presents an exponentially thrilling narrative. It takes the spectator through the background of Aleksei Leonov’s cosmonaut aspirations and achievements, the circumstances which brought about his daring and somewhat premature spacewalk, and the many obstacles that followed the experiment, which was to firmly posit the USSR ahead of the USA in the 1960s race for space.

The historically-conscious adventure thriller directed by Dmitrii Kiselev, the third director offered the script after Sergei Bodrov and Iurii Bykov, whose touch is still present in a small portion of the “dramatic scenes,” carefully positions the Soviet response to Hollywood space-exploration production, such as Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2013), within the post-WWII context of the Soviet space program. In doing so, it pays a significant amount of attention to the relationship between the chief constructor responsible for most of the Soviet achievements in this domain, Sergei Korolev (played by Vladimir Il’in), the political establishment of the time, and the cosmonauts. This is a common triad in Soviet and post-Soviet space-themed cinema, and Spacewalk is clearly conscious of and affirmative in regard to this tradition.

vremya pervykhOn the most schematic level of narrative and visual aesthetics, Korolev—a remarkably serious, meticulous and daring man—invariantly addresses the cosmonauts by the nickname of his own creation: oreliki (little eagles), just as he does in films such as Gagarin. First in Space (Gagarin. Pervyi v kosmose, dir. Pavel Parkhomenko, 2013) and the two films dedicated specifically to his own character and role in the Soviet space program, The Chief Constructor (Glavnyi, 2015), and Korolev (2007), both directed by Iurii Kara. In slight contrast to these films, Korolev of Spacewalk also seems to be well aware of the particularities of Russian history and cultural milieu. One of the most remarkable lines uttered by Korolev in Spacewalk alludes to the traumatic history of the Russian people who, according to him, have gotten used to flying “in shackles.” What if the shackles were removed? We would crash into oblivion, concludes the chief constructor.

Korolev’s quote can be seen as the nexus of the relationship between the constructor, the Soviet power structures and Soviet cosmonauts. The first reference to the infamous shackles is actually made by Leonov (played by Evgenii Mironov), who, enthusiastic about the spacewalk project and convinced in its feasibility, attempts to reassure the concerned, responsible and careful Korolev. “We will fly in shackles, if need be,” insists Leonov, highlighting the active, action-hero nature of his character in this film.

vremya pervykhJust like Korolev, Leonov, whose figure was constructed through conversations with real historical references to cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov (the protagonist of Spacewalk), bases his own patriotism and sense of duty on the intellectual and historical heritage of the Soviet state. In the first part of the film, his character is clearly carved out from his cosmonaut training and references to his simple childhood in the Soviet countryside. When confronted with unexpected obstacles during his pioneering spacewalk, Leonov remembers the Soviet victory in World War II, positing the wartime struggle as the ultimate battle, even graver than his own battle against malfunctioning technology and the prospects of not returning from his space mission alive.

The narrative of the many difficulties encountered and the feats achieved by the Soviet people thanks to its capacity for carrying out extraordinary ideas conceived in the realms of politics and science set Spacewalk apart from more conventional space-themed adventure thrillers, despite the fact that Leonov’s and his pilot Pavel Beliaev’s (played by Konstantin Khabenskii) space mission and their return to Earth take up over half of the film.

The part of the film set in space is in rhythmic juxtaposition to the events “on Earth” While being embedded in the context of Soviet politics and ideological narratives of the 1960s, this part of the film clearly responds to the expectations of spectators hoping for an action-filled breath-taking thriller. Carefully constructed with the help of a special CGI solution developed by Aleksandr Gorokhov’s computer studio CGF and a team of dedicated stuntmen, Leonov’s spacewalk appears to be respectful of the historical narrative. However, closer inspection reveals the presence of a clear preference for spectacularity over technological coherence.

vremya pervykhJust like Korolev and Leonov, the scenes in zero gravity are allusions to what have, over the past fifty years of space exploration and post-spaceflight cinema, become poetic and easily recognizable tropes of the spaceflight mise-en-scene. Egor Belikov’s review (2017) of Spacewalk insightfully describes the zero-gravity scenes in the film as a “phantom-like nostalgia for the times of the space race, equally unfamiliar to the director and the spectator.” This argument may easily be extended beyond the scene in point. As a whole, the film aspires to recreate a nostalgic image of the space-gazing aspect of Soviet history. It operates from within a world, abundant in symbols of the Soviet 1960s, such as (now compellingly, stylishly retro) hairstyles and dresses, television sets and space control rooms, as well as interiors of Soviet apartments, where the cosmonauts’ families wait to hear the final “verdict”: Has the mission succeeded?

vremya pervykhAs a topic, space exploration provides an elegant detour from the logic of straightforward happy endings. Particularly for pioneering 20th-century missions, smooth landing was often a task similarly difficult to those in outer space. Spacewalk uses a significant portion (over 30 minutes) of its runtime to highlight this point, adding another layer to the monumentality of the Soviet space program and to the heroism of its cosmonauts. Due to failures of key mechanisms, Beliaev and Leonov have to land their spaceship manually, which results in their landing in a remote and almost poetically cold and snowed-under area in the Perm area. The cosmonauts had spent hours waiting for the rescue team, risking their lives to the same extent they had in space.

As Shchipin’s review (2017) points out, this second instance of the trope of being lost in space—this time the hostile space of the Soviet north in the winter—reinforces the mythical dimension of Spacewalk. In their white spacesuits, the stranded cosmonauts appear both heroic and absurd, as if referring to the many parodic takes on the Soviet space program, such as Aleksei Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon (Pervye na lune, 2004). A miner’s son and a WWII-pilot, who were hurried off onto a premature mission in order to prove Soviet supremacy in outer space to the USA, somehow, against all odds, make it back to Earth on a spaceship prone to malfunctions. Alienated in their heroism, they are finally saved after their signal is picked up by the headquarters in Baikonur.

Natalija Majsova
University of Ghent

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Works Cited

Belikov, Egor. 2017. “Vremia pervykh.”TimeOut. No date.

Shchipin, Sasha. 2017. “Vremia pervykh: K zvezdam v kandalakh.” Snob.ru 7 April.

 

 


Spacewalk, Russia, 2017
Color, 140 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Kiselev
Script: Dmitrii Pinchukov Iurii Korotkov, Sergei Kaluzhanov, Irina Pivovarova, Oleg Pogodin
DoP: Vladimir Bashta
Composer: Iurii Poteenko
Editing: Anton Anisimov, Aleksei Kumakshin, Nikolai Bulygin, Andrei Shugaev
Production Design: Angelina Trekhova, Vladimir Kuptsov
Cast: Evgenii Mironov, Konstantin Khabenskii, Vladimir Il’in, Anatolii Kotenev, Aleksandra Ursuliak, Aleksandr Novin, Elena Panova, Aleksandr Il’in Jr., Iurii Nifontov, Iurii Itskov, Gennadii Smirnov, Valerii Grishko, Sergei Batalov, Aleksandr Karpilovskii, Avangard Leont’ev
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Evgenii Mironov, Sergei Ageev
Production BAZELEVS, Tretii Rim [Third Rome], CGF
Distribution (RF) Bazelevs Distribution

Dmitrii Kiselev: Spacewalk (Vremia pervykh, 2017)

reviewed by Natalija Majsova© 2017

Updated: 09 Jul 17