Review: Ikarie XB-1 / Cert 12 / Director: Jindrich Polak / Screenplay: Jindrich Polak, Pavel Juracek / Starring: Zdenek Stepanek, Radovan Lukavsky, Irena Kakircova / Release Date: September 23rd
Eastern Bloc science fiction has become one of the genre's no-go zones, its forgotten dead ends. If you're aware that such a thing exists at all, it will probably only be through the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanislaw Lem. And yet it would seem that it's an area well worth exploring, if Ikarie XB-1 is anything to go by. This Czech film from 1963 – based on a book by Lem, and released in America in a dubbed and recut version as Voyage to the End of the Universe – is about a spacecraft, “a small cosmic town of 40 citizens”, setting forth to seek out life on the planets of the Alpha Centauri system 26,000 light years away. Boldly going where no man has been before – Soviet-style.
Which means taking the whole thing very seriously. There's little or no frivolity in Eastern Bloc SF. So instead of some nonsense about alien princesses, you get a thoughtful script that deals in a sophisticated way with the issues that would beset a crew in that situation. The trip will take 15 years, but because of time dilation it's only going to seem like about eighteen months for those on board. That's long enough though, and a large part of the film is given over to the boredom and petty annoyances of space flight. The dialogue is mostly the kind of ultra-civilised chitchat you would expect to hear at a science symposium, and the acting is of a quality that wouldn't be out of place in a classical drama. As for the trials which the crew face, don't expect any little green men in bubble helmets: the dangers come primarily from humanity's own past and from a bizarre new form of radiation which they encounter.
For anyone who has seen Tarkovsky's stately SF epics, all this is, in a way, only to be expected. What will come as a pleasant surprise, though, is how briskly director Jindrich Polak moves everything along. His elliptical approach to characterisation and use of brief, fragmented scenes is reminiscent of early Roman Polanski. The film is shot in immaculate widescreen black-and-white, and Polak takes advantage of spacious, well-finished sets to experiment with wide-angled lenses, handheld cameras and zooms. You can't help but suspect that the resulting look had a big influence on Kubrick, not just on 2001 but on the War Room scenes in Dr Strangelove.
Ikarie XB-1 is let down slightly by an episodic storyline and an abrupt ending, but otherwise it's an absolute treat, offering all the kitsch pleasures of vintage SF while still bearing up remarkably well to modern scrutiny. Anyone brave enough to check it out will be very glad they did.