Issue 59 (2018)

Klim Shipenko: Salyut-7 (Saliut-7, 2017)

reviewed by Natalija Majsova© 2018

salyutSalyut-7 is this year’s second space exploration blockbuster produced in Russia. The first cinematic adaptation of the 1985-real historical space thriller took to the cinemas in September, having ceded April, the most desirable Russian space-film premier-date, to Spacewalk (Vremia pervykh, dir. Dmitrii Kiselev). Nevertheless, some analysts predict that this expensive production, which features arguably the most complicated space rescue mission to date, might rival Spacewalk, an epic account of cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov’s pioneering spacewalk of 1965, at the box-office.

Salyut-7 is probably the most action-oriented contemporary Russian space exploration feature film. The producers are said to have claimed the thriller involves scenes shot in zero gravity, and even several scenes shot directly in space (see Robinson 2017). Whether this statement is true or not is not an issue: Salyut-7 is a spectacular tale about a risky space rescue mission and the miracle of its success. It is not nearly as concerned with accuracy as it is with conveying an overall atmosphere of grandiosity.

The film foregrounds the topic of the heroism of Soviet cosmonauts, doing so in a markedly different way from, say, the aforementioned Spacewalk. Along with other Russian films on spaceflight Spacewalk links the heroism of highly trained individuals to what appears to be a nationally-specific trait. The cosmonauts’ ability to withstand enormous amounts of stress, to deal with hopeless situations, is cinematically aligned with Russian history, which enabled people to develop the capacity to withstand numerous diverse horrors. Salyut-7 does not articulate this historical premise as explicitly; rather, it employs its central characters, the heroic cosmonauts, as a-historical embodiments of the remarkable national characteristic.

salyutThe film’s protagonists, the cosmonauts Vladimir Fedorov and Viktor Aliokhin—based on the real-life space heroes Vladimir Zhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh, who had managed to access and regain control of the disaster-struck Salyut-7 space station in 1985—are perfectly at ease with all kinds of unexpected obstacles and unbelievable complications. Vladimir and Viktor embody the Communist New Men, fully committed to their mission, and fully capable of completing it regardless of the equipment at hand. Aware of the necessity to reach Salyut-7 first, before the U.S. rival shuttle threatening to find out the secrets of the Soviet space program under the guise of a rescue mission, Vladimir and Viktor do not even require guidance from the command center on Earth. In fact, they consciously and deliberately disregard certain commands from Earth when they feel they have better ideas on how to save the day— such as taking a sledgehammer out into space, attempting to crack the carcass of the unresponsive Salyut-7.

salyutThis utopian image of the cosmonaut as a fully autonomous space-worker, a technician and a strategist in one, is a relatively novel development in post-Soviet Russian cinematic depictions of the history of Soviet spaceflight. Salyut-7 is the first film that emphasizes the figure of the cosmonaut, very much at the expense of the command center, which appears amoebic, somewhat incompetent, and out of touch with the action that takes place in the celestial realm.

Structurally, Salyut-7 follows the recipe laid out by many other films on space exploration. The scenes “in space” are counterpointed with scenes “on Earth”. The scenes “on Earth” construct the lost world of the Soviet past, seen as a “promised land” by the cosmonauts. This promised land is haunted by the trope of quiet family life and by the political Cold War division. The world of Salyut-7 emerges in stark opposition to an “American” world, which, just like in Spacewalk, Gagarin. First in Space, and other Russian productions on the history of the Soviet space program, remains inaccessible, even hermetically sealed. Its contours are only hinted at by passing remarks referring to current political events. Salyut-7, with its plot driven by the need to overtake the Americans in accessing a malfunctioning Soviet space station, contains a reference to Star Wars. The spectator is thus reminded of the famous anti-Soviet speech by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1983, suggesting the need for a massive anti-Soviet missile protection system.

salyutUnlike certain other cinematic productions on the first cases of spaceflight, which primarily celebrate the scientific achievements that enabled them, Salyut-7 fully subordinates the post-1960s development of the Soviet space program to its militarist undertones and to the antagonisms of the Cold War. Salyut-7 is a continuation and extrapolation of the myth of Soviet supremacy in outer space, mainly created around the figure of the first cosmonaut, Iurii Gagarin. In terms of space-related Soviet and post-Soviet Russian genre cinema, this myth is created and fully developed in a static, a-historical world. Films on the Khrushchev era’s Soviet space program establish a system of symbolic coordinates that integrates the Soviet space age into a network of values and aspirations that supposedly played a formative role in the early history of spaceflight. Salyut-7, situated over two decades later, merely exploits this coordinate system without adding anything new. At a certain point, cosmonaut Vladimir’s romantic partner, the mother of his child, asks how he would describe his life in the USSR to the people of Madagascar, had he accidentally landed on their island. “My daughter, football, and building communism,” he responds, stipulating that these are the matters he loves.

salyutSalyut-7 is a rare film that addresses the period of Soviet space history which was no longer dominated by long-time chief constructor Sergei Korolev. As if in solemn awareness of the fact that there will never be such a talented, erudite, and valuable man at the head of the Soviet space command center, the film chooses to downplay the role of the Soviet authorities, inventing a new hero: the cosmonaut. This cosmonaut—undoubtedly male, undoubtedly superior to all the women (mothers, lovers, wives, a competent and eternally healthcare professional) in the film—is elevated to the level of a pro-active and autonomous hero at the expense of the semiotic trivialization of the theme of spaceflight.

The heroes of Salyut-7 are skilled stuntmen, and the narrative of the film is indeed more in dialogue with Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) than with more complex and thoughtful films of this genre. Having established this, it should of course be mentioned that it plays out as a worthy competitor in the genre of action thrillers with no deeper intention in mind. Its use of special effects used for space scenes, witty, culturally-specific, yet easily understandable jokes and carefully measured active pace clearly demonstrate director Klim Shipenko’s extensive mileage in mainstream, high-budget, entertainment-oriented productions.

Natalija Majsova
University of Antwerp

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Works Cited

Robinson, Tasha. 2017. “Russia’s space blockbuster Salyut-7 is a fascinating look at cinematic heroism.” The Verge 29 September.

Salyut-7, Russia, 2017
DCP, 111 minutes, color
Director Klim Shipenko
Scriptwriters Alexei Samoletov, Klim Shipenko, Aleksei Chupov, Natalia Merkulova, Bakur Bakuradze
Cinematography Sergei Astakhov, Ivan Burlakov
Costume Design: Nadezhda Vasilieva, Tatiana Patrakhaltseva, Elena Lukianova
Music: Vlad Zhukov, Ivan Burliaiev, Dmitrii Noskov, Sviatoslav Kurashov
Stunts: Sergei Golovkin
Editing: Mariia Sergeienkova
Cast: Pavel Derevianko, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Igor’ Ugol’nikov, Liubov’ Aksenova, Oksana Fandera, Polina Rudenko, Mariia Mironova, Vladimir Matveev, Nikita Panfilov, Roman Perelygin
Producers Anton Zlatopolskii, Sergei Selianov, Bakur Bakuradze, Iuliia Mishkinene, Natalia Smirnova
Production CTB Film Company, Globus-film, Lemon Films Studio

Klim Shipenko: Salyut-7 (Saliut-7, 2017)

reviewed by Natalija Majsova© 2018

Updated: 2018