Science fiction created behind the Iron Curtain has always held a peculiar interest for a western audience. Authors and filmmakers working on the fringes of literature and film were often afforded more freedom to express their own worldview, albeit through a Soviet tint, than their more traditional, high culture comrades. Thus watching and reading Eastern Bloc sci-fi can sometimes seem like a glimpse into an alien world, through dispatches sent by a resistance keen not to arouse too much attention to its dissent.
Ikarie XB-1 is a 1963 Czechoslovakian production, which concerns itself with a voyage to Alpha Centauri. The movie is set two hundred years into the future, where everybody may speak Czech but there seems to have been an international conciliation (Communism was designed to be spread worldwide, after all), which was surely an influence on Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. The crew will spend fifteen years on the eponymous ship, although when they return to Earth it will only have been 28 months for them due to time dilation, which is especially distressing for those leaving loved ones behind.
The movie is loosely based on The Magellanic Cloud, a story by the Polish author Stanisław Lem, who’s twice-adapted Solaris is recognised as one of science fiction’s finest novels. The plot retains much of Lem’s story, but often deals with events in an offhand manner; this is a film which has action and peril, but the true concern appears to be how these things affect the people involved rather than any lasting dramatic effect. In this you can see the seeds of 2001: A Space Odyssey, another tale of very big things happening from the perspective of the humans carried along by them.
There is a smattering of ‘look at the decadent west!’ when they encounter a past incursion into deep space, but there is little beyond that to really mark Ikarie XB-1 as a true product of the Soviet era. Perhaps Czechoslovakia’s proximity to the West, or that Stalinism struggled to take hold there until shortly before the film’s production (the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic was only proclaimed in 1960), didn’t allow for the cynicism that pervades much classic Russian sci-fi to develop? Regardless, Ikarie XB-1 is - on the surface at least - in many ways a similar movie to one that might have been produced in Hollywood at the time.
And Hollywood did take the film, and dub it, and retitle it Voyage to the End of the Universe, where many of us may have seen it in late-night rotation, and written it off as just another space exploration B-movie. The American version is represented here in the extras by a new title sequence, and by a slightly altered ending, which renders the rest of the movie nonsensical. Also included are a booklet and a video essay by Kim Newman, which help to flesh out the context of the movie, as well as a short film from the same period.
There’s much to recommend Ikarie XB-1 to fans of space exploration and historical curiosities, and that’s before you consider the movie’s most engaging moment: an attempt to divine how dancing may look in two hundred years’ time (a very mannered, structured affair, as it turns out). Director Jindřich Polák mostly made children’s films after completing Ikarie XB-1, and missed out on the Czechoslovakian New Wave, but fans of that era of filmmaking may also find some interest in how mainstream movies were made in that period. Regardless, Ikarie XB-1 is 88 minutes well spent.
IKARIE XB-1 (1963) / CERT: PG / DIRECTED: JINDRICH POLÁK / SCREENPLAY: PAVEL JURÁCEK & JINDRICH POLÁK / STARRING: ZDENEK ŠTEPÁNEK, RADOVAN LUKAVSKÝ, FRANTIŠEK SMOLÍK, OTTO LACKOVIC & JOZEF ADAMOVIC / OUT NOW