Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Still relatively unfamiliar to western audiences, Ikarie XB 1 is an example of east
European science fiction cinema on a fairly ambitious scale, which deserves to be better known.
In recent years the countries from the old Soviet bloc have provided several interesting discoveries
for the eagle-eyed DVD collector, titles such as In The Dust Of The Stars (aka: Im Straub
de Sterne, 1976), or Planet Of Storms (aka: Planeta Bur, 1962) etc. These are works
where the preoccupations of a film culture not grounded in the capitalist system led to different
perceptions both of genre and of what any future might bring.
Some were known already to an earlier generation - but only from butchered editions created Stateside which regularly attempted to iron out purported 'difficulties' of east European SF cinema, all the while making a few exploitative bucks into the bargain. Thus, Der Schweigende Stern (1960) appeared, considerably shortened, as First Spaceship On Venus, while the aforementioned Planet Of Storms was diced, sliced, and re-dubbed as part of no less than two bastard offspring: Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet (1965), and Voyage To The Planet Of Prehistoric Women (1968). Ikarie XB 1 faced similar creative humiliation; shorn of a plot strand, dubbed and with a different ending, it is still perhaps better known to some in the west as Voyage To The End Of The Universe.
Ironically, that's the first title that Stanley Kubrick gave to the project which ultimate became 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Ikarie has some things in common with that landmark film and there seems little doubt that, at the very least, the English director drew upon Polák's work during preparatory research. Ikarie's theme for instance, of a search for a greater and unknown intelligence at the far reaches of the galaxy, is broadly similar (if less hallucinatory). Then there's the ship's videophone communication link seen at the start, or the idea of a master computer interjecting as a supporting character; the film's use of internal corridor space in long shot, and so on.
But for those interested enough to look, a lot of Ikarie - itself a borrower, for instance its robot Patrick inspired by Forbidden Planet (1956) - has found echo in SF cinema and television familiar in the west. With its clean interior ship design, crewneck uniforms all round, glide doors, shiny deck flooring as well a 15-year mission to seek out new life; Ikarie may even have given later pause for thought for a certain Gene Roddenberry. Genre fans will also note that, during the first big set piece, the crew are startled by an unexpected alarm and deviate from their mission to investigate a derelict spacecraft - a sequence of events that ends with a nuclear detonation in space. Add to this the changes wrought by Voyage To The End Of The Universe, which included a Planet Of The Apes ending, and Ikarie certainly offers much of interest.
So much so in fact it's enough to make one want to see the director's other work. Polák's previous film was a science fiction comedy, English title of Clown Ferdinand And The Rocket. He was also responsible for an intriguing Nazi time travelling movie, with a small cult on its own account, Tomorrow I'll Wake Up And Scald Myself With Tea, made in the late 1970s. Less idiosyncratic than those, one imagines, Ikarie is much more serious in tone. Its set mostly aboard a roomy spacecraft, crewed by 40, despatched to discover if there is any life on Alpha Centauri. Their voyage will take a matter of months to those on board but, to others back on Earth, years will have passed. A feeling of worthwhile isolation permeates this journey, with none of the trivial, trials and stresses one expects from space dramas made closer to home at this time, where mad scientists lurk, robots lumber threateningly or spacewomen defer to their mates. Missing too is the pseudo technical claptrap which lumbers much American SF, then or now. Ikarie's hardware exists mainly in the background, without need of explanation. The film expects us to take its conspicuous 22nd century advances just as seen, being concerned more with sociology than technology.
Ikarie features a harmonious society in miniature, shown in a series of interactions aboard, even down to the calm acceptance of on board pregnancy - an adult theme incidentally completely excised in the American version. In such an hospitable environment, even the mad can be talked round without violence, as in the case of Michael (Otto Lackovic) who, affected by radiation and in a disastrous manoeuvre, wants to turn the ship back to Earth. That the only real threat the crew face is an external one is significant, and also primes the dramatic moment that begins the narrative. A flash-forward to when (infected by the same source, as we learn later), one of the crew is wandering, bewildered and aggressive, through the ship. "Earth is gone," he says. "Earth never existed." But he's not beyond help from his peers. Here the deluded or mad in space are not assumed lost, such as we might see in such recent American films as Event Horizon, but taken back and with promise of cure at that.
Critics have contrasted these shipboard mores to the signs of capitalist degeneracy confronting those who board the 'Tornado', the derelict space station from 1987 unexpectedly encountered en route. Here, amidst the dark clutter of its interior, are found signs of gambling and money, coded elements of capitalist speculation, just as fatal as the death gas and nuclear warheads also there. For those who explore it, the Tornado reflects a place thought left behind, both geographically and politically. "We have discovered the 20th century," says one dismayed crewman. The determined self destruction encountered by those who board the derelict recalls one of TV's original Star Trek shows, and those found died as result of a selfish fight for survival. The signs of a corrupt political system fall exposed with as much horror as does (in a notable moment) the skin off the Tornado captain's face.
This, and then the debilitating effects of rays that emanate from a hitherto unknown black star are the two principal threats facing the crew. How they finally overcome this last hurdle is part of the end of the quest. Without giving too much away, it is sufficient to say that the close of the film, the ship's long anticipated arrival at Alpha Centauri's 'white planet', brings a sequence both uplifting and brief, carrying over the theme of mutually beneficial cooperation. But viewers today may find less interest in the ending than the scenes that have preceded it. It's the Ikarie crew's social or dutiful pairings, even to the point of bringing each other flowers, or taking showers together, which lay at the heart of the film, rather than any encounter of a new civilisation and the socialist message entailed. Whilst in basic narrative terms the 'white planet' brings closure, our attentions have for long been focused elsewhere, in scenes such as the notable dance sequence. Through the hypnotic rhythms of Zdenek Liska's striking score, the astronauts take part in something akin to a weird 22nd century disco, their slow somnambulistic movements reassuring while also slightly disturbing. Reassuring, as we can see the crew reacting together as one social unit, even after the inevitable trials of months in space; disturbing because it is all so emotionless and controlled. Such ambiguous group occasions beg questions we really want answered. Are they really happy? Or does the Earth we recognise no longer exist?
The Czech originated disc I have seen offers a splendid widescreen transfer of the movie with English subtitles. Most of the extras are unfortunately not subtitled, but there's a chance to see some sample scenes from the American International version, to give an idea of how the original was changed as well as a stills gallery.