Laika: Forget historic tragedy, this first space dog saves alien planets
The story of Laika—the first pup launched into space—has been documented everywhere from Ars Technica to Arcade Fire songs. This decidedly tragic tale starts with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanting to press his country's perceived space advantage over the United States after the USSR's Sputnik had beaten US efforts into the heavens back in October 1957.
"We never thought that you would launch a Sputnik before the Americans," Khrushchev told famed rocket guru Sergei Korolev, according to cosmonaut Georgy Grechko. "But you did it. Now please launch something new in space for the next anniversary of our revolution."
That "something" would be a female dog named Laika. And Soviet space leaders had just one month to get this effort together. Picked off Moscow streets and sent into the lab then the skies, Laika's contribution to space history would be largely symbolic. Her capsule contained a temperature-control system and some dog food, but the Soviets must've always viewed this as a one-way, suicide mission—no one had yet solved the problem of how to safely return a spacecraft through Earth's atmosphere, after all. Within a couple of hours after launch, the thermal control system failed and the capsule overheated. Humanity's first attempt to send a living creature into space ended, well, not great.
But what if Laika had a more storybook (particularly a children's storybook) ending? Laika, Czech director Aurel Klimt's new stop-motion animated musical based on his previous puppet stage play chooses to imagine the most famous dog in space history with a bit more cunning and a lot more success. And at its recent Fantastic Fest screening, the film proved to be wilder than just about any of its space history counterparts.
The “based on a true story” part
Laika's premise stays historically accurate(ish) right up 'til the night before the titular dog's famous flight. You see, Laika had been picked up by a couple of government thugs in the name of science while trying to scrounge scraps for her three pups. So when the scientists put her in a lab cage and shut the lights off for the evening, this highly intelligent canine manages to escape and return to her family.
Yet, Laika can't do so without at least checking out the vehicle these scientists intend to hand her the keys to. And when she sticks her head into the capsule, Laika seems to be struck by the grandiosity of it all. She still sneaks some lab food to her pups on the streets, but surprisingly the scientists find Laika back in the cage the next morning. They load her up, brace for lift-off, and…
"You're famous now!" we hear scientists say over the radio as Laika's rocket soars. "The first living creature to go to outer space… "
"Yeah I'm thrilled," Laika responds (though it's not clear if these Earth humans can understand). As the rocket ascends higher and higher, we see the US launch facilities watching with dismay and scrambling to get their own animal (a chimp named Ham) up to space, too. Meanwhile, Soviet comms seem to fizzle quickly at these new heights. "Laika, are you there?" mission control asks.
"No, I let myself out for a walk," she snaps, but the scientists only hear woof. With her base team now out of range, we see what Laika had in store: she sneaked her three pups onto the rocket, too. The trio breaks out into song—called "Laika," it has a fairly catchy "Li-li-li-li-li-laika" chorus and sounds vaguely like Stereolab—and the family managed to stay together as they journey into a brave new world (/version of history).
The “ah, its a kid movie” part
The overarching story in Laika ultimately has a familiar children's movie bent: animals good, humans bad. Filmmaker Klimt planned on leaning into that the whole time. "It is fascinating to witness humankind's hubris with which it puts itself above all other living creation on Earth and decides over their being or non-being and how particularly pontifical is the human treatment of animals in the name of science," he writes in his introduction to the film. "I believe this to be one of the big issues of our time and particularly suitable for an animated movie."
So as various US and USSR rocket launches send more and more animals into space within Laika, Laika and her pups, Ham the chimp, and an assortment of others (a cow, a pig, a penguin, etc.) all end up on a lavish planet boasting its own animal-like space creatures. The water tastes like honey, Ham can find all the space bananas he'd like, and everybody gets along. "Based on you creatures, your planet must be beautiful," says a giraffe/starfish(?)-like alien named (in hopefully a questionable translation) Queerneck. "It is, but unfortunately humans have taken over," Laika responds and foreshadows.
Things seem decidedly smooth until the jealous Yuri Gaga… err Leftkin in the film… lands on this fantastical planet. Yuri didn't like Laika before, complaining from the start that a dog would get space glory instead of him ("I strongly object to giving the honor of being first into space to some mutt and not to me," he told scientists, to which they replied "You want to come, home right?" He still wanted vodka, after all).
When Yuri and Laika reunite, their exchange goes something like this:
"You were supposed to die a heroic death in the name of scientific progress!" he tells Laika.
"Same for you, but I bet they're already building a monument for you," she replies (in space, evidently humans can understand dogs).
"Well, to bite the imperialistic scientists is a heroic deed!" Yuri says, launching into a rant about how one day the oppressed will rise and build a more progressive society in its place. ("Maybe we should just ignore him," Ham suggests to his fellow Earth animals.)
In order to survive and adapt to his new surroundings on the animal planet, the cosmonaut initially seems willing to play nice. But everything, of course, doesn't stay so peaceful. Yuri eventually tires of eating plants and fruits, and it seems like Laika and Ham's animal friends (both the Earth and alien varieties) slowly start disappearing. The rate of this only increases when Neil Armst… err, Knockout… lands on the planet, too. Suddenly, Laika, Ham, and her pups need to come up with a plan to outwit their human foes and save this intergalactic animal kingdom from extinction.
The “Ooo, this gets weird” part
Laika may have one or two “scary” parts for really young kids otherwise attracted to stop-motion animals in space films, but it offers plenty to like. The animation itself charms: the grays and dark hues of human life in the USSR contrast brilliantly with all the color found in these animals and their new home planet. Klimt and his crew also add many smirk-worthy details like what you'd expect from a Wallace and Gromit work. The computers in Yuri's spaceship rely on little robot hands moving an abacus (slowly if it's broken, but luckily Yuri has sickle and a small can of oil on board to fix it).
The songs generally feel fun and well-done even if they aren't all as catchy for the older crowd as Laika's Stereolab stand-in. Neil and Yuri belt about barbecue as they turn an old capsule into a smoker during one memorable late number. Overall, Laika looks and feels like art with a lot of love put into it (apparently, it remains one of only a few films ever made in the Czech Republic to deploy stereoscopy).
However, the movie's oddities should act as the real determining factor in whether or not you'd ever show this to a child. For instance, maybe the translation for that giraffe/starfish alien's name has some accuracy, because at one point the creature has its own musical number that seems to ostensibly be about… a desire to explore how all the galaxy's creatures reproduce?
Again, the strength of the subtitle translation remains an open question. English-subtitled lyrics include "You know, multiplication is my hobby," and the chorus comes across as "Sinful thoughts, sinful thoughts." And text accuracy aside, Queerneck does absolutely try to get what seems to be intended as a comedic look inside Yuri's spacesuit at one point later in the film. Does all this qualify as some bad humor abroad or do we need a better translation for English-speaking audiences?
For adults, on the other hand, Laika has enough amusing aspects to propel you through its 88-minute runtime. The idea of Yuri as a glory-obsessed, revenge-against-animals-bent monster leads to handful of good bits, as does any time the movie chooses to demonstrate the Americans as behind in the space race ("The Americans sent a monkey to space," Yuri tells people in a bar as he works off Laika-related sadness. "Flea-ridden, sure, but still… "). Laika also routinely slips in over-the-top communism versus democracy statements whenever Yuri or Neil show up. Upon first landing on the planet, as just one example, Neil tells his Soviet counterpart, "You must give good advice and be kind and allow them to live democratically and freely," in order to get along with aliens. (The Czech Film Fund helped pay for the project and may feel some sort of way about all stuff, perhaps.)
Alternative space histories have been done before—just last year, Ars caught The Landing about the strange deaths of two returning astronauts from "Apollo 18"—as have straight dramatized biopics. But a hybrid-history, tongue-in-cheek, stop-motion musical about the world's first space dog seems like a first within an otherwise well-trodden genre. It felt like a perfect fit for the eclectic Fantastic Fest, and for space obsessives, Laika should earn late-night curiosity status within that overall pop-culture ecosystem, too.
Listing image by Fantastic Fest / Aurel Klimt