This is a Russian version of the recently-popular peril in space sub-genre (Gravity, The Martian), though – as a dramatisation of a 1985 incident involving the Soviet Salyut-7 space station – it aspires to be a true life suspense and improvised mechanical fix picture equivalent to Apollo 13. Cosmonauts Dzhanibekov and Savinykh get fictional surnames, and I suspect soapier details of their situation are invented. Here, mission commander Vladimir Fyodorov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) has a young daughter (Polina Rudenko) cutely introduced on a potty asking about poop and a long-suffering wife (Mariya Mironova) who accuses him of being more interested in going into space than spending time with his family (well, duh) … while engineer Viktor Alyokhin (Pavel Derevyanko) is teased for not being a real cosmonaut because he only designed the space station and has never floated around outside it (that will change) and has a short-suffering wife (Lyubov Aksyonova) who is heavily pregnant. In a bit of space legendry, Vladimir is initially suspended from the program because – while effecting a calm rescue of a comrade (Oksana Fandera) with a leaking glove – he seemed to see ‘angels’ (several Salyut-7 cosmonauts reported this phenomenon, notably Oleg Atkov), but called back to duty when he’s the only man to command the repair mission.
The major feat of the real story was the piloting of the Soyuz T-13 capsule to dock with the space station, achieved without benefit of the usual computer telemetry because power in the Salyut-7, unmanned at the time, had failed. In this telling, there is a dangerous stretch after the docking – with one cosmonaut suffering raptures of space and almost opening an airlock under the delusion that a rescue ship had come for them, and the possibility there was only enough oxygen to get one of the men home. It’s almost poetic in a very Russian (indeed, very Soviet) sense that after the feat of skill and piloting in the docking sequence, the climax hinges on the lowest of lo-tech solutions as the spacemen go outside and have to bring the station back online by battering a meteor-mangled bit of pipe with a big hammer the way Shane and the farmer root out that dead tree. In sympathy, down on Earth, the mission controller (Aleksandr Samoylenko) does the same on a grounded ship. The tough commander spends the film in earnest worry over comrades in space and their womenfolk on Earth (the question ‘why do cosmonauts always have daughters?’ is addressed). He also has to fend off Soviet suits who want to shoot the station down with a missile before the US space shuttle can cruise by and steal the thing out of orbit so the wicked Americans – and their perfidious French guest astronaut, previously a guest on the Salyut-7 – can get their hands on all that Soviet technology (there’s also a paranoid fillip where someone suggests the crisis might have been caused by a test firing of Ronald Reagan’s imaginary SDI).
As drama, the film is at once a bit too technical – the genuinely astonishing feat has to be explained several times before its scale sinks in (the docking is between two vehicles moving at dizzying speeds) – and contrived, with the stars getting breakdowns and stoic recoveries to order. But it delivers space spectacle on a suitably vast scale (in Russia, it’s a 3D IMAX release) with impressive effects and ambitious camerawork. Outside Russia, its audience may well be mostly space buffs and Cold War kitsch-collectors but it certainly delivers awesome views.