It’s the year 2163, and the spaceship Ikarie XB-1 is off to explore life on the ‘white planet’ orbiting the Alpha Centauri. Like the Greek mythological figure Icarus, whose name christens the spaceship, we follow the mixed crew as they fly too close to the sun, drawing ever closer to something that – without giving the game away too much – will be found all too familiar to its audiences. Jindřich Polák’s 1963 Czechoslovak fantasy film may well be a cornerstone of the genre, but it also bridges the gap between the psychological drama, the kitsch space film and a sharp critique of the country’s capitalist past.
Based on the novel The Magellanic Cloud (Obłok Magellana) by Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem (of Solaris fame), the film follows a loosely episodic nature, tracking scenes of crew boredom and festivities, as much as moments of sharp danger and tension. Cinematographers Jan Kalis and Sasa Rasilov create an impressionistic portrait of claustrophobia, full of ominous shadows, enclosed spaces and sense of individual minuteness against the eternal expanse of space. Jan Zazvorka’s incredible futuristic production design is the star of the show: don’t expect kitsch of the Barbarella orange shagpile variety, but something along the lines of sharp, sleek retro-futurism.
Predating Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek, this vision of the future is a very minimalist one. That’s not to say that there isn’t a spoonful or three of high camp, such as a glorious dance sequence in which crew members in horrible meringue-like dresses perform choreographed dance sequences to sombre synths. How we love a dance sequence, even in zero gravity. Much has been written about the film’s influence on Kubrick’s 2001, although this is hard to quantify. What can be said is that Ikarie XB-1 is a startlingly of-its-time piece – released in the US under the amended title Voyage to the End of the Universe, and paired by American International on a double bill alongside the not-so-classic Godzilla vs. The Thing.
Amazingly, Ikarie XB-1 lacks the uber-kitsch of other cult fare, going instead for a psychological deconstruction of the perils of solitude and space travel. At times it seems to be pushing towards something more existential – the narrative draws in ideas of life and death with a surprise childbirth on board, but strangely abandons these narrative turns in favour of cold, almost nihilistic set pieces, and an annoyingly hashed up ending. Czech composer Zdenek Liska’s original electronic score works to fashion constant tension in scenes of crew boredom and flight danger. Famous for his contributions to the development of electronic music, Liska also worked on soundtracks for early Jan Švankmajer films, and his work on Ikarie XB-1 is both characteristic of that woozy sixties sci-fi sound, and also startlingly original.
This long-awaited Second Run DVD release contains includes a filmed appreciation by the venerable long-haired stalwart of fantasy cinema, revered film critic Kim Newman, and another of their always useful booklets, with a lengthy and detailed essay by Michael Brook on the development of Eastern Bloc sci-fi cinema. Another Second Run success story, Ikarie XB-1 is a visual masterpiece that both demands and deserves to be reevaluated within the canon of science fiction classics past and present.