Ikarie XB-1 (a.k.a. Voyage to the End of the Universe), 1963.
Directed by Jindrich Polák.
Starring Zdenek Stepánek, Frantisek Smolík, Dana Medrická, Irena Kacírková and Radovan Lukavský.
The year is 2163. Starship Ikaria XB 1 embarks on a long journey across the Universe, to search for life on the planets of Alpha Centauri.
In 2163, on a mission to Alpha Centauri’s ‘White Planet’ in search of life, the crew of starship Ikarie XB-1 encounter a mysterious vessel floating out in space along their flight path. After discovering the ship is populated only by human corpses and nuclear warheads, things start getting gravely complicated for the crew, as the ship’s Captain (Zdenek Stepanek) tries desperately to hold everything together.
The first thing you notice about Ikarie XB-1 is the decor. It’s the future as only the 1960s used to imagine it: Design favours aesthetics over practicality, so unnecessary shapes and flashing lights decorate the Ikarie, while a swinging 60s vibe inevitably leaks into the fashion and the weird, discordant score. The special effects suffer due to the production year; this is pre-2001: A Space Odyssey, so rockets gliding on a string past a painted background is what you get. Think Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, but with only a slightly higher budget.
Unusually for science fiction of the time, the Czech film’s key interest is located within the spaceship. Mostly it’s the drama and camaraderie between the Ikarie’s crew that director Jindrich Polak is keen to explore, across an impressive roster of well-drawn characters. It’s surprising to see Commander MacDonald (Radovan Lukavsky) turn sadly away from an onboard husbands and wives party because he’s thinking about his own wife left back on Earth. The romance between two young crewmembers, as he offers her a sunflower while other crew watch in amusement, is also disarmingly warm-hearted.
While silences are filled with odd beeps and the spare clanging of soundtrack guitar, Ikarie XB-1 is most memorable for the sound of human interaction. The film takes sci-fi seriously, staying invested in its characters while still being visually attached to the genre’s pulpy roots. The film is an interesting mix of two styles, somewhere between that old trashy cinema and heading for somewhere of worth and importance. There are no jump-scares, or wonky monsters, or laser battles – Ikarie XB-1 may look occasionally cheap, but it’s ambitious in the right places.
The film is also genuinely nerve-wracking, sharing a similar fear of the unknown – as it simultaneously marvels at it – as recent sci-fi milestone Gravity. And what it lacks in visual gloss, the film makes up for in ideas. It’s decidedly opposed to man’s predilection for warfare (one crewmember fiercely recalls Hiroshima and Auschwitz, still a sore point more than two centuries on), but is for the large part a film with a positive message. Polak imagines space travel as a thing of infinite possibility, with man, not machine, still the driving force after hundreds of years. One crewmember marvels how a robot crew would’ve taken the Ikarie home after the troubles it encounters, and that man’s capacity for hope is the only reason the ship sailed on.
For fans of the genre, Ikarie XB-1 acts as an influence checklist for more renowned science fiction to follow. Alien has the idea of astronauts as truckers in space, but Ikarie XB-1 arguably got there first: the Ikarie’s crew are flawed, largely unremarkable working men and women that hold trivial conversations as they dine or work out together. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine appears to borrow liberally from the film (crew of ship named Icarus heading for distant star on precarious mission discover mysterious, possibly mission-endangering vessel along the way – go figure). And as Kubrick’s 2001 ended on the image of the starchild, Ikarie XB-1 has at the close its own similar series of shots offering a message of rebirth and life-affirming wonder at our vast universe.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.