Space Race: The Challenge (2023) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Central Partnership

A former intern of director Nancy Meyers on the set of her film Something’s Gotta Give, film worker Klim Shipenko initially studied at the California State University at Northridge before gradually working his way back to Russia where he directed programs for Channel One including but not limited to shows about cars.  Having his fair share of romantic comedies and dramas, the filmmaker’s first real brush with science-fiction came with the 2017 3D true disaster film Salyut 7 depicting the 1985 Soyuz T-13 mission in which a dead space station is lost in orbit before being docked with and resuscitated.  A technically proficient critical and commercial favorite, the film in hindsight is something of a dress rehearsal for what is being touted as the very first fictional feature film to be shot in outer space with the 2023 medical space thriller The Challenge. 
In the Earth’s orbiting International Space Station, a Russian cosmonaut Oleg Bogdanov (Oleg Novitsky) is conducting a spacewalk when debris from an orbiting emergency satellite strikes him, breaking several ribs and damaging his right lung with inflammation.  Urgently needing medical attention but unable to risk possible further injury let alone death upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, mission control and doctors embark on an endeavor that’s never been attempted before: thoracic surgery in outer space replete with zero gravity.  With no trained cosmonauts skilled in the medical field, the rescue mission drafts several young applicants all skilled in surgery but unaccustomed to the physical endurances of space travel before falling on a young single mother named Evgenia Belyaeva (Yulia Pereslid) as the primary candidate. 

Running nearly three hours with the first eighty or so devoted entirely to formulating the rescue mission, The Challenge gets off to a sluggish if not perfunctory start with our central heroine flashing back throughout to black-and-white memories of an Enter the Void styled car crash which claimed the life of her husband.  A beleaguered young medical professional too busy to raise her misfit daughter or tend to her ailing mother’s medical needs, The Challenge is bogged down by these boilerplate cliches that feel lifted from Gravity or Interstellar more than anything.  Still, once the film finally does get into space, yes, there is a kind of magic and spectacle unfolding before our very eyes before shifting gears into a surprisingly graphic medical thriller replete with laparoscopic surgery and a makeshift surgical tool made from a metallic spoon.  Not quite the in-your-face medical thriller one was expecting to see in the International Space Station.

With the space sequences comprising the last half of the film shot in twelve days, The Challenge was being constructed in a race to beat a then-unproduced Tom Cruise and Doug Liman planned space movie to the finish line.  While touted as the first fictional feature film shot in space, years earlier the 1984 Soviet film Return from Orbit did in fact feature scenes filmed onboard the Salyut 7 space station but such is the way of marketing and this has the most footage shot in space by a professional film director.  Shot by Boris Litovchenko and for the space sequences the director himself, The Challenge looks chilly and slick if not flat until it jumps into zero gravity handheld for the orbital scenes.  The score by Nikolay Rostov and Sergey Cheremisinov on the other hand is bland starter pack Hans Zimmer save for some moments of playful electronica in zero gravity.  Nothing to get excited about.  The film’s ensemble cast including but not limited to Vladimir Mashkov from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol as the flight director of mission control, The White Lotus actor Miloš Biković as one of the doctor candidates for the mission are mostly fine though much of the attention is focused on Yulia Pereslid as our heroic surgeon.

Still, even amid captivating scenes of zero gravity surgery and the multitude of efforts to administer anesthesia and coordinate the operation with fellow cosmonauts on board ill equipped to deal with such a task, the film slips into cringeworthy running gags like Evgenia’s mother being deceived into thinking her daughter is still at home and a phone call about groceries is literally broadcast onto the space station as she’s cutting the guy open and she has to think her way through this verbal blather.  Its an absurdity so ridiculous it feels like a bomb going off underneath your seat.  With a premise and exercise as unique as this, why did it need to usher in the goofy cops awkwardly timed ‘humor’ from The Last House on the Left?  When it doesn’t slip on banana peels like that, I’m sorry to say much of The Challenge is disengaging if not torpid with flat characters and increasingly silly contrivances.  Despite beautiful orbital vistas, the bloated space surgery film never really gets off the ground.

Opening in Russian cinemas alongside John Wick: Chapter 4 (yes, American films apparently are still being released there despite the war and sanctions), The Challenge while opening to middling if not mixed reception over the aforementioned melodramatics that make the more sentimental outbursts of Interstellar seem mild by comparison nevertheless became a box office leader in the country.  Presented in a newly developed alternative to IMAX called CosMAX, the film while breaking new ground in terms of shooting in zero gravity let alone outer space nevertheless in retrospect is kind of chilly.  For as much time this film overspends on establishing its characters, you never get close to anyone and while the surgical scenes are tense and fresh on the silver screen, at the end of the day its hard to invest in this otherwise empty spectacle.  Russia did the bona fide outer space movie first but as a fan of Russian movies old and new, so what?

--Andrew Kotwicki