Any history of sci-fi cinema is also a history of big-screen robots. Hal 9000, all manner of Star Wars droid, the Iron Giant, Silent Running‘s Huey, Dewey and Louie, Maria’s metallic double in Metropolis. There’s one in Ikarie XB 1, too; an entirely ridiculous and useless bucket of bolts, named Patrick, which acts as light relief. I rather suspect he’s meant to be a spoof of Robby The Robot, from Forbidden Planet (1956), and American sci-fi movies in general. If so, his appearance is a mere prelude to a rather more pointed and serious dig at the West later on.
Ikarie XB 1 (1963) is a Czechoslovakian film directed by Jindřich Polák, and adapted from The Magellanic Cloud (1955), an early novel by Solaris writer Stanisław Lem. Set entirely on a vast 22nd Century space ship – the titular Ikarie (Icarus) – it focuses on a community of 40 men and women travelling to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth. These are the first humans to venture into space and their mission is to seek out and make contact with alien civilisations (the plot’s similarities to Star Trek, which didn’t begin until 1966, are self-evident).
Aside from clunky Patrick, Ikarie’s slick production design is ahead of its time and much imitated – you’ll find echoes of it in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s Alien. In fact, Ikarie’s mise en scene is as immersive as any sci-fi film you care to name, making a virtue of its simplicity. Banks of brilliant lighting, weirdly luminous pillars, transparent tubes full of bubbling liquid, oppressive, octagonal corridors, and chic but utilitarian space suits all make for some very effective world building. (It’s no surprise Ester Krumbachová, that most influential doyen of Czech cinema, is one of a team of costume designers).
Presented from a new 4K restoration from original materials by the Czech National Film Archive, Polák’s film is gorgeous, its silvery monochrome perfect for “outer space” shots, as gleaming vessels – meticulously constructed models – cleave the inky vastness, and for the ship’s neon-soaked interior, which looks genuinely strange and other-wordly.
The movie’s opening moments throw us in at the deep end with one of the Ikarie’s crew – Michal (Otto Lackovic) – seeming to have gone mad, stalking the ship’s corridors with a blaster and shouting, “There is no Earth… Earth never existed!”. We then flashback to the events leading up to his murderous malaise. Ikarie’s first half-hour doesn’t just introduce the members of the ship’s crew, including eccentric chief scientist/robot wrangler Anthony (Frantisek Smolík) and homesick Commander MacDonald (Radovan Lukavský), but takes its time properly exploring the drawbacks of being stuck on a space-faring vessel with the same people for over two years.
When the crew aren’t snapping at each other (“I can’t bear to watch you!”) or spying on each other via CCTV, they fill long hours in the gym, play games, or throw parties, complete with amusingly “futuristic” pop music and dancing. They can also communicate with their loved ones back on Earth and one such scene is perhaps the film’s best.
We’re told the Ikarie’s mission lasts for 15 years but that the crew will only age 28 months because of “time dilation”. It makes for an awkward conversation between MacDonald and his wife, Rena (Svatava Hubenáková). She was meant to accompany him on the journey, but became pregnant, so was left at home. The situation is something that clearly weighs on her mind, though, as she tells him: “When you come back, I’ll be older than you. You won’t like me.” It’s a brilliantly human moment that speaks powerfully and eloquently of longing and sacrifice.
Eventually, the Ikarie comes under threat: in the first instance, from a century-old space ship carrying a deadly cargo, and then from a dark star emitting harmful levels of radiation (it’s what sends Michal mad). With the Cold War in full swing, the former gives Polák the opportunity to stick the boot into the West. In a brilliantly creepy scene, lit entirely by torches, two of the Ikarie crew board and explore the vessel, finding its inhabitants dead. They have killed each other during a night of gambling, leaving the nuclear and chemical weapons they had onboard dangerously unguarded.
Furious with the scene of decadence and violence, the ship’s captain (Zdenek Stepánek) says of them: “Human trash – beasts that caused Auschwitz, Oradour, and Hiroshima… the 20th Century.” The implication is clear – in this brave new world, the West and its “American century” have been consigned to the dustbin of history and Soviet utopianism reigns supreme.
Author and film critic Kim Newman offers a typically insightful appreciation of the film, placing it in context amidst the Iron Curtain sci-fi boom of the ’50s and ’60s, a time when the Soviet Union led the space race with the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957 and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to voyage beyond Earth’s atmosphere in 1961. He also points out the debt owed to the film by the likes of Kubrick and Star Trek, and offers a little detail on director Polák himself, an establishment figure who was certainly nothing to do with the rebellious Czech New Wave.
Ikarie XB 1 was released in the US as Voyage To The End Of The Universe and dubbed into English. We get the first few minutes of the anglicised version here, plus its Twilight Zone-style ending, something which makes not a lick of sense and jettisons the uplifting optimism of the original’s finale. (The film’s entire point is about how the Ikarie’s crew, through comradely cooperation and discipline, can conquer any obstacle to complete their mission. They are meant to be a microcosm of mankind, or at least the bit of it under communist rule. The new ending flushes that down the toilet).
There’s also a fascinating picture gallery, featuring stills from the film, press books in both German and English, posters, and all kinds of promotional materials. You also get a trailer – “Before Alien, Before Solaris, Before 2001…” – and The Most Ordinary Of Occupations, a Czech short film about maths and science which has nothing to do with the main feature.
Second Run’s accompanying booklets are always a treat and this one is no exception, featuring as it does an exhaustive essay by Eastern European film expert Michael Brooke about Soviet era sci-fi cinema and Ikarie XB 1 itself.
Apparently, there’s also an “Easter Egg” secreted somewhere in the extras, but it has eluded me thus far.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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