Director: Jindrich Polák
Screenplay: Pavel Jurácek, Jindrich Polák
Based on a Novel by: Stanisław Lem (uncredited)
Starring: Zdenek Stepánek, Frantisek Smolík, Dana Medrická, Radovan Lukavský, Irena Kacírková, Otto Lackovic
Running Time: 87 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
The space race between the USA and the Soviet Union, which began in 1955, brought forth a boom in science-fiction filmmaking. Whereas Hollywood tended to lean towards more fantastical B-movie stories about aliens attacking and nuclear fears, the Soviet Union and other Communist states took the genre more seriously, using it as propaganda to convince the public their way of life and Soviet advances in technology were leading towards a utopian future. Czechoslovakia joined the trend in 1963 with what is believed to be their first ‘proper’ sci-fi film (to use Michael Brooke’s phrase in the booklet accompanying this Blu-Ray), Jindrich Polák’s Ikarie XB 1. Based on a novel by Stanisław Lem (though not credited as such, at the author’s request), it’s an atypical entry to the director’s filmography (which largely consists of comedies) and only enjoyed a modest success in its home country, but was one of the few Czech films to make money overseas. It was released in America in a bastardised form known as Voyage to the End of the Universe, prepared by American International Pictures.
I don’t have details of how much money it made in the US, but its influence can be seen in American films and TV series that followed. Most notably, many comparisons have been made between Ikarie XB 1 and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick is indeed known to have seen the film during extensive research prior to production, and garnered it with the faint praise that it was ‘a half step up from your average science fiction film in terms of its theme and presentation’. Gene Roddenberry reportedly also had Ikarie XB 1 in mind as a model when pitching his Star Trek series to Paramount executives.
So it’s an influential work, but how does it stand up today? With Second Run releasing the Ikarie XB 1 on Blu-Ray I decided to give it a spin and my thoughts follow.
The film is set in 2163 on board the titular spacecraft, which is heading off on the first mission to find extraterrestrial life in the Alpha Centauri system. The 40 crew members of varying nationalities and genders struggle to deal with the mental and physical affects of such a lengthy journey (estimated to be 28 months). Further complications occur when the ship comes across a mysteriously inactive UFO floating in their path as well as a dark star that emits dangerous radiation.
The film grabs your attention from the offset with a quick special effects shot, then we see a manic, scarred man shout “there is no Earth. Earth never existed!” This is revealed to be a tease as we flashback to earlier at the start of the mission and the film adopts a steadier pace for the first third or so. In this portion we get to know key members of the crew and see how they entertain themselves and keep healthy during the trip. This may not be the most exciting portion of the film, but it throws in a few interesting concepts, a number of which have cropped up in later sci-fi films. Most notably, the time dilation idea that Interstellar got a great deal of mileage from crops up here. A particularly moving sequence sees one astronaut speak via videophone to his pregnant wife back on Earth and he muses about the fact his unborn daughter will be 15 when he first gets to see her in just over 2 years in his mind. A team of scientists were brought on as advisers for the film and it shows, as it feels far less dated than other films of the era in terms of its content.
The special effects have aged a little less successfully, with the spaceships looking like models in exterior shots, though they look pretty good for the time. The sets and production design, on the other hand, look great and the striking cinematography makes the most of their bold shapes, lights and reflective surfaces. There’s a 60s vibe to some of it, but on the whole it’s an agelessly stylish affair. I loved the subtly floating camera movement during a zero gravity sequence too. The score, by the great prolific Czech composer Zdenek Liska is also wonderfully unusual and experimental.
As the film moves on it’s quite enjoyable too. The sequence where the astronauts explore the abandoned UFO is particularly eerie and gets tense during their swift exit. As the resulting effects of the radiation they encounter take their toll, there’s also a fairly exciting sequence which expands on what was hinted at at the start of the film. There’s even a little humour here and there too, so although I’d call this ‘serious’ sci-fi, it’s not as dour and heavy-going as something like Solaris (which incidentally is also based on a novel by Stanisław Lem).
It all ends on a triumphant note as you might expect from a sci-fi film made in a Communist country at the time, but thankfully the political messages are relatively restrained. An earlier damnation of the perils of nuclear warfare and other aggressive 20th century practises is a little bluntly made, but it’s still a point worth making.
Although it might seem a little low-key by today’s sci-fi standards and can be a little episodic, it remains a dramatically satisfying and gripping watch and was clearly influential on much to follow. The themes and science explored on screen were ahead of their time too and remain relevant and intriguing today. So, altogether it’s a wonderful film that stands up better than most sci-fi of its era and helped usher in the next. Highly recommended.
Ikarie XB 1 is out on 25th March on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Second Run (a DVD version released several years ago is also still available). I watched the Blu-Ray version and it looks fantastic, with a wonderfully rich and detailed picture. Sound is solid too.
A few special features are included too:
– Ikarie XB 1 presented from a new 4K restoration from original materials by the Czech National Film Archive
– Short film The Most Ordinary of Occupations (Nejv edn j í povolání, 1963)
– A filmed appreciation by Kim Newman
– Alternative US version ‘Voyage to the End of the Universe’ opening and end scene
– Booklet featuring a substantial essay by writer and film historian Michael Brooke
– Voyage to the End of the Universe trailer
– Photo gallery
– New and improved English subtitle translation
– Region Free Blu-ray (A/B/C)
– Original soundtrack in Dual Mono 24-bit LPCM audio
It’s not a great deal of supplemental material, but Newman’s appreciation is fairly illuminating and I enjoyed seeing the clips from the US version, particularly the Planet of the Apes style twist ending that didn’t make much sense.