Ikarie XB 1 Review

It's immediately obvious that Ikarie XB 1 is unlike most anything ever released by Second Run DVD, the great UK boutique label. It's Czech, sure, and Second Run has become the best English-language champion of Eastern European cinema for home viewers, but this is fairly prominent science fiction made by a director (Jindřich Polák) without another film of similar reputation or even with a DVD release in either the UK or R1. It begins, even before any opening titles, with a character exclaiming "There is no Earth!" while looking directly into the camera. Despite any confirmed viewings, Stanley Kubrick is thought to have perhaps been influenced by it in the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A respectable legacy for Ikarie XB 1 has persisted, buoyed by the apparent connection to 2001 and the memory of the film's bastardized American version, called Voyage to the End of the Universe. But even with all of this, Ikarie XB 1 looks, feels and even sounds like nothing else in Second Run's catalog.

This can be a positive thing, as SR easily has had a more narrow focus than larger peers like Masters of Cinema, the BFI or even Arrow. The only real hurdle or concern, if you can call it that, would be in making sure that the content is of the same high level. That's hardly become a worry, though, and indeed it needn't be here. Ikarie XB 1, for all of its pronounced differences from the SR catalog, fits in quite well in terms of being thought-provoking and serving as a unique window into its time and place. The film is a startling relic of the space race, adapted from an early work by Solaris author Stanislaw Lem. Apart from the impressive production and set design, it's the focus on the human struggle which most sets the film apart. This is far less a big budget actioner about being in outer space than it is a claustrophobic take on the practical concerns of the mission. My limited science fiction reference points briefly went to Star Trek for the presence of the large crew but then quickly landed on 2001, Alien and even Moon as similar films to deal with terror and madness in this unique setting.

The setting is 2163, a couple hundred years past the film's actual time of production, and this group of individual space travelers (speaking Czech but seemingly not affiliated with any single country) are on a journey to a planet, called simply the "White Planet" and orbiting the star Alpha Centauri, that will last 15 Earth years but age the crew only 28 months. One member has a wife at home who is pregnant while another on board is pregnant herself. It will be the first birth in outer space in recorded history. The tension that arises among the crew members is where the real story thrives. The one whose wife remains on Earth, pregnant with their first child, resents the presence of the other expecting mother. Every little incident of bickering becomes magnified and given special weight considering their circumstances.

A wrinkle arrives when the crew comes upon another vessel which ends up containing a team of dead astronauts, thought to be from the 20th century (and perhaps American, though never explicitly confirmed as such). It's an eerie scene - space travelers frozen in death as their remains are browsed as if at a rummage sale. This veiled hint of western failure, a recurring minor theme beneath the surface, is interesting only inasmuch as it reminds us that the film was an instrument of propaganda in addition to being an artistic endeavor. So, basically, while there's a cool robot here there's also criticism of Hiroshima. The former element perhaps keys us in to the reality that science fiction of this time was heavily indebted to the Forbidden Planet kind of need to entice a certain segment of the moviegoing public. (Namely young and young at heart males.)

By the time Michal, a member of the crew, has his monumental freak-out amid concerns of identity and location and various other (more or less valid) concerns, the vessel seems unusually troubled. The American version, which hasn't been included here for better or worse, even went so far as to tack on a twist ending in which the crew was revealed to be from a planet other than Earth and their mission was bringing them to our very planet. So the collective unrest of the Ikarie team seems like somewhat of a given at this point, and it's with only mild sadness that we realize how complicated their journey becomes. The very distractions and troubles which afflict the crew are part of what makes the picture so compelling. Ikarie XB 1 suddenly excels as that perfect blending of the cheesy sci-fi of the 1950s which preceded it and the more cerebral and substantial output of the '60s and '70s which it probably helped to influence. As such, it becomes crystal clear just why the small cult of fans in the know have embraced this picture. It's serious without being pretentious and slightly silly minus the  matching tone. In short, the film is more than compelling enough to drag you along regardless of its intentions.


The Disc

Second Run is probably the least concerned perpetrator of the spine number movement out there but this is nonetheless 082 in the catalog. The dual-layered DVD is region-free and PAL.

Image quality is generally excellent, with a few minor instances of damage occurring via visible reel change markers. The anamorphic widescreen image is presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It looks strong in terms of contrast and detail. I saw nothing hugely negative to report. Those unfamiliar with the film whose interests are piqued should be pleased with this presentation.

Audio is presented in a Czech mono track. It sounds perfectly sufficient, with minimal hiss and an overall consistency that is appreciated. The film's score is a major component of its impact, with everything coming through cleanly here. English subtitles are white in color and optional.

The only special feature included on the disc is a neat appreciation (11:31) by Kim Newman. Other than cutting to Newman's left hand on no less than three occasions, the interview is a good means of steering viewers in the right direction after watching the picture.

There's also a booklet, typical of Second Run and running 20 pages, which contains a lengthy essay by Michael Brooke on several aspects relating to the picture and its time and place. What other label would include a ranked list of the Czech box office returns from 1963? For the record, it looks as though Ikarie XB 1 outperformed something called The Cucumber Hero but couldn't quite match The Three Golden Hairs of Grandpa Knowall.


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