In 2163 a crew of intrepid explorers are traveling through space in search of an Earth-like planet. Upon their shoulders rests the hope of the world, a world that will be fifteen years older and wiser by the time they return from deep space. The journey is long, fatigue sets in, but that’s not the only trouble awaiting our heroes in the depths of our solar system.
If the description above sounds familiar, it’s a mark of just how influential director Jindřic Polák’s Ikarie XB 1 (1963) has been, with elements of Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Alien to name just a few iconic films that might spring to mind on first viewing. In fact, the film represents a proliferation of Sci-fi films produced in the late 1950s/early 1960s after the launch of Sputnik by Soviet, East German, Polish and Czech filmmakers, who were unsurprisingly enthusiastic about the genre and its ability to present an optimistic future.
Witness the crew emerging from stasis as in Alien, a multicultural, cross generation team as in Star Trek, a ‘friendly’ robot called Patrick much like Forbidden Planet’s Robby (the latter an instance of Ikarie XB 1’s own influences) – but checking off iconic set-pieces and plot points isn’t the only pleasure afforded by this stunning release of a film previously known to western audiences as the overly edited, Voyage to the End of the Universe. There’s much to be enjoyed in the way Polák gives prominence to the quirks of an interstellar lifestyle over the ostensible exploration adventure plot. One scene sees the middle-aged male crew members spy on their younger colleague as he attempts to woo his female counterpart with an artificially grown sunflower, whilst another gives the viewer a rather quaint electro-jazz scored insight to the future of the discotheque, complete with jaunty dance moves.
Shifting to a more contemplative tone when the crew investigate the wreck of another human-inhabited ship, Ikarie XB 1 makes more overt its judgement of 20th century’ explorers (signaled as Western by the presence of English signs and labels on board the damaged ship) and their ultimately destructive investment in nuclear weapons. This sombre discovery prompts discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of their human, and therefore vulnerable crew – better able to navigate the idiosyncrasies of space travel than their robot alternates but exposed to biological dangers.
As usual Second Run have provided some unique features to accompany the DVD; Michael Brooke’s essay details the historical and cultural context surrounding the film’s theatrical release and subsequent censorship by its US distributor, whilst Kim Newman’s video appreciation takes further delight in the aesthetic preoccupations of Czech cinema and Sci-fi of the time.