Wednesday, 16 March 2011

AFED #74: Ikarie XB-1 (Czechoslovakia, 1963); Dir. Jindřich Polák


Said to have been an influence on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Czech sci-fi Ikarie XB-1 demonstrates both a debt to its American cousins and a willingness to do things a little differently.

The eponymous 'Icarus XB-1' is an exploratory spaceship in the 22nd century, with a mission to go boldly go where no man has gone before, namely Alpha Centauri. Manned by a large mixed crew of various skills, their journey is scheduled to take some fifteen earth years; although because of "time dilation" only two years will pass for those on board.

The earlier part of the film focuses on the humdrum details of life on board the ship, which gradually gives way to frustration and cabin fever as time wears on. Just when you've started to wonder whether anything of significance is ever going to happen, they encounter a derelict twentieth century vessel armed with nuclear weapons. When it explodes, killing two members of the Icarus's crew in the process, our enlightened successors lambast the foolishness of our epoch. I think there may have been some kind of message here.

Shortly after the Icarus must confront an even more deadly challenge when a mysterious "dark star" emitting deadly radiation threatens to kill everyone on board as they succumb to a strange sleeping sickness. They escape - just - but one of their number has been driven insane and threatens to destroy everything in a tense climax.

Bearing in mind it was released some three years before Star Trek first aired has some uncanny similarities. Besides the large crew and mission remit, the layout of ship's bridge and prominent large-screen monitors bears a definite resemblance those of the Enterprise. If Gene Rodenberry hadn't seen this film then I'm amazed.

But the film has a very distinct look and feel by comparison with American product. There's some imaginative set design, crisp black and white photography and a creepy futurist score by  score by composer  Zdeněk Liška.

The screenplay is by Pavel Juráček, a sadly neglected figure in Czech cinema history. A scriptwriting graduate of the Prague film school FAMU, he would go on to write and direct one of the key works of the Czech New Wave with the Kafkaesque short Postava k podpírání (aka Josef Kilian) and was also responsible for the original idea behind Vera Chytilová's Daisies, amongst other work.

Juráček throws in some cute self-reflexive details, like when at meal time one of the crew speculates whether their ancestors had ever imagined they would be eating a simple pill for nutrition, or when the crude Robbie the Robot-type automaton one of the crew has brought along is revealed to be a dated antique and anything but state of the art.

The film was actually imported to America, where AIP had it dubbed by English-speaking actors and renamed Voyage to the End of the Universe. Accounts would suggest it's rather a clumsy hatchet job which even has the temerity to change the ending, but not having seen I'll just have to take that on trust.

Overall it's intriguing, but by Czech standards not a classic.

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