Ikarie XB 1, Based on the Fiction of Stanislaw Lem, Is a Fascinating Obscurity

The myth of Icarus isn’t about flight; it’s about falling. Daedalus’s callow son flaps too close to the sun; the glue of his wings melt, their feathers flutter away, and Icarus plummets seaward. He is the first to soar through the sky, but also the sky’s first victim. Personally, I wouldn’t name the first ship to traverse interstellar space after our fallen predecessor, but perhaps the people of the year 2163, as depicted in Czech director Jindřich Polák’s 1963 Ikarie XB 1, have conquered superstition. Or perhaps they’re tempting fate.

Polák sets his film, an adaptation of an early minor work by Polish master Stanislaw Lem, exactly two hundred years after the time of the movie’s production. American writers tended to imagine the Cold War continuing in perpetuity; more than one otherwise prophetic writer described the U.S. and USSR still at loggerheads several centuries hence. Ikarie, from Soviet Czechoslovakia, imagines that two hundred years is sufficient time for the world to transform. It’s implied that the world has come around to communism. The Ikarie has a global crew drawn from both sides of the former Iron Curtain: Everyone speaks Czech, it’s true, but they have names like “Macdonald” and “Anthony.” The peoples of the world are boldly going to Alpha Centauri together.

The story starts after Ikarie has departed Earth and ends, on the cusp of revelation, as it lands on an occupied planet. The threats and challenges faced by the Ikarie’s cosmonauts en route to their discovery are disconnected and occasional, not linked and cumulative. The investigation of an abandoned spaceship—it turns out to be full of dead twentieth-century capitalists who unwisely fled Earth with rather more atomic weapons than food supplies—doesn’t much relate to the ship’s later encounter with a pernicious “dark star” that induces catatonia or with a cosmonaut’s temporary madness. There are slight linkages between events, but the various near-calamities are more like episodes of Star Trek than a unified story.

I don’t know any other genre film that oscillates quite so starkly between wholly convincing and laughably unbelievable. The giant screens for video calls are appropriately futuristic, the outfits in the sleek co-ed gymnasium still raise eyebrows, and the sleek furniture in the common area made me long for yesterday’s future. In the film’s best joke, a crewmember’s ponderous companion robot, with its magnetic tape memory bank, halting voice, and family resemblance to Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot, is made fun of for being a relic of another era. Even the science impresses: Nearly sixty years on, time dilation remains ignored by most science fiction films, but both its physical reality and emotional effects are in play here. On the other hand, a late-breaking plot twist involving a new kind of radiation is unconvincing by even the lowest standard. Similarly, the production design is accomplished, except that the movie posits that fashion remains caught in the 1960s; a shipboard party scene—with its cocktail glasses, chic midcentury modern furniture, and evening dress—might almost have been interpolated from another movie.

Ikarie XB 1 is a good movie forever trying to cross the border into greatness. It doesn’t deserve its current obscurity, but, like the original Icarus, the film flew too close to the sun and vanished from sight. Two films melted its wings. The first is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released five years after Ikarie. Kubrick watched Polák’s film and was not entirely unkind about it. Though that Daedalus of special effects can’t have been impressed with the scenes of the ship bleeping and booping—no Strauss waltzes here—across the screen on wires, he acknowledged that the ship’s angular and antiseptic interior corridors were echoed in the Discovery One sequences of Space Odyssey. The second film that doomed Ikarie to obscurity was Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, the essential Stanislaw Lem adaptation and one of the only science fiction films with ambitions approaching Kubrick’s.

I watched Ikarie XB 1 on a region-free Blu-Ray from British label Second Run. Much like fellow prestige labels Criterion in the U.S. and Arrow in the U.K., Second Run invariably produces a quality package. Second Run issued Ikarie on DVD in 2013, but this new release isn’t a simple upgrade to a higher resolution: It uses a newer 4K transfer that premiered at Cannes in 2016 and also includes new special features. The Ikarie Blu includes a booklet with an essay by Michael Brooke, a contemporaneous Czech short film about science, a video interview with SFF author Kim Newman, original and restoration trailers, and two brief excerpts from the movie’s American dub, Voyage to the End of the Universe. This last feature may be the most interesting. The first Voyage clip is the film’s credit sequence; in the classic mid-century American manner, everyone involved in the film has been given an American-sounding name to disguise the film’s origins behind the Iron Curtain. The second extract is the American film’s ending, which trades the mystery, expectation, and optimism of the original for an absurd paean to American democracy made all the more ridiculous by the film’s Soviet provenance.

Is Ikarie XB 1 the lost classic I’d hoped to see? Not quite. Every moment of sublimity jostles with minutes of tedium, and, though it’s a short movie, its longueurs are such that the sleeping sickness that assails the explorers may threaten viewers. But if you stay awake and stay alert, you’ll find there’s much to applaud and to admire—Ikarie XB 1 may not soar, but it remains airbound.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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