Ikarie XB 1 (Jindrich Polak, 1963)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Ikarie XB 1.

criterion logoJindrich Polák’s pioneering feature Ikarie XB 1 is a cornerstone of modern science fiction cinema.  Based on Stanislaw Lem’s The Magellanic Cloud, this enigmatic film follows a crew of 22nd Century space explorers to their destination, the Alpha Centauri solar system, where they hope to make contact with extraterrestrial life.  On their way, they struggle with the boredom of interstellar travel, meet the dangerous legacy of 20th Century Earth, and battle the effects of a Dark Star’s radiation.  Punctuated by Zdenek Liška’s brashly electronic score and the careful compositions of cinematographers Jan Kalis and Sasa Rasilov, Ikarie XB 1 merges high concept and high art to produce a profoundly influential and highly atmospheric vision of space travel.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 2K digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Isolated score by Zdenek Liška
  • New video tribute from director Ari Folman
  • New interview with film critic Glenn Erickson comparing the film with its American-International cut, retitled Voyage to the End of the Universe
  • Except from a documentary about Stanislaw Lem, the author of the film’s source novel
  • Plus: A booklet featuring a new essay by director Alex Cox, a 1998 interview with director Jindrich Polák by Czech science fiction magazine Ikarie, interviews with Polák’s wife Zuzana Polaková, assistant director Hynek Bocan, actor Radovan Lukavský, and Czech science fiction author and journalist Ondrej Neff.

Ikarie XB 1 holds something of an usual position within the pantheon of science fiction cinema.  It is certainly one of the best examples of Eastern Bloc sci-fi, said to be partly inspired by Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956), and is cited as a progenitor to Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyessey (1968), and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).  The connections to these works are discernible and some hold that Ikarie XB 1 was one of many films Kubrick screened in preparation for his space opus, but offered nowhere is any substantive evidence of the connection of Polák’s film to these other works.  Also complicating these assertions is the reality that most viewers outside Czechoslovakia are actually familiar with Voyage to the End of the Universe, AIP’s English-dubbed edit of the film that saw limited theatrical release in 1964 and has occasionally screened on TV in the years that followed.  These descriptions of Ikarie XB 1‘s origins and legacy may merely be descriptive or they may be efforts to aggrandize a film that might otherwise (and improperly) be ignored.  Ikarie XB 1 has been rediscovered over the last decade or so, with the ascension of digital media, the release of Czech and UK DVDs of the film, and its appearance in sci-fi film festival programs.  Its cult following nevertheless remains small and this still hidden gem deserves wider appreciation.  The Criterion Collection has been particular with its science fiction selections, but Ikarie XB 1 has the pedigree and execution to hang with Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Byron Haskin, 1964), World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973), and Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936).

Pavel Jurácek and Jinrich Polák’s screenplay organizes Ikarie XB 1 into 4 principle episodes.  In the first section, the international crew of the starship sets out with high hopes for their 28 month mission to explore the planets of the Alpha Centauri solar system.  They carouse in the cafeteria, work out in the gym, and involve themselves in gossip and friendly needling.   As time passes however, the boredom of deep space travel sets in, cabin fever escalates, and grievances with the mission’s organization and frustrations with colleagues becomes ever more sensitive.  Ikarie XB 1 resolves these issues not with a unifying crisis like a robot running amok or an intergalactic laser battle, but with a formal cocktail party, full of mod-futurist-dancing and vials of Earthly aromas.  In the second portion, a Mary Celeste-like ship is found drifting in space.  After boarding it and investigating, it’s determined the ship is from the 20th Century, perfectly preserved with the decadence (jewelry no longer worn in the 22nd Century),  materialism (dice and gambling), greed (canisters of lethal gas and gun wounds evidencing the occupants’ efforts to conserve oxygen by killing each other), and folly of that bygone era (the discovery of nuclear weapons terrifying the Ikarie XB 1 crew).  The third section deals with a crew member driven mad by radiation poisoning.  Convinced that the Earth no longer exists, he locks himself in a section of the ship with key equipment that threatens the mission and the crew if tampered with.  Once again, Ikarie XB 1 resolves this situation not with violence and action, but words and compassion, saving all aboard including the frantic mate.  Ikarie XB 1 concludes with a test of crew’s resolve.  The radiation of a dangerous Dark Star causes the ship’s crew to gradually fall asleep, one by one.  They plan to allow the ship to pass through the Dark Star’s field, trusting that Ikarie XB 1‘s navigation system will keep their course and that they will wake beyond the Dark Star’s reach, but as crew members pass out, doubts creep in and the desire to turn the ship back towards Earth gains influence.  Ikarie XB 1 concludes with mission’s success and contact with a new civilization and a city of light located on Alpha Centauri’s White Planet.

While discussions of Polák’s film tend to centre around Star Trek and 2001, its best comparison is made by Jordan Hoffman who thinks of it as if “Antonioni were to shoot an episode of ‘Star Trek.'”  Beyond the initial enthusiasm of the mission, Ikarie XB 1 is typified by a sense of foreboding anxiety expressed in a hushed, delicate tone.  The primary engine for this atmosphere is Jan Zazvorka’s expansive sets and  Jan Kalis and Sasa Rasilov’s highly composed cinematography.  The titular ship is a sizable, often imposing, vessel that dwarfs its crew.  Consider the ship’s massive bridge where Captain Abajev (Zdenek Štepánek) commands or the overly large viewscreen from which Commander MacDonald (Radovan Lukavsky) communicates with his Earthbound wife.  When the film isn’t framing crew members in marginalized, diminished positions to their monumental surroundings, it is bringing us close to them, listening to their subdued voices and bringing a sense of intimacy, secretiveness, and complicity to their words.  The emptiness of space is something often left out of sci-fi cinema – the ennui of traveling through it, the isolation of being within it, the utter and total certainty of death beyond the ship’s hull.  Ikarie XB 1 rejects the assertion that no one can hear you scream in space and replaces it with the tension that our words might carry to untold reaches and that it may just be listening.  That underlying sense of unease is brought internally, as the crew occupies a ship seemingly too large for its mere 40 occupants.  Further, the deeper into space they travel the farther they get from themselves and each other.  The crew of Ikarie XB 1 gradually lose touch with their loved ones, their pastimes, even the utopian civilization they left behind.  Instead, they are faced by the greed and materialism of a seemingly lost era, threatened by madness at the disconnection from an Earth far, far away, and are even obliged to accept the obliteration of their very selves, lost to sleep and potentially never waking up again.  Zdenek Liška’s diverse electronic score supports this menacing cloud with its mechanical rhythms and ominous drones, dehumanizing the film’s environment.  Ikarie XB 1, for all its art house understatement and building pressure, is ultimately a hopeful film, sidestepping the usual Eastern Bloc propaganda to celebrate the triumph of goodwill, idealism, cooperation, and scientific progress by the ultimate success of the mission.  It is in this regard that Ikarie XB 1 may most closely resemble Star Trek  and explain the growing recognition of the film recently.

Ikarie Moire PatternOne of the most distinctive elements to Ikarie XB 1 is the recurring appearance of moiré patterns as view screens power up or down.  These superimposed patterns (such as these overlaid starbursts) nicely embody the film, being mathematical and geometric in their simple designs, yet creating something beautiful that defies easy description and feels altogether transcendent.  Second Run’s DVD edition of Ikarie XB 1 (a PAL formatted version produced for the UK) utilizes this image (technically a screenshot from the “call to Earth” clip above), but it feels lacking.  A Criterion cover should rely on the moiré pattern and elaborate upon it by introducing colour or other effects.  It should also be sure to utilize the gorgeous title font that appears in the film and so perfectly evokes the time and place of film (both its production and its setting).

Ikarie TitleCredits:  Zdenek Liška is already an admired composer within the Criterion Collection, however an isolated score track is not a feature presented on either of his films included in the Collection.  With a modest running time of 86 minutes, Ikarie XB 1 provides an appropriate opportunity to give Liška a spotlight of his own.  Ari Folman recently adapted another Stanislaw Lem novel into his recent film The Congress (2013).  As a fan of Lem’s writing, having read it as a teenager, Folman would provide a contemporary voice on Lem’s legacy.  Glenn Erickson provides an expansive discussion of Ikarie XB 1 in his review of the Filmexport Home Video DVD and seems well-suited to discuss the differing versions of the film.  An excerpt of the Lem documentary is included on Criterion’s edition of Solaris, and so we’re assuming that it remains available and that other portions address his early years when he wrote The Magellanic Cloud or even Ikarie XB 1.  Alex Cox his a big fan of the film, having written about it for The GuardianFilm Comment, and others, and was an easy choice for an essay contributor.  The remaining interviews are all included on the Filmexport edition’s DVD-ROM, but are untranslated there.

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One thought on “Ikarie XB 1 (Jindrich Polak, 1963)

  1. astroesque January 31, 2014 / 6:58 pm

    This has been sitting in my Amazon uk basket for ages. Guess it’s time to pull the trigger!

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