For the discerning science fiction fan, this is the best of the Eastern-bloc Cold War Sci-fi epics, a genuinely brilliant and warmly human ‘Voyage to the End of the Universe,’ restored in 4k resolution. It’s from before 2001: A Space Odyssey, and has an equally wondrous but totally different vision of the future.
Ikarie XB 1
NFA (Czechoslovak National Film Archive)
1963 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 88 min. / Street Date March, 2017
Starring: Radovan Lukavský, Zdenek Stepánek, Frantisek Smolík, Otto Lackovic, Irena Kacírková Dana Medrická
Cinematography: Jan Kalis, Sasa Rasilov
Production Designer: Jan Zázvorka
Special Effects: Jan Kalis
Film Editor: Josef Dobrichovský
Original Music: Zdenek Liska
Written by Jindrich Polák and Pavel Jurácek, adapted from the novel The Magellanic Cloud by Stanislaus Lem.
Produced by Filmové Studio Barrandov
Directed by Jindrich Polák
The trailer for the new restoration of Ikarie XB 1 (no hyphen) pretty much tells the story. A shot of an encrusted space suit follows the caption ‘Before ALIEN,’ and a shot of an astronaut walking down a modular hexagonal corridor reads ‘Before 2001.’ If Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke did indeed review the history of Sci-fi movies, they must have seen this one. Not only does some of the art direction look similar, we get close-ups of a robot having its memory circuits disconnected much as was seen in 2001. And in its wonderful positive climax, Ikarie gives us a quite different, but just as moving preview of the Star Child. Seen with its original conclusion, Ikarie XB 1 is a highly emotional experience and one of the best science fiction movies ever made.
In an older review of a Czech PAL DVD from ten years ago, I indulged a rundown of my personal history with the movie. I first saw its dubbed and mutilated A.I.P. version Voyage to the End of the Universe at age twelve and never forgot it; it wasn’t until 1976 and UCLA that I learned that the source film was Czech and not Russian. Around 2000 I borrowed MGM’s only remaining 35mm print, only to find that it had been stored poorly and could not be screened; the film crumbled in one’s hands (→). Then Ikarie came to the American Cinematheque in 2004 as part of a traveling group of Unseen Soviet Science Fiction, a series partly curated by effects man / film historian Robert Skotak. We could finally see just what a crime it was that the film was never shown here in its original form. This beautiful new restoration indicates that Czechs know and care about Ikarie; the picture really ought not to be so obscure.
I still feel grateful to friend Marek ______, who helped me get the first DVD of Ikarie in 2006. And Andreas Kortman, who keeps me informed periodically about German science fiction film releases.
Once upon a time it was important to explain how the original Ikarie differs from the dubbed A.I.P. re-cut. That show can be seen here and there on the Internet in mediocre quality. I’ll let readers consult the earlier review for that as well.
Perhaps only people that already care about Sci-film history can appreciate Jindrich Polák and Pavel Jurácek’s achievement. In the United States, the NASA space program made fantasy space stories seem out of touch, unless they were for children. The Eastern Bloc promoted the Soviet’s initial space achievements with adventures laden with anti-American messages: Uncle Sam wished to dominate space, while the benign USSR missions sought peace for all peoples. The Czech film Ikarie has a more advanced attitude than either the Soviet or East German pictures, and for maturity even outpaces Hollywood’s output. Like the later 2001 its theme is the first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.
To my surprise, essayist Lucie Rihová acknowledges that Ikarie is adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s 1955 novel The Magellanic Cloud. Sometime in the 22nd century the Earth space ship Ikarie begins a trans-galactic voyage to a satellite of the star Alpha Centauri known only as ‘The White Planet.’ A mixed crew of forty is making the two-year round trip, although when they return, Earth will have aged fifteen years. They are soon too distant from Earth for radio communications. The Engineer MacDonald (Radovan Lukavský) regrets that his pregnant wife (Svatava Hubenaková) chose not to accompany him. He won’t see his daughter until she’s fifteen years old — if he returns at all. A married woman on board was also pregnant before the voyage began, and the ship’s doctor (Jaroslav Rozsíval) feels that the delivery will be no problem. The ship’s Science Officer Anthony (Frantisek Smolík) has brought a mostly useless but friendly old robot that he tinkered together a hundred years before. When shipboard morale sags, a birthday party becomes an excuse for a formal dance, at which two crewmen compete for the attention of the attractive Brigitta (Irena Kacírková). They’re dismayed to learn that she has a husband back home.
The ship then pauses to investigate a derelict spacecraft. Two astronauts are sent to enter the dead ship. Ikarie‘s files indicate that it is a military craft from 1987 called the Tornado. Scores of corpses are inside, including gamblers still holding their cards and two officers who apparently killed each other with ray guns. The spacemen theorize that the officers gassed the other passengers to conserve a dwindling oxygen supply, and then fought between themselves. One of the investigators accidentally trips a mechanism, with disastrous results.
As the ship nears Alpha Centauri, strange radiation from a Dark Star has adverse effects on the crew. Svensen and Michael (Jirí Vrstála and Otto Lackovic) receive heavy exposure while on an EVA. Then all personnel succumb to a kind of sleeping sickness, and Captain Vladimir (Zdenek Stepánek) must talk the engineer out of aborting the mission. After the EVA astronauts break out in ugly burns, Michael becomes deranged and threatens to destroy the ship. As they finally approach the White Planet, the space voyagers behold an unexpected miracle.
The first thing that strikes us about Ikarie XB 1 is its superior, intelligent design. The average Hollywood spaceship looks like a converted set for a submarine, but the Ikarie is a flying hotel with a bridge, technical and lab sections and lavish living quarters. The exterior design is unusual, sort of a flying saucer elongated like a railway car, with three saucer-like detachable engine pods. It is a miniature that flies on wires, an illusion done better by the Japanese.
The entire film was shot on a single big set except for one airshaft scene filmed in a 200-meter TV transmission tower near Prague. The main bridge is a large hall dominated by an electronic view-screen. The open space doesn’t seem as wasteful as the cavernous interior of the ship in Planet of the Vampires. Deck chairs have diagonal back braces somewhat like the chairs on the bridge of Exeter’s ship in This Island Earth. There are also large sets representing a dining hall / rec center (with a carousel food dispenser), a gymnasium and a bathhouse. The idea of a thriving space community will remind viewers of the later Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series. Crewmen have individual quarters for privacy. A young man visits a girl’s cabin carrying a space-grown sunflower as a romantic gift. We even find that people of the 22nd century respect each other’s privacy. The man’s friends monitor his progress up to her door, but no further.
The picture is extremely well directed. Director Jindrich Polák employs a fluid moving camera style and complex blocking; he often composes shots with elements at the extremes of the anamorphic frame. Elsewhere he uses huge, expressive close-ups, especially of Dana Medrická, the ship’s sociologist Nina.
The Czech technical staff must do without elaborate opticals, traveling mattes, etc, but manage many clever visual gimmicks. A great deal of very good rear projection is used for viewing screens large and small. The view-screens revert to a moiré pattern when no image is present. When watching a space shuttle move outside, we get an over-the-shoulder view of one view-screen and then pan to a second one with a different angle on the same action. Both are coordinated rear-projections. One trick shot showing a little spaceman in a capsule porthole doesn’t quite align; it was likely composited in- camera. Cinematographer Jan Kalis handled the effects as well and worked with Polák on several other films, also as a writer.
Ikarie invents the trappings of an entire future civilization. The space suits are fairly standard in appearance but seem more practical than the suits and props in the East German Der Schweigende Stern made a couple of years before. Like a designer tennis shoe, the soles of the space boots light up with each step, a feature helpful when the spacemen must walk in darkness on the hull of the ship. Uniforms have unusual collars and the women dress up in attractive formal gowns for the dance party. The couples perform what looks like a subdued techno minuet. When a fast song with an Italian-Latin flavor comes up, we see more elaborate dance moves, all invented for the film. The utterly convincing dance / cocktail party comes complete with a wallflower and an interested pair of spacemen competing for the attention of the attractive Brigitta.
The show doesn’t explain all of its futuristic details, and instead makes us pay attention. Some crewmembers are seen sniffing little tubes that look like Chapstik, that when shared serve as sort of a social icebreaker. Evidently they contain pleasant smells, or perhaps more complicated ‘experiences’ from back home. The only dialogue hint is in this exchange:
Man, offering a tube: “November?”
Woman, smiling as she smells: “Earth!”
In his Guardian piece on the traveling Soviet Sci-fi package, Alex Cox presumes that the little tubes contain a recreational drug. Candy-cocaine lite, perhaps?
The film opens with an initially confusing sequence that shows Michael, crazed by the effects of the Dark Star, running amuck with some kind of ray gun. Crewmembers track Michael in the maze of corridors with a system of remote cameras that resemble metallic eyes. The Captain then remembers the launch from Earth, which cues a seventy-minute flashback. It plays until we catch up to the ‘Michael Amuck’ scene once again.
The story is episodic, but the characters develop quite nicely. The ‘space pregnancy’ is a wholly new idea for Sci-fi film. Commander MacDonald and Brigitta must cope alone with loneliness problems. He’s unhappy that his wife chose not to accompany him, and she misses a husband left at home. Brigitta’s behavior runs opposite to the traits assigned to pretty women in western Sci-fi pictures, where a hot number like Faith Domergue is present mainly to scream and give the hero someone to rescue. When it looks like the end may be near, instead of panicking Brigitta retreats to her cabin and dictates a message to her diary, letting out in private all the emotions she’s been covering up. Played mostly in close-up, it’s quite a scene. When Michael threatens the ship with a blaster gun, MacDonald insists on being the one to face him down. Anthony’s obsolete robot also becomes something of a hero, when it goes into harm’s way to pacify Michael too.
The film’s most memorable sequence is the investigation of the derelict spacecraft, with its creepy imagery and haunting music. The only light in the ship comes from the spacemen’s helmets, boots and waist-lights. Tilted angles suggest a lack of gravity as they slip through unfamiliar corridors, taking in a spectacle of greed and murder from 300 years in the past. Dead gamblers and soldiers litter the ship, some with ray-gun holes in their backs. Here’s where Ikarie makes its anti-West statement. Although a nametag we see sounds Eastern European, it’s clear that this was a hostile, armed American ship. The most bizarre detail seems quite believable now — odd canisters decorated like toys are emblazoned with the English words ‘Tigger Fun.’ The ship’s computer says that Tigger Fun, aka Tiger’s Breath, is a deadly nerve poison. The investigators assume that the crew Tigger-Funned the passengers to death and then perished in a shootout. In a grisly image, when one of the spacemen touches the dead Captain’s face, desiccated flesh floats away in slow motion, leaving just the skull. The eerie ship interior is like a morgue, enhanced with funereal music that becomes more emphatic as the spacemen run (in slow motion) to escape the nuclear blast. It’s all extremely effective.
Except for the general notion that Western aggression was the curse of the 20th century, Ikarie holds back on the direct political propagandizing — they mention Auschwitz, Oradour and Hiroshima, and move on.
Unlike the East German-Polish Der Schweigende Stern, Ikarie XB 1 has no scenes on Earth. We don’t know what kind of government is in place. There is also no mention of organized religion, an omission that some viewers may take as political commentary. This is interesting because the future in the Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s source novel is definitely communist-Utopian. He reportedly ran into censor trouble over his depiction of the state using technology for social control. Much later the author withheld the novel from publication because he felt it was too much of a valentine to socialist realism Utopia. The crew of the Ikarie includes no African or Asian astronauts, and the only names we hear are Brigitta, Svensen, Mark, Stephanie, Ervin and Michael.
The birth of the baby coincides with ‘the great event’ at the finale, which concludes Ikarie with a jubilant, spacey sense of wonder, a collectivist rapture similar to the one at the end of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The astronauts react individually and in groups to a glorious revelation, as Zdenek Liska’s score reaches an emotional climax. There’s even a heart- tugging cut to the baby, who likewise seems to be staring in awe at mankind’s new frontier. Why American-International chose to replace this powerful ending with the cheap and cynical finish on their Voyage to the End of the Universe is a mystery. Viewers unmoved by Stanley Kubrick’s cold vision of man’s destiny or put off by Spielberg’s feel-good sentiment may strongly prefer Ikarie XB 1, with its positive view of science put to humanist ends. Ikarie XB 1 is one of the best outer space movies ever, and surely the most thoughtful made before Kubrick’s film.
The NFA’s Blu-ray of Ikarie XB 1 completely overshadows the old Filmexport DVD, which was a good PAL transfer of a decent print. All frame damage and scratches have been repaired and the film retains its slightly low-contrast B&W appearance. The special effects look their best, as does the carefully lit spaceship interior. Dana Medrickás eyes are so bright and limpid in one close-up, it’s as if monochromatic silent film stock had been used. Zdenek Liska’s excellent music is a fresh mix of orchestral cues and futuristic jazz that hasn’t dated, although the stylized space-minuet dance does sound a bit like progressive Italian lounge music. (That dance, by the way, looks eminently dance-able.) The first notes of the ‘awe and wonder cue’ at the finish remind this listener of the opening title music for The Wizard of Oz, which amplifies the emotional impact. Until CE3K, how many science fiction pictures have even tried to tug at one’s heartstrings?
The NFA pamphlet says ‘widescreen’, which doesn’t tell the viewer that the format and aspect ratio are 2.35:1 anamorphic. The IMDB lists ‘CinemaScope’ but must mean it in a generic sense. Plenty of Czech films of this era are anamorphic, so is there a specific on-screen credit I’m not seeing?
The encoding is said to be Region Free in A, B, and C; it plays fine on my domestic machine. Also a plus, in HD the film runs at its true speed, rendering the picture a full five minutes longer than the old Czech PAL DVD: no more time-compression. Removable English subs finish the job of making the show U.S.- friendly. So are the extra featurettes, which nevertheless are menu’ed on the disc in Czech. The choices are obvious.
The disc’s bonusy selection begins with the new restoration trailer, an excellent cut that puts the film’s best foot forward. I just noticed some familiar names in the review quotes, apparently sourced from wikipedia. There’s also a restoration demonstration.
Of great interest are three impressive Czech films from the same period. Before Launching into Space is a 39-minute color doc about basic space medicine, showing (simulated?) Russian experiments of the same kind performed on U.S. astronauts. The Russkies have engineered a terrific-looking human centrifuge, but also use scary pressure chambers for tests that one would think would half-ass-phyxiate the test subjects. We see the test rig that was used on the space dog Laika; the narrator glibly tells us that the famous but unlucky mutt’s air ran out in six days, but that lots of useful data was obtained. We also see a rudimentary simulation of weightlessness in a cargo plane that looks cobbled together just for the docu. Unless he’s locked down, the cameraman tumbles as much as does the test astronaut. They put a cat in the cabin to see if it lands on its feet.
The Most Ordinary of Occupations (12 minutes, B&W) is an ode to theoretical mathematicians, perhaps a response to a centralized realization that the country has a shortage of space age- worthy brainiacs. The model mathematicians look just like engineers everywhere, but these listen to soft classical music as they exchange deep-think wisdom. The film’s engaging, slightly poetic narration carries over to the third film, the eighteen-minute Hypotheses. It’s a leisurely tour of the solar system that reports everything that was known about the planets in 1963, and when a theory is advanced, even attributes whose research is being cited. The images are almost exclusively artwork renderings of imagined Mercury-scapes, etc. Although many of the answers are simply, ‘we don’t know,’ it’s direct and intelligent. Beyond saying that we couldn’t survive (‘an atmosphere with 1,000 times our pressure’) the film doesn’t play guessing games about whether or not there’s life in the solar system.
A nine-page pamphlet has key info about the movie, the short subjects, the restoration and the Czech National Film Archive, both in English and Czech. The back of the Blu-ray box has a normal barcode, but then also two large white and black graphic stripes that mirror the same pattern. Is it a practical design, or an in-joke?
Although such things change from day to day, at the moment Ikarie XB 1 is not going to be the easiest disc to obtain. I haven’t even tried to access Czech sales websites; if someone has an easy answer for U.S. film fans I’ll gladly pass it on . . . Czech disc producers need to market their products, too.
Considering the decades-long non-availability of Ikarie XB 1, injury was added to insult with producers Robert Lippert and Jack Parsons’ 1965 rip-off movie called Spaceflight IC-1. The fact that the title is also plagiarized is even more insulting. The 65-minute movie has a carbon-copy space voyage plot, with a terrible production and a hack script. The ship’s captain must put down a feeble mutiny while trying to make one of the women passengers give up her unborn baby for medical reasons. In every respect, the picture looks as if it were made to fulfill a contract with the least outlay of money, time or effort. It shows occasionally on the FX channel and is recommended only for curiosity’s sake.
Ikarie XB 1
Supplements: Reissue trailer, restoration comparison, three short films (see above), insert booklet with notes by Lucie Rihová and Tereza Frodlová
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature and short films)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 2, 2017
Here’s Joe Dante on A.I.P.’s Americanized version, Voyage to the End of the Universe:
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson