This year’s World Cinema Spotlight casts its gaze to the stars, beaming down a trio of fascinating films about space—none of which happens to be science fiction. There’s Mercury 13, a documentary about the highly qualified women who were denied the chance to join NASA’s first generation of astronauts; Salyut-7, a docudrama about a real-life near-disaster aboard a Russian space station; and ★, an experimental film that takes a deep dive into the ways space has been portrayed throughout cinematic history.
Given the current political and cultural climate, the staunchly feminist Mercury 13 couldn’t be timelier. Alongside some wider brush strokes that give necessary context about the history of the space race, the documentary keeps its focus on an extraordinary group of women, all of whom were drawn to aviation in an era when flying was one of uncountable gigs deemed inappropriate for “delicate lady folk.” The career barriers they faced doubled in height once the space race enraptured the world in the 1960s. For a time in the US space program’s earliest years, it seemed like there might be a chance for equal representation, thanks to a privately funded program that aimed to test whether women had the same physical and mental stamina expected of male astronauts. Turns out they absolutely did—but what they didn’t have was access to the specialized flight training required of all prospective astronauts, nor did they have the support of NASA or its newly minted heroes (John Glenn, portrayed as such a sympathetic character in last year’s Hidden Figures, does not get a flattering treatment here).
Though Mercury 13 is primarily an American history lesson, it takes a necessary detour to recognize cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the product of a Russian space program that had no problem sending a woman into space in 1963. Her story doesn’t factor into Salyut-7, but her legacy does; the film opens as a trio of cosmonauts, one of whom happens to be female, are completing some risky repairs on the USSR’s space station at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s. While American audiences are very familiar with the biggest moments in our space program—thanks in no small part to a vast array of films and documentaries celebrating the Moon landing and other milestones—the story of Salyut-7 is relatively unknown in these parts.
Some months after the mission that opens Klim Shipenko’s docudrama, the vacant space station suddenly loses power. Before the wildly flailing station careens into Earth, or worse yet, is commandeered by lurking American astronauts, a desperate plan is hatched. It involves a rush job planning the first-ever docking to an uncontrolled object in space, and a crew of two, one of whom operates on a way more loosey-goosey frequency than his comrades would prefer. Part outer space action thriller, part historical Cold War drama (particularly interesting: the contrast between how the film portrays the Soviet and US TV coverage of the incident), Salyut-7 also has a surprising amount of wry humor. It’d be an entertaining ride even without the jaw-dropping true story that inspired it.
The final film in this year’s World Cinema Spotlight is its most unusual, and not just for its title: ★ (yes, just the star symbol). Made by experimental filmmaker Johann Lurf, ★ is a journey through the night sky as seen through dozens and dozens of films, edited together in a hypnotic manner. No clip is longer than several seconds, and the celestial visuals offer a surprising amount of variety, with galaxies, light-speed streaks, shooting stars, and other dreamy space enhancements livening up the default canvas of black background sprinkled with sparkling points of light. Sometimes the camera drifts, sometimes it zooms around, depending on how stargazing or space travel fits into the narrative of its source film. But the best part of the ★ viewing experience is its soundscape, which veers from startling to soothing and is peppered with famous lines and music you’ll recognize—both Star Trek and Star Wars are well-represented, of course—as well as foreign-language dialogue and songs. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better survey of cinema’s vast and enduring love affair with space imagery, or one that feels more like the world’s coolest planetarium show.
Cheryl Eddy is the News Editor at io9. Previously, she was the Arts and Entertainment Editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
This program is presented in association with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.