Monday, November 30, 2020

Ikarie XB-1, Restored and Uncut

They set off to seek out new life and new civilizations three years before the original Star Trek launched. They found a strange form of space madness five years before the first Soviet adaptation of Solaris (and nine years before Tarkovsky’s classic). It too was loosely based on a Stanislaw Lem novel, but for years it was only known as Voyage to the End of the Universe, in a cut that was heavily edited and redubbed by American International Pictures (AIP). Happily, Jindrich Polak’s Czech science fiction masterwork has been fully restored in its entirety, which releases this Friday, via Film Forum’s virtual cinema.

was also considered an influence on Kubrick’s 2001, at least in terms of its sleek space-age design. It is just as moody and brooding as the 1968 Solyaris, but also displays some of groovy vibe of vintage DEFA sf films, like Eolomea. You can tell just by looking at Ikarie that it must have been influential. The narrative sounds relatively familiar, but keep in mind, it was the product of the early Cold War-era-1960s.

Sometime in the future, a crew of scientists embark on a fifteen-year journey, searching for life in the Alpha Centauri system. As we can tell from the in media res prologue, one of the crew goes raving mad and will threaten the safety of all abord the Ikarie. It doesn’t just happen. The deranged Michael will apparently be infected with something. The question will be—is it the doing of mysterious aliens, or is it perhaps somehow related to the evil derelict NATO space vessel they find drifting from a dark era long-passed.

The very idea of a NATO starship does not make sense, since the North Atlantic Alliance has never been involved in space exploration—just maintaining the peace and containing Soviet expansionism, but obviously
Ikarie XB-1 had to incorporate some kind of propaganda to earn its release. In most other respects, the futuristic crew do not sound much different than Star Trek’s Starfleet. Regardless, story is really just a vehicle for the wonderfully retro sets and Jan Kalis’s absolutely stunning black-and-white cinematography.

The Ikarie model is just okay (a bit like
Space 1999’s Eagle), but the interiors will make sf fans swoon. Admittedly, the antiquated robot owned by crew mathematician Antony Hopkins [definitely not “Sir Anthony”] is transparently modeled after Robbie the Robot, from Forbidden Planet (1956), but that adds to the retro charm. Yet, there is a grace to spacefaring scenes that clearly prefigure 2001 (all that’s missing is The Blue Danube accompaniment).

Arguably, the cast acquits itself quite well, especially considering what a strong stylistic stamp Polak put on the film. Otto Lackovic delivers a Shatner-worthy freak-out as Michael and Radovan Lukavsky provides Picardian steeliness as Macdonald, the first officer, who makes all the hard decisions. Of course, the Ikarie has its share of expendable crew members too, just like the Enterprise.

Ikarie XB-1 is like discovering the missing link of utopian science fiction, especially if your impression is untainted by AIP’s Harvey Scissorhands-treatment that resulted in Voyage. This is a terrific film that easily overcomes its propaganda elements. (Ironically, Lem’s source novel, The Magellanic Cloud, was also censored at the time of its original publication, to improve its projected implications of Communism.)

Ultimately, you can see the film’s idealism overcoming the ideological constraints imposed by Soviet Socialism, which is why it is such an impressive work of futurism. Fifty-seven years later, it looks like both
Ikarie and Star Trek got it wrong. Space exploration will be the domain of private industry, exemplified by SpaceX, rather than post-national syndicates, but that is where we have always found the willingness to take risks. Regardless, the under-heralded influence of Polak’s arresting visuals will blow sf fans away. Very highly recommended, Ikarie XB-1 opens virtually this Friday (12/4), via Film Forum.