The otherworldly documentary “Space Dogs” begins fittingly with a story of oblivion. A narrator recounts the pioneering flight of Laika, the Muscovite street dog who orbited the Earth when the Soviets launched her into space in 1957. The camera seems to recreate her journey, floating around glowing blue. But this peacefulness derails as the narrator details Laika’s cruel demise and the image begins to distort, as if the camera were making a forced re-entry.
It’s an impossible shot, but “Space Dogs” is full of visuals that seem pulled from another planet.
The filmmakers Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter twist more familiar documentary techniques as they spin a speculative legend around Laika. Starting from the conceit that her ghost has returned to earth, they follow two present-day street dogs in vérité style.
The voice-over gestures vaguely at cosmic connections between these dogs and Laika, but the images make a blunter impact. In the most nauseating sequence, the dogs kill a house cat and the camera lingers on every sickening squelch. The viciousness of this death hangs over the rest of the film and is matched by archival footage of Soviet scientists performing experiments on dogs that were also sent into space.
The connection between violence of the strays and the violence of the state feels tenuous. The sheer extremity of these scenes — and their agonizing duration — risks turning off the audience even as they are asked to connect the filmmakers’ oblique conceptual dots. But “Space Dogs” commits to its art-house pretensions. The result isn’t pleasant, but it does effectively provoke.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters and virtual cinemas. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.