In the 1960’s, Soviet and Eastern Bloc sci-fi cinema was full of hope and the promise of a technologically enhanced future. How could it not be? Soviet technology was winning the space race against the decadent West. This may have been due to the West spending millions of dollars in developing a pen that could write in zero-gravity, whilst the Cosmonauts just took a pencil, but nevertheless, Yuri Gagarin, Valetina Tereshkova and even Laika the space hound, had already boldly gone where no-one had gone before by the release of Ikarie XB-1 (Jindrich Polak) in 1963. In truth, manned missions were roughly equal (6 astro/cosmonauts each) – but the Soviets had Laika – so they win.
Meanwhile Western Sci-fi, with a few notable exceptions, such as Forbidden Planet (Fred Wilcox. 1956), and This Island Earth (Jack Arnold/Joseph Newman, 1955), was still firmly stuck in its “alien threat as thinly veiled analogy for communism” B-movie rut. Low budgets, dodgy sets and questionable scripts were still in abundance. Ironically, however, in the East, where we westerners were led to believe was a land of harsh oppression, and frugal austerity, they were clearly able to throw plenty of money at their sci-fi epics.
Ikarie XB-1 is a lavish epic, based on a The Magellanic Cloud novel by Stanislav Lem, set aboard the eponymous colony ship. Their mission is a 28 month odyssey to neighbouring galaxy Alpha Centauri to seek out intelligent life. We open at a kind of midpoint, where we see a clearly disturbed Michal (Otto Lackovic) desperately trying to get off the ship, clearly in some kind of mental torment. This tense opening will be resolved later in the film, but as Michael uses a gun to take out the camera that the crew are using to track him, we cut to a point in time just prior to take-off.
Brief though this initial scene is, it sets out the stall for Ikarie XB-1 from the off. Michal’s journey through the bowels of the ship take us through the lavish areas set aside for crew activities such as dancing, fitness, and eating, whilst counterpointing that with the grubbier, utilitarian areas closer to the ship’s engine rooms. This film was made during an era of sci-fi where ships were usually designed as clean, sparse and almost clinical vehicles – it wasn’t until the mid-70’s and the likes of Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) that the aesthetics of spacecraft design really embraced the effects of particle strikes and space battles. And yet Ikarie XB-1 addresses this to some extent.
The prophetic element of sci-fi is not forgotten either. There is no smoking on the vessel, but several crew members are seen to be casually waving tubes under their noses, in a kind of proto-vaping way. However, I hope that Polak’s idea of the evolution of dance in the future is less accurate. Set to era-defining electro-theramin rhythms, the dancing itself is more reminiscent of mediaval forms of dance, with strict rules about the mirroring of one’s partner’s movements. It’s the only real flaw this film has, for me.
The great strength of the film is its ability to shift in scale effortlessly. On a grand voyage to the White Planet discovered by scientists, it shows our future selves asking the big questions like “Are we really alone in the universe?” and “What happens when a spaceman is gone for 28 months, but his loved one’s age by 15 years by the time he returns?”, whilst at the same time looking in reasonable detail at all the gossip worthy interpersonal activity on board ship. In a classic example, it deals with the personal realisation of the second-in-command, played by Radovan Lukavsky, that his wife was not rejected for the journey because she was pregnant, but because she didn’t want to take the risk of being the first woman to give birth in space. It is this juxtaposition of the grand scale of potential pioneering firsts, with the personal, trivial concerns of the crew, that set Ikarie XB-1 apart from its contemporaries.
It is easy to see both where Ikarie XB-1 draws and exerts its influences. The harmonious crew, with no differences, is clearly a blueprint for the world of the Federation in Star Trek (Rodenberry, 1965), and the universal quest for answers is revisited and expanded in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). The mishap that leads to Michal’s psychotic break, however, draws heavily on the ideas The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955), and there are stylistic nods to Forbidden Planet.
Despite some thinly veiled snipes at western decadence, which is understandable given the film’s production during the heyday of the Cold War, and only a year on from the notorious Bay of Pigs incident. Watching it without the political context of its making can make this seem a little petty, but as mentioned previously, it is perhaps being refreshingly open about such criticism, compared to the US B-movie approach.
The pacing is superb, wrapping an epic voyage up in just 88 minutes. Yet nothing feels rushed, and Polak gets the opportunity to linger on the more effective sets without it feeling out of place. The print on this dual-format release is from a 2017 4K restoration of the original print, and is crisp and clear, whilst retaining the grainy cinematic feel of early 60’s cinema.
The extras on this re-release feel like a repackaging of earlier DVD release extras. There is an interesting audio essay on the nature of being a mathematician (An Ordinary Occupation), and an audio appreciation of the film by one of Second Run’s execs. This is something of an oddity, in that the appreciation itself makes some interesting points, but the voice has a quality that makes me feel that every sentence is going to end with the phrase “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die”. There are the, in my opinion, sacrilegious changes made to the film for its US release as “Voyage To The End of the Universe”, where a cheesy version of the Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968) ending manages in about 30 seconds to undo all the mystery built up by the rest of the movie. Also, there is the laughable attempt on the US cut to westernise all the cast and crew names, leaving the inestimable Jindrich Polak credited as Jack Pollack.
My personal favourite, however, is the appreciation by Kim Newman. Always a treat, Newman gives his typically erudite and fact-filled appreciation of the film in the ubiquitous nodding head format that viewers of all those “I love the <insert decade here>” and “100 Greatest <insert pop culture medium here>” shows of the 90s and early 00s. However, the director of this piece clearly thought that this was not visually interesting enough. Intermittently, we cut to a close-up of Newman’s left hand, which is either resting, or mildly gesticulating to emphasise a point, before cutting back to the main image. Either this was to pep up the visuals, or some sort of subliminal message to try and recruit me into the Cult of Newman’s Left Hand.
All too often films of this era, from outside mainstream western cinema, are viewed as interesting curios. Ikarie XB-1, I would suggest, has enough merit to stand shoulder to shoulder with all the best the West has to offer. If you think you’ve seen all the genre-defining sci-fi of the 60s, look again. You may have missed this one.