Made in 1963 by Jindřich Polák, but set two hundred years in the future,the Czech film Ikarie XB 1 is a remarkable sci-fi film that has stood the test of time reasonably well. Filmed in black and white and adapted from an early novel by Stanislaw Lem (who later became famous for writing Solaris), it has clearly been a strong influence on both Star Trek and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film tells the story of a space mission to discover life on the ‘White Planet’ orbiting the star Alpha Centauri, a 28-month journey for the crew that translates as fifteen years for those left behind on earth and waiting for their return. On the voyage, the forty men and women making up the crew are faced with a number of unexpected encounters in outer space, testing their willingness to pursue the exploration to its end. However alongside this plot is an intimate study of human nature within the narrow confines of the spacecraft.
Initially a utopian community where leisure time is shared collectively between gym sessions or meals at the canteen, the sense of togetherness on the ship slowly breaks down as the hardships of aimless time-killing, claustrophobia and homesickness start to take their toll. Thematically, the film intertwines – with considerable beauty – an exploration of their existential entrapment and questions about our relationship with technology and progress in an age of inter-planetary exploration. This is particularly apparent in a poignant scene where the crew comes across a lost 20th century spaceship, the initial hope of meeting new forms of life quickly turning to disillusionment and contempt for their predecessors. Although, for most of the film, the Soviet influence is understated, this scene is overt in its criticism of human decadence and brutality, pointing in particular at the West.
Stylistically the influence on Star Trek is obvious, with the costumes and design of the ship’s bridge having many similarities to the later series. Much of Kubrick’s spaceship too in 2001 – its interior at least – seems to have its origins here. Fortunately, the bulk of Ikarie XB 1′s action takes place within the ship rather than outside it, for the exterior space-scenes are less successful, the
disproportionate wobbly models bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Thunderbirds. The editing style is abrupt but engaging, inviting the audience to join the threads of the narrative together rather than spelling them out. The film also has some vivid details depicting life in the fictive future. For example, we see the crew sniff on cigarette-like sticks to recall earth, food comes in geometric shapes, and people dance to a strange mix of medieval and electronic music.
All this ground has been well-trodden by other film-makers since Ikarie XB 1′s appearance, and the film may have lost some of its impact over the years. However, it’s an enjoyable classic for sci-fi lovers and, for those more interested in human drama, an accessible movie too.
Ikarie XB 1 is available from Second Run DVD (www.secondrundvd.com) priced at £12.99