Science Fiction enjoyed its boom years behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the Soviets seemed to be winning the Space Race after becoming the first of the two competing Cold War powers to launch their satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957, an event momentously followed in 1961 by cosmonaut Uri Gagarin piloting his Vostok spacecraft into Earth’s orbit to become the first human being ever to journey into space. While the genre had been routinely dismissed in the U.S. as being merely the stuff of B movie matinee kiddie fantasy and low budget, drive-in silver-spacesuit-and-raygun fodder (and was barely being acknowledged at all in the seemingly congenitally fantasy-phobic UK cinema), space opera was consistently treated as serious cinematic business in eastern-bloc countries during the period, with East Germany and the Soviet Union leading the way in the production of a number of relatively big budget features that sought to present their content seriously as a tenable vision of life in the far future: they were often lavish looking dramas with (for the day) state-of-the-art special effects and sumptuous production design; they were also usually scripted as intelligent meditations on the subject of interplanetary space exploration and presented as genuinely visionary attempts to present an image of a utopian, technologically superior future flourishing under a peaceful collectivist system of worldwide co-operation, promoting social harmony through brotherhood and efficiency.
These striking-looking big screen marvels were more often beautifully and skilfully made, and thus also eventually found their way onto western screens after being first bought up by American International Pictures (who acquired them from the main Soviet sales agency of the day) … but only after first having been subjected to heavy re-editing and often re-scoring by AIP’s in-house composer Les Baxter to enhance their appeal to the sensibilities of western audiences. Often they were also partially re-shot to excise any perceived pro-Soviet bias or anti-American propaganda, and then anglicised in re-dubbed and re-written screenplays which often extensively changed the original storylines. The 1959 Soviet sci-fi film “The Heavens Beckon” (“Nebo zovyot”) famously provided Francis Ford Coppola with an early break in movies when he was hired as an assistant by Roger Corman in order to ‘westernise’ the property for US viewers, resulting in the film’s domestic release under the title “Battle Beyond the Sun”.
Jindřich Polák’s “Ikarie XB 1” -- Czechoslovakia’s last great big budget foray into the science fiction genre before the balance of power in the Space Race began to shift in favour of the west -- was similarly altered and retitled by AIP to become “Voyage to the End of the Universe” for its US theatrical release, losing ten minutes and gaining a brand new ending that anticipates the climax to Mario Bava’s colourful but much more pessimistic take on the genre, “Planet of the Vampires”, released in 1965.
In its original form this stylish, Czech-made black-&-white classic is a fascinating adaptation of an early work (a 1955 novella called “The Magellanic Cloud”) by the Polish science fiction author who later wrote “Solaris”, Stanislaw Lem. Polák’s version, co-scripted by Czech New Wave filmmaker Pavel Juráček, attempts to visualise in detail from its 1960s vantage point the look, culture and structure of human society two centuries into the future -- presenting the occupants of the futuristic Ikarie XB-1 craft (built across a period of eight years while in Earth’s geo-stationary orbit) as a small but vibrant community: a forty-strong, mixed sex and multi-national (but all-white) crew who set off together on a four-year journey of discovery to Alpha Centauri in search of an alien civilisation, on little more than a belief that the fact that the system contains several planets of similar size to their own Earth means that intelligent life just might also be feasible there.
Aside from the core scenario and the stated mission of the crew being strikingly similar to that which later formed the basis for Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” (the visionary producer of that series had reportedly seen and been much influenced by the film), as well as certain elements of its costuming and production design being later echoed by the show, the film’s unusual willingness to spend a considerable portion of its running time simply observing the crew of the year 2163 amid their high-tech surroundings, chronicling their everyday interactions and social mores from a variety of on-board locations -- such as the futuristic chromium-and-glass canteen; a mixed sex gymnasium & pool facility; and a dance hall where the off-duty crew engage in weirdly formal-looking Elizabethan jigs to the accompaniment of some spacey, reverb-laden guitar and twanging free-form jazz riffs set to repetitively rigid metronomic rhythms – all must surely have influenced Stanley Kubrick’s approach to “2001: A Space Odyssey”, particularly in the space station sections and in the middle chapter of the film which deals with Discovery One’s flight to Jupiter. The deliberate pacing and observational style; the episodic structure, made up of short vignettes rather than over-arching plot; and many aspects of the look and design of the film (including the appearance of the spacesuits that some of the crew of the Ikarie are seen donning during several of its key set-pieces) are all elements of Kubrick’s epic that are heavily prefigured in Polák’s film -- which takes an equally serious-minded approach to its depiction of Mankind’s attempt to understand itself through the act of taking up the challenge, and reaching out across the stars, to venture forth through force of will into the unknown in search of alien life.
For those of us now looking back from our current position in the early 21st century at this retro, period, eastern-bloc chic attempt to imagine humanity’s future in monochrome widescreen, there seems at first glance to be little overt proselytising for the then-Soviet system, or denigration of the west in general, discernible from its apparently up-beat, atomic-age perspective on futurist design and living: this chromium-plated, geometric world of blinking lights, narrow hexagonal corridors with built-in luminescence, and vast, shining Ken Adam-style ship’s viewing galleries (with atom-shaped celling mobiles and wall-sized computer banks consisting of clunky, moulded 1960s switches and dial fittings) appears both familiar and benign; though the crew are made up of many nationalities and are equally and harmoniously divided between unisex-outfitted males and females, who are depicted evenly sharing out the important jobs in the maintenance of the ship’s systems as well as observational posts such as that of historian (Ruzena Urbanova), biologist (Martin Tapák) and sociologist (Dana Medrická) (each brought along to record and interpret the events and encounters of the journey), there seems to be no on-board conflict on grounds of race or gender; we barely notice the fact that there seems little in the way of Orwellian condemnation of the ubiquitous surveillance cams that monitor every corridor and even private quarters, either. Indeed, those who oversee this surveillance appear to use their all-seeing God-like eye on the day-to-day life of the ship’s occupants merely for benevolence and good – such as to facilitate a budding relationship between a diffident male crew member and one of the film’s complement of attractive starlets (whose tentative romance they view as though it were a reality soap), for instance. The crew is entirely dedicated to the cause they’ve been assigned, to the extent that they’ve each been prepared to give up fifteen years of their life back on Earth (time dilation effects caused by travelling at the speed of light mean that, while their trip only seems to have taken them a few years from their own perspective, from that of Earth’s they’ve been away four times as long) resulting in the uncomfortable fact that Commander MacDonald’s (Radovan Lukavský) unborn daughter will be a teenager before he even gets to meet her.
But when looked at a little more closely, the thinly veiled messages, about how the Soviet collectivist system is better for you than Western individualism, begin to seep through a little more clearly: sometimes this takes the light-hearted tone of jokey mockery, in particular the film’s cute parody of a familiar western science fiction icon that made its debut appearance in the 1956 film “Forbidden Planet”, namely the Robbie the Robot-style mechanical man, here named ‘Patrick’, that accompanies ship’s mathematician Anthony Hopkins (Frantisek Smolík) on his perambulations about the ship, with its clunking clockwork gears grinding laboriously to the unconcealed derision of the rest of the crew, who view this contraption as an antique reminder in human form of the very earliest attempts by science -- long since superseded -- to build an artificial brain; attempts that are in no way comparable to the sophisticated, disembodied central intelligence that now oversees the smooth running of the entire ship and regulates the shift patterns of every individual on it. The single-tone voice of the latter will surly remind modern viewers of the HAL 9000 ‘sentient’ computer that goes insane in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but here it is human individualism that eventually almost proves to be the undoing of everyone aboard, when a character (Otto Lackovic) -- early in the film shown to be a loner embarking upon this fifteen year trip into the unknown mainly because he prefers not to mix with other people -- becomes delirious after his excessive exposure to a previously unknown space-borne radiation emitted from a dark star, sends him over the edge and causes him to disconnect the automated systems looking after the Ikarie’s life support functions.
The ultimate symbol of western decadence (as contrasted with the dedicated, peace-loving, space age technocratic hive mentality of our heroes) is reserved for one of the key set piece sequences from the middle portion of the film, when the Ikarie crew encounter an unknown craft drifting in deep space that they at first assume to be an alien vehicle, but which turns out to be an abandoned Earth space satellite from an earlier 20th century attempt at exploration. The production design, some gorgeously creepy and expressionistic cinematography, flowing camera movements and eerie sound design come spectacularly together here to produce a haunting sequence that, in arriving at its shadow-bathed, space-faring Gothic ambiance, seems to stumble onto a similar noir-ish, horror-incorporating atmosphere to that which was also later memorably conjured by Ridley Scott’s “Alien”. Perhaps the style of this relatively unknown Czech space drama as well as the plot of Bava’s more comic book film, both had some bearing upon that great science fiction and horror masterpiece from the end of the ‘70s, as well as the influence the Czech film may have had on the other Sci-Fi works already mentioned? If so, it makes this offbeat little gem even more important a text in the development of the genre than previously thought; but whatever is the case on that front the purpose of the sequence becomes very clear when we notice that the signage on the abandoned vessel is all written in English, and the semi-preserved bodies, arranged like mannequins around a deal table in grotesquely natural death poses (the corpses crumbling to powered bone when disturbed by the investigating cosmonauts sent from the Ikarie) all died from being gassed to death by their own store of deadly chemical weapons hidden on-board along with a compliment of unstable nuclear warheads. Mankind’s unenlightened warlike past is quite specifically associated with western imperialism and corrupt capitalism, brought her to the unspoiled wilderness of outer space presumably with the intention of conquering any alien civilisations it might have uncovered, but ending up only destroying itself and threatening the safety of the more sophisticated Czech crew from the far future in the process.
From its opening seconds “Ikarie XB 1” signals its rejection of the more pulpy, ‘Flash Gordon’ end of the space opera spectrum preferred by western space-set science fiction at the time. The unsettling use of edgy audio effects, created by composer Zdenek Liska’s musical layering of atonal synthesised blips-and-bleeps, produces an austere, alienating ambience compounded by the roaming handheld camera that drifts through hexagonal corridors of the ship, pulsing with luminescent glow during a tense title sequence that plunges us into a flash forward taster of an event from later in the movie. Nevertheless, the film was an adaptation of a very early novella in the career of author Stanislaw Lem, which only hints at the later themes that came to dominate the perception of his work after the 1972 adaptation of his best known novel, “Solaris”, by Andrei Tarkovsky. There are still hints of that later concern with the limits of human knowledge and the essential unknowable nature of alien minds in embryonic form here, but the film is torn between wishing to promote an optimistic vision of human (and specifically communist) ingenuity and perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds, and creating a compelling but more ambivalent portrait of profound existential dread befalling an technologically ingenious society founded on strict rationalism, when it confronts previously unknown phenomena that threaten to drive it to the edge of sanity. The film encapsulates in a nut shell the optimistic “Star Trek” philosophy of exploration and discovery versus the “2001” brand of mind-expanding mysticism at the edge of the knowable universe-- so it’s fitting that it so obviously influenced both strands of thinking about equally.
However, although both sides of the equation are successfully invoked at different moments during the film, each tend to cancel the other out dramatically here, because of their inherently contradictory intent. When the crew start falling to a mysterious unknown virus, the ship’s medic (Jaroslav Rozsíval) is able to come up with a cure relatively easily, although the screenplay blithely skips over explaining exactly on what basis he’s able to achieve this feat, apart from suggesting that human medical technology is now so advanced that any medical problem can be quickly solved, even when dealing with the completely unknown; similarly Captain Vladimir Abajev (Zdenek Stepánek) is faced with the prospect of having to turn back in failure and defeat when Hopkins calculates that the probable source of the infection is a phenomenon never before encountered by humanity: a dark star leaking a form of radiation that affects biological systems in an adverse but unpredictable manner. The suspenseful last act of the movie sees the Captain refusing to give up on the mission and simply trusting that his own scientific and medical experts are right when they theorise that the entire crew will simply enter a period of suspended animation for the length of time it takes the ship to pass out of range of the space phenomenon’s weirder effects. When one of the cosmonauts -- whose been more heavily exposed than anyone else because of an earlier space-walk expedition to replace an failed engine -- goes insane through being no longer able to cope with the concept of being so completely alone in the empty void, surrounded by the unknown, he’s eventually successfully talked back from the brink by the no-nonsense Captain, whose faith in human endurance is eventually vindicated. Ultimately, we reach a climactic sequence that gives way to an unambiguous expression of optimism in the face of the unknown, and which revels in the prospect of first contact with an alien life form rather than the horror, fear and incomprehension which also attends visions of the Kantian sublime. Although, coincidentally, the final sequence is composed of a lot of very similar audio and visual elements as those which appeared at the conclusion of Kubrick’s science fiction magnum opus, with Mankind’s first encounter with an alien world being juxtaposed with the image of a new-born baby (the first born in outer space) as a symbol of humanity’s new awakening; a scene which is also accompanied, not by a Richard Strauss fanfare exactly, but by a rousing orchestral cue nevertheless, in stark contrast to the abstract electronic experimentation and kitschy space age bachelor pad-style doodling heard elsewhere.
Second Run presents a nice-looking DVD release of the original Czechoslovakian version of Jindřich Polák’s film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with removable English Subtitles. A 12 minute appreciation of the film by genre scholar and novelist Kim Newman is a welcome disc extra and there is also an even more in-depth and informative essay by Michael Brook included in a twenty-page booklet accompanying the release, in which the critic talks about the history of cinematic Cold War Soviet science fiction in general and the position of “Ikarie XB 1” within that context, as well as the film’s general approach to its themes; its release by AIP in a radically altered version; and its wider influence on the genre in subsequent years.
With its attractive ‘60s-era retro futurism in design, costuming and score this an engaging enough proposition in its own right, but “Ikarie XB 1” also emerges as a vital staging post in the development of modern SF cinema, exerting incalculable influence on multiple strands of the genre and worth remembering for its invaluable contribution to so much of what we now take for granted. Polák’s film on DVD is a mesmerising expedition to a forgotten foreign corner of the fantastic, here presented in a near immaculate transfer from Second Run.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!