International Cinema: Ikarie XB 1 (1963) - Reviewed

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s answer to Kubrick’s film with Solaris both stand out as prime examples of intellectual science fiction filmmaking which no doubt paved the way for many serious-minded space exploration films for years to come.  In the arena of space thrillers such as Forbidden Planet, Conquest of Space and Journey to the Seventh Planet, Kubrick and Tarkovsky mutually strove to change the face of modern science fiction, moving away from unknown monsters on distant planets closer to psychological journeys into the mind of the astronaut’s experience.  And yet in 1963, one lesser known yet prescient Czechoslovakian science fiction thriller may in fact have fully informed both respective pictures. 

Loosely based on Polish Solaris author Stanislaw Lem’s novella The Magellanic Cloud, Jindrich Polák’s interstellar space travel epic Ikarie XB 1 somehow managed to provide the legwork for Kubrick’s film as well as Gene Roddenberry’s world-renowned Star Trek television series.  After the 1956 Hollywood classic Forbidden Planet which mixed future world building with old fashioned tinseltown clichés, Ikarie XB 1 sought to provide a realistic, scientifically plausible space exploration thriller about the unknown dangers out in the far reaches of our solar system as well as mankind’s own follies and frailties coming back to haunt the film’s unsuspecting astronauts.

Set in 2163, the interstellar spacecraft Ikarie XB 1 (deriving its name from Icarus concerning the Greek legend who flew too high) represents almost an entire colony of forty cosmonauts both male and female on board to explore the outer reaches of Alpha Centauri in search of extraterrestrial life.  Much like Kubrick and Tarkovsky’s pictures as well as the first half of Ridley Scott’s Alien, the film begins as a rumination on the daily life lived out by the crew from the mundanities of physical exercise to the carefree pastime of dance parties.  As with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Ikarie XB 1 addresses the same time paradoxes between the differences in aging between those on earth and those aboard the ship. 

Quickly, however, things start to go awry upon the discovery of an abandoned Earthly spacecraft as well as the presence of a nearby dark star with radioactive forces that wear on the crew’s health and sanity.  It’s a concept we’ve seen reiterated in Planet of the Vampires, Event Horizon, Sunshine and of course Tarkovsky’s Solaris yet Ikarie XB 1 was arguably the first film to do it.   What’s most striking about the film is the production design with it’s sterilized neon-lit corridors no doubt paving the way for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien.  Though many of the visual effects of exterior shots of the ship careening through the vastness of space show their age, the production design for the interior of the spacecraft itself remains just as impressive now as it was when it first came out.

Visually Ikarie XB 1 is stunning thanks to handsomely lensed cinematography by Jan Kalis and the electronic score laced with orchestral strings by Zdenek Liska is immediately unforgettable and will make science-fiction veterans think of Jazz musician Gil Mellé’s otherworldly electronic score for The Andromeda Strain.  Much like Scott’s Alien, the ensemble cast gives pitch perfect performances where no single actor takes center stage while the film rapidly cross-cuts between the diverse crew.  The only area which kind of sticks out like a sore thumb is the film’s obvious takeoff of Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, though the mechanized additional crew member’s involvement in the proceedings is kept to a minimum.

Upon domestic acquisition by American International Pictures, the film was retitled Voyage to the End of the Universe before some twenty-six minutes of crucial scenes were excised and the plot elements were reversed to give the appearance of an alien ship coming from the outer reaches of space in search of Earth.  While the inversion of plot threads don’t necessarily compromise the cumulative cinematic experience, the missing scenes definitely do as they serve as a reminder of man’s past and roadblocks to progress.  Seen now, although Kubrick’s 2001 remains the grandfather of space travel epics, Ikarie XB 1 clearly played an important role in that film’s development as well as signifying for filmmakers around the world how to do a visionary space travel futuristic film that feels contemporary and grounded in plausibility. 

-Andrew Kotwicki