1963 | Czech
AKA: Voyage to the End of the Universe
Director: Jindrich Polak

One of the things I love about Eastern Bloc science fiction films from the early 1960s is the air of moment that hangs around them. Unlike American sci-fi films of the era, which were more often than not throwaway drive-in fare, these movies were a major undertaking for the countries that produced them. They were not only intended to be an expression of national pride, but also a source of it. Of course, you wouldn’t know that from the versions of them that eventually made it to theater screens here in the U.S. Radically edited to eliminate all evidence of their communist origins and frequently retaining little of their original footage beyond their special effects sequences, such films became the building blocks for cut-rate titles such as Roger Corman’s Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (both fashioned from the Russian Planeta Bur) and Crown International’s retooling of East Germany’s The Silent Star, First Spaceship on Venus.

However, one such film, Czechoslovakia’s Ikarie XB-1, managed to make it to these shores relatively intact. Picked up by American International, the film was released under the title Voyage to the End of the Universe and paired on a double bill with Godzilla vs. The Thing. Unfortunately, those few alterations that AIP did make to the film make Voyage to the End of the Universe stand out as an example of how even the slightest changes can sometimes affect a major difference in a movie’s overall tone and meaning.

Ikarie XB-1 was produced by Filmove Studio Barrandov, then-Czechoslovakia’s premier film studio and one of the largest and most well-appointed in Europe. Co-founded by the father of future Czech president Vaclav Havel, the studio was nationalized in 1948 and, at the time of Ikarie‘s production, was the primary source of film production in the country. That Ikarie was a high profile undertaking for the studio is clearly evidenced by the obvious expense that went into the film’s large cast, its for-the-time above average special effects, and above all, Jan Zazvorka’s production design – in particular the impressive sets that comprise the many interiors of the titular spacecraft Ikaria. (Ikaria, by the way, is the Czech name for Icarus, which, when you think about it, is not too auspicious of a name for such a ship, given how well its mythical namesake fared on his maiden voyage into the clouds.)

Like East Germany’s The Silent Star, Ikarie XB-1 is based on the writings of Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem, in this case his 1955 novel The Magellanic Cloud. The movie tells the story of the Ikaria’s two-and-a-half-year expedition to look for life on the planets of Alpha Centauri. In light of the long journey, the Ikaria has been designed as a sort of space-borne city, with its multi-generational crew of forty making up a kind of community within it. There are indications that the crew itself is something of an experiment, with an onboard sociologist on hand to observe the members’ interactions as they try to approximate as best they can the business of daily life, taking on various societal roles, forming bonds and even pursuing romance. There is even an expecting young couple among them, a fact that proves to be a sore point for second-in-command Commander MacDonald (Radovan Lukavsky), whose pregnant wife was forced to stay behind on Earth. (The various surnames of the crew members suggest that this, like that of The Silent Star‘s Cozmokrator, is meant to be an international crew, though The Silent Star went Ikarie one better by including some actual non-Caucasians among its cast.)

Rather than having an overarching plot, Ikarie proceeds in an episodic nature, allowing its narrative, free of contrivances, to take on a natural, gradually building flow ideal to its subject matter. As such, suspense is generated primarily by the simple question of whether the Ikaria will be able to fulfill its mission, or if it will instead fall victim to the hazards encountered along the way – hazards that are both astrophysical and, as suggested in a flash-forward prologue, interpersonal. To this end, director Jindrich Polak, his cinematographers, and the cast all contribute expertly to creating an air of tension, be it via the sense of controlled anxiety just below the surface of each crew member or the manner in which the ship’s expressionistic interiors are framed and lit to maximize an overall sense of precariousness and uncertainty.

I’ve read some reviews of Ikarie XB-1 that allude, with varying degrees of certainty, to the possibility that Stanley Kubrick was influenced by the film in his making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, though none that I can find provide any kind of facts that would back that up. I think it’s just as likely that the creatives behind both films were equally influenced by cutting-edge design trends of the time and then-current ideas about long-range space travel. Concepts like video phones and talking computers, for example, were certainly not plucked out of a vacuum.

At the same time, there are similarities that are hard to ignore; especially in terms of Zazvorka’s set designs, and especially when considering the interior of Ikarie‘s spaceship versus that of the Jupiter probe featured in 2001‘s second half. Both designs seem to emphasize the isolation and comparative smallness of their inhabitants, as if each of the craft were built to house a crew twice the size of the one they are carrying. In Ikarie‘s case, cinematographers Jan Kalis and Sasa Rasilov frequently frame the shots of the individual cast members in such a manner that they are dwarfed by the vast open spaces and towering machinery of the ship. While, in 2001‘s case, I think such techniques are intended in part to convey a sense of alienation, in Ikarie‘s case they seem to be meant as a way of expressing both the relative insignificance of mankind in the face of the universe’s awesome expanse and that of the individual in comparison to the profound human project of exploring that expanse.

Ikarie XB-1 is also similar to 2001 in its dedication to both projecting and realistically portraying the more mundane aspects of long-range space travel. Of course, the danger and thrills of the endeavor get their fair amount of play, but we are just as likely to see the boredom experienced by the crew, as well as the frayed nerves that come from having to be cooped up with the same faces for an extended period of time. Harsh words are spoken over annoying personal tics and pastimes are listlessly pursued, as are other reprieves from the routine—such as a birthday party with drinks and dancing—greeted with disproportionate enthusiasm. Basically, anyone who has ever worked in a small office will find much to identify with in the Ikaria crew’s plight. What is most impressive about all of this is the amount of audience interest that Polak and co-writer Pavel Juracek are able to build up around these displays of ennui. In fact, that Ikarie XB-1 is as gripping a film as it is, is quite an impressive accomplishment, especially when you consider that one of its major set pieces involves the entire Ikaria crew falling asleep.

To belabor the 2001 comparison one step further before laying it to rest, Ikarie, like Kubrick’s film, has aged very well for a science fiction film of its time. While elements of its design look somewhat fanciful in a contemporary light, its sober tone and credible depiction of its characters’ interactions with their environment prevent it from wandering into kitsch territory. There are notable exceptions to this, of course, one of the main ones being the model used for the Ikaria itself, which looks like an ungainly cross between an egg tray and a flat iron. There are also some mildly regrettable, but ultimately charming, examples of people doing crazy “futuristic” dances that are similar in spirit to the goofy space-frugging that was a hallmark of the West German space opera Raumpatrouille Orion. Such attempts at depicting futuristic pop culture always date science fiction from the ’60s, seeing as they’re more useful as a gauge of just how alien the filmmakers regarded the ways of the young folks of their own time to be.

Coming as it did a few years before the Prague Spring, Ikarie XB-1 didn’t benefit from the same lack of government interference that some later films of the Czech new wave did. Still, it appears that restrictions had relaxed enough by 1963 that its makers were free from having to make their larger artistic goals entirely subordinate to the need to freight the film with anti-capitalist propaganda. Ironically, however, it is the film’s most blatant example of just that that turns out to be one of its most eerie and effective sequences. This sequence occurs when the Ikaria encounters a derelict ship, presumably American, whose entire retinue of crew and passengers has died mysteriously, and whose bodies, thanks to the vacuum within, have been perfectly preserved just as they were at their moment of death hundreds of years previous.

The two astronauts assigned to board the ship find it to be essentially a museum-quality tableau of all of the worst ills of the 20th century. Capitalist fat cats in formal wear and bejeweled society ladies lie dead with wads of cash clasped in their hands, dice and other gambling paraphernalia strewn across the floor around them. Festively labeled canisters of poisonous gas are found nearby and are determined by the Ikaria astronauts to have been used by the crew to kill the passengers in order to conserve the ship’s dwindling air supply for themselves. Worst and deadliest of all, the ship turns out to be loaded with live nuclear weapons. It’s all just as heavy-handed as it sounds. Yet it is the ghastly spectacle of the stunned astronauts making their way through the dimly lit, corpse-strewn ship, as well as the scene’s startling conclusion, that sticks with you well above any intended message.

Incidentally, this scene is followed by one in which two other members of the Ikaria’s crew have to perform a spacewalk in order to make repairs to the ship’s exterior. One of these crew members is Erik Svenson, one of the ship’s pilots, played by Czech actor Jiri Vrstala, who also appeared the villain in the East German “Indianerfilm” The Sons of Great Bear. Vrstala was also known for playing the beloved children’s character Clown Ferdinand both on East German television and in a series of feature films. His hard-edged performance here doesn’t do anything toward enabling me to imagine him as a kiddie show host, but the fact remains. In fact, Ikarie director Polak, during the same year of Ikarie‘s production, also directed a Clown Ferdinand film, Clown Ferdinand and the Rocket, for which he reused many of Ikarie XB-1‘s sets.

As I stated earlier, Ikarie XB-1 beat the prevailing trend and managed to make it to the United States with most of its original footage intact, though with its Czech-speaking actors’ voices replaced with those of the same crew who provided the English dialog for Speed Racer and Ultraman. Almost more impressive, especially in light of Crown International earlier replacing The Silent Star‘s much more conservative original score with library music, is the fact that American International chose to keep Zdenek Liska’s original, distinctly uncommercial musical score, with its mix of jarring proto-electronica and lush orchestration.

Still, those few changes that were made to Ikarie XB-1 are glaring. The first of them is apparent during the film’s opening moments. In an attempt to disguise the film’s foreign origins, AIP “westernized” the names of each of the cast and crew listed in the opening credits, transforming, for instance, actors Zdenek Stepanek and Frantisek Smolik into “Dennis Stephens” and “Francis Smolen”, and director Jindrich Polak into “Jack Pollack”. Admittedly, this is actually kind of funny if you know what’s going on and does nothing to alter the actual content of the film. Elsewhere, while they didn’t excise the creepy derelict spaceship sequence completely, AIP did render it somewhat baffling by way of cleansing it of all references to the fact that the crew had murdered the passengers and then each other. Thus, we get dialogue along the lines of “Gee, despite all of these guns lying around there is no sign of violence!” The brief shot of the “Tigger Fun” poisonous gas canisters is also removed.

But the most dramatic change that Voyage to the End of the Universe makes to Ikarie XB-1 is the result of some small but significant alterations to the dialogue and a bit of inserted footage at the film’s conclusion. Throughout the film, the English dub refers to the mission’s destination as “The Green Planet”, rather than Alpha Centauri, and other lines of dialog are altered to include that phrase, so that the Ikaria’s crew members seem to be constantly chattering excitedly about reaching “The Green Planet”. This is odd, not the least because, given not only the scale of the mission but also the many years spent in preparation for it, you’d think that someone somewhere along the line would have come up with a somewhat more formal designation for its object. I mean, isn’t that sort of like if NASA had referred to the first moon voyage as being to “that round, crater-y thing”?

Finally, that little bit of footage that AIP snuck in at the end confirms what attentive readers of 1950s sci-fi comics have already guessed but were most likely hoping they’d be wrong about. As the Ikaria’s crew gazes at the terrain of the Green Planet, emerging through the cloud cover as they make their approach, we see stock footage of the New York skyline, and then the Statue of Liberty. Why… the Green Planet… it’s… it’s… EARTH. Seriously, only a speech balloon filled with exclamation points could make the moment any more like the end of one of those Stan Lee stories from Amazing Adventures.

In the world of Ikarie XB-1 proper, the crew faces one of its most serious hurdles when the ship comes into close proximity with a dark star, the radiation from which causes the members’ metabolisms to slow, bringing about a kind of mass sleeping sickness. As all onboard succumb one by one, Commander MacDonald rails vainly against the scourge, cajoling his subordinates to resist it, and in the process seems to be keeping himself awake through sheer willpower. This ultimately leads to a sequence in which we see the defeated MacDonald making his way through the vast expanses of the silent ship, every room littered with the bodies of his sleeping fellow crew members.

It’s an eerie and powerful moment, but one that’s topped by the one that immediately follows. MacDonald finally gives in to his fatigue and, in an echo of Ray Bradbury’s famous short story “There Will Come Soft Rains”, we’re shown a ship in which the various automated processes are the only signs of “life”. An electronic voice issues reminders that the crew will never hear, while the automated galley serves up meals that will only grow cold. Finally, we see in silhouette a robot belonging to Anthony, the ship’s mathematician, trundling aimlessly down an empty, darkened corridor, repeatedly calling out its master’s name in an electronic bleat. It’s yet another powerful moment in a film comprised of many such moments, the sum of which is a truly outstanding piece of science fiction cinema.

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