Ikarie XB 1

Some thoughts on this 1963 Czechoslovakian science fiction film, directed by Jindřich Polák. A new 4K restoration is currently (December 2020) available from various streaming services. Assume some general spoilers below…

For a little historical context, 1963 was (besides the year I was born and of the Kennedy assassination) also the year Dr. Who premiered in Great Britain and The Outer Limits in the USA. Jerry Lewis made The Nutty Professor. Roger Corman, X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes. Ishiro Honda directed the horror classic Matango and the science fiction adventure Atragon. Star Trek in America and Ultra Q in Japan would be three years later. 2001: A Space Odyssey wouldn’t be out for five years, in 1968.

When I saw a promo for Ikarie XB 1, available for streaming from the Music Box Theatre, it caught my attention. I thought I had never heard of this film before. While watching it I very quickly began to realize I had seen it — or rather the Americanized release Voyage to the End of the Universe. Some of the special effects and the ship design of the Ikarie itself were quite recognizable. A surprising number of European and Russian SF films managed to make it into the Late Night Creature Feature circuit of American TV in the 60s and 70’s. Or at least films that incorporated footage from them did. There was the Italian Planet of Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965). The Queen of Blood (Curtis Harrington, 1965) was a remake of the Russian film A Dream Come True (Mikhail Karyukov, 1963) which reused footage from yet a different Soviet science fiction film, Battle Beyond the Sun (Karyukov, 1959). Roger Corman took the Russian Planet of Storms (Pavel Klushantsev, 1962) and made two movies out of it: Voyage to the Prehistoic Planet (Harrington, 1965) and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (Peter Bogdonovich, 1968)— inserting new footage of Venusian Amazons into the latter to justify the title.

Ikarie XB 1 is a loose adaption of the 1955 novel The Magellanic Cloud by Polish writer Stanisław Lem. In the English speaking world Lem is best known for Solaris, which has been adapted by both the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1968 and in the United States Steven Soderbergh in 2002. Both movies are worth seeing (though while Soderbergh’s is interesting, Tarkovsky’s is a masterpiece) but neither quite express the oppressive cosmic horror of the original novel. I’d even call it a work of anti-science fiction, but that’s a topic for another day. I’ve read several Lem novels, but not The Magellanic Cloud. I’m curious to do so, after having now seen the original, Czech version of Ikarie XB 1. Like Lem’s novels, the movie shows the influence of Western science fiction, yet is not exactly the same as what developed in magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction or Galaxy — the publications that shaped and defined what comes to mind when we think of the genre to this day. Even while the genre trappings — space ships, robots, boldly going where no man has gone before — are familiar, the plot unfolds as something differently than our Western expectations. There is not one central plot or an ever escalating crisis. It is the tale of a journey.

The movie tells the story of an interstellar mission to search for life on a planet around Alpha Centauri. The bombastic English title Voyage to the End of the Universe is amusingly ironic, since they are in fact on a journey to the Sun’s nearest neighbor at only 4.37 light-years distance. You immediately see that this is something different from an American SF film of that era or of today. These cosmonauts are not a military or academic elite, but a selection of individuals of different ages and experiences. Many are in relationships or marriages with each other. There is an evident chain of command in managing the ship but it is without shouted orders, salutes, or “Yes, Captain!” It is an idealized, classless, egalitarian society. There are no hammer and sickles, no reverent invocations of Marx or Stalin, but these are clearly people from a communist utopia. There are also all very white. No sign of any ethnic diversity whatsoever, though of course you’d find that in an American SF of the same era.

While the movie’s setting is the 22nd Century and there is advanced technology, the story stays in the realm of hard science fiction: there is nothing fantastical or even “super-scentific” going on. For example there is no faster-than-light travel. The mission to Alpha Centauri and the “White Planet” they wish to explore will take 15 years. Or at least that long will pass on Earth. The film does not ignore Einstein and Relativity. Traveling at nearly the speed of light, the ships will experience only 28 months of local time, while 15 years will pass by on Earth. The personal cost of being on this mission weighs on the crew as they prepare to leave. Commander Vladimir Abayev is leaving behind a pregnant wife. He struggles to accept that he will have a 15 year old daughter when he returns home. Such sacrifices are the cost of advancing human civilization into the stars, though the strain of that decision never leaves the crew, and there is a melancholy tone over the whole mission, even as they fill the months with research, exercise, and dances.

As part of the attempt to maintain psychologically health, the crew was allowed to bring whatever personal objects they want to give them comfort, even things such a grand piano, or a pet dog. Mathematician Hopkins brings his personal robot. This seems an homage to the history of SF space films, since “Patrick” is a clanking, flashing, electronic voiced cousin of such classic movie robots as Robbie from Forbidden Planet (Fred Wilcox, 1956). The other crew consider Patrick to be a ridiculous toy, an antique from decades past. Robotics are actually vitally important to the operation of the Ikarie, but in the present day of the story, they are so advanced and sophisticated as to remain out of sight and essentially invisible. I’ve come across a couple reviews of the movie that seem to have missed that the robot is supposed to be a joke.

One of the central incidents of the journey is when the ship’s instruments detect another space craft. This could be the first contact with extraterrestrial life they’ve been looking for. But on examination the craft appears abandoned, and then as two crewmen enter and explore inside it, they find it is in fact a craft from 20th Century Earth. And it is filled bodies of revelers who died (or where murdered) in party clothes while drinking, gambling, and generally indulging in decadent vices. Even worse the craft in armed with nuclear weapons, one of which is accidentally activated and goes off, annihilating the craft and the two explorers. The commentary on the sins of Western Capitalism are obvious enough to need no commentary from the film. The whole sequence might (and has been) interpreted as anti-American Soviet era propaganda, but there’s nothing in the political or social beliefs of the crew of the Ikarie that would be out of place on Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

The resolution of the story is the most unusual thing about the film. A certainly level of narrative anticipation has existed since the movie’s first scenes, which opened with a flash forward of an injured and delirious crew member wandering the ship’s corridor with a blaster weapon. The rest of the crew desperately try to calm him before he sabotages the vessel. “Earth is gone!” he wails. “Earth never existed!” We then jump back the mission’s launch and it is fairly late in the movie before we “catch up” to those first scenes. I had certainly forgotten about them by this time. What might be considered the film’s central crisis has largely passed. The ship has survived exposure to the debilitating radiation of a “dark star” (the term black hole was only beginning to enter common usage in 1963). Though this was with the assistance of an energy field of unknown origin. Two cosmonauts who received extra strong dosages of the radiation begin to suffer mental and physical breakdowns. It is one of these men whom we saw in the opening sequence and have now returned to. Suspense over what might happen is developed — and then resolved when the ill man is subdued by Commander’s calming words and compassion, rather than a violent confrontation or shoot out with lasers. The violence averse Gene Roddenberry would again have approved.

After these two climaxes, the movie is not yet over. The first child in space is born and shortly thereafter the ship reaches its destination, finding not only life on the White Planet, but a teaming, advanced civilization that was responsible for creating the protective energy field. The ship proceeds to land, expecting to welcomed by friendly comrades. And that is the end.

During the final sequence, which was presented as hopeful and uplifting, I felt a growing apprehension that the film would go for painfully trite twisted ending. I was much relieved when they didn’t — and then realized I was worried because Voyage to the End of the Universe did do just what I dreaded, inserting stock footage the State of Liberty and New York to reveal that “Surprise, it was Earth all along!” I am a little tempted to go back actually watch the English version just to masochistically recall all the changes like that.

As I said above, this movie is the story of a space expedition. And that is the story. They leave Earth trying to reach the White Planet. Stuff happens along the way. Then they get there. While there are mysteries, discoveries, obstacles, and dangers, the journey itself is primary.

Journey stories don’t necessarily fit well into the Three Act structure we are so used to in the West. They do not have the pattern of a situation which is disrupted by a problem, leading to a rising conflict against an adversary, and building to a ultimate confrontation that resolves the problem. Instead they can be examples of the Four Act structure of Asian poetry and drama, know in Japanese as Kishōtenketsu, something I’ve written about here in my blog before. It is a structure I considered whenever I come across a narrative that does not follow the stages of how we in the West automatically expect a story to be constructed.

With Kishōtenketsu in mind, I see the narrative of Ikarie XB 1 in this pattern:

  • Ki (Introduction): The crew board the ship, prepare for journey, coming to terms with leaving giving up 15 years of the world of their home.
  • Shō (Development): They encounter various situations and obstacles to their journey, each adding to the danger of life in space and the psychological strain of the mission. Eventually they face a problem their skill and technology cannot over come. The radiation from a dark star is fatiguing them mentally and physically. They will inevitably collapse into a coma for 3 days until they pass out of range. The automatics of the ship might or might not keep the mission functioning until then.
  • Ten (Twist): The crew awakes to find that, somehow, only 24 hours have passed. A mysterious energy field of unknown origin is protecting them.
  • Ketsu (Conclusion): On reaching the White Planet they find not only life and a thriving civilization, but that it was this planet that projects the energy field which saved them.

Shō can be the majority of a narrative and can contain several smaller cycles of introduction, development, twist, and conclusion, though each cycle only advances the situation, without any definitive change. In a film such as Ikarie XB 1 these are the various incidents that occur on their journey than must be faced.

With my interest in Kishōtenketsu and other alternative narrative forms, I want to be cautious about seeing them everywhere I look. Stories of journeys though lend themselves to the form. While the destination is the goal of course, the thing that the characters want and are trying to achieve, the destination is not the story. We could just start there and tell that story, of what the characters find and how they react to it. Most Western Science Fiction is made of those kinds of stories. A journey is made of the experiences that the characters undergo during it and how they are changed by them. If they were still going to be exactly who they were when they left home, what is the point of seeking the White Planet at all?

Godzilla Raids Again: beginning, break, rapid

After five decades of watching kaiju eiga — Japanese giant monster movies — there were still two Godzilla movies I had not seen. I just scratched one of those off, by watching the second Godzilla film produced, 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again.

Movie posterThe English dub of this film doesn’t even call him Godzilla. It is known as Gigantis the Fire Monster and the owners of the domestic version didn’t keep it in distribution, which is why I never is saw it on any of the late night or afterschool creature-feature shows on my local TV stations. Where I did just see the Japanese original was on, of all the places, the Criterion Channel streaming service. I have no idea why this movie is in their collection along with the works of Welles, Bergman, Kurosawa, etc. Godzilla Raids Again is not a good movie. Yet it has some interesting aspects worth considering, for the genre it helped create, and for styles of Japanese storytelling that go back to medieval times.

The film was produced in a rush after the success of the original Godzilla the year before. It is not even directed by Ishiro Honda, who was responsible for most of the classic “Showa” era Godzilla films of the 1960’s and 70’s. At least the special effects were handled by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya, though even that aspect of the film is problematic. Some camera mechanical issues resulted in much of the monster action appearing sped up – rather than slowed down as one would expect, to increase the sense of scale. In spite of that there are actually some impressive special effects in the film, such as the crushing of Osaka, including its famous castle, beneath two wrestling kaiju. There are also some shots looking down on Godzilla from an airplane high above, which is not how the king of monsters is usually depicted. That these shots make him seem small and non-threatening is something I’ll return to later.

The plot of this film is mostly a slice-of-life about a fishing company and its employees – that just happens to have Godzilla as one of the issues they have to deal with. The economic impact of Godzilla is something that doesn’t come up often. The first issue this sequel has to deal with is that in its predecessor, the 1954 Godzilla, the monster was pretty thoroughly killed – we not only saw the body, we saw it dissolve into bones and then into nothing. This film’s solution? There’s another Godzilla. Enough said. And there’s second monster, Anguirus, who is identified as a type of dinosaur, the ankylosaurus. The film is unequivocal that Godzilla and Angurius are dinosaurs. As a dinosaur nerd myself it was amusing to hear the film’s experts go on and on about what a vicious and aggressive predator ankylosaurus was – since most any schoolchild could tell you that it should be included in the list of placid plant eating dinos. Anguirus, along with Godzilla II, is assumed awakened by H-bomb tests.

The movie has three acts that work more like three episodes of a serial, rather than one movie. The first act spends plenty of time introducing the fishing company and its two spotter pilots, Tsukioka and Kobayashi. They are the ones who discover the second Godzilla, already locked in combat with Anguirus. This film introduced the trope of Godzilla fighting other monsters, a main element in most subsequent movies of the franchise. Often there is a convoluted plot to get the kaiju brawling, but in this movie it just happens. Our two heroes barely escape to report their discovery.

The second act starts out with a lot of meetings and planning about what to do. Eventually a scheme is concocted to use flares to scare Godzilla away, should he come to shore. This is another tradition: making up an arbitrary weakness for Godzilla that are only mentioned for a short sequence and then forgotten. Bright lights are frightening because they remind him of the H-bomb test that awoke him..? Additionally the story has already forgotten that this not the same monster that attacked Tokyo the year before. That fact is never mentioned again in the franchise, as far as I know.

After much tracking and careful observations, everyone seems ready when Godzilla shows up at Osaka. Another trope introduced is the evacuation sequence. The first Godzilla was memorable for its scenes of injured survivors in makeshift hospitals suffering the consequences of the monster’s attack. The parallels with the devastation of World War II bombings being obvious. In subsequent films there is a requisite sequence where citizens are warned that monsters are coming and they need to flee. By the time buildings are crumbling and exploding, the city can be assumed empty. When this convention is ignored, as in Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy, the results are brutal and shocking. In Godzilla Raids Again, while Osaka is reduced to flaming rubble, there are few signs of any causalities outside the military.

The meticulous plan goes awry when, first, escaping criminals accidently set an oil refinery ablaze, and then Anguirus happens to show up again. While humans watch helplessly, the monsters have their vicious rematch, destroying the city. Godzilla wins, biting and then incinerating Angurius. That’s it for the ankylosaurus (until an identical monster reappears in 1968’s Destroy All Monsters). Yet there’s still more movie to get through. That Godzilla’s main opponent is dead half way though the film is not the only odd thing about the story structure here.

In the third act, the fishing company has shifted its main operations to its northern offices, on the snowy island of Hokkaido. Pilot Kobayashi has settled in to his new assignment and is hoping to get married. Things seem to be going well — until Godzilla shows up again and sinks a fishing trawler. The pilots track him down to remote island and Kobayashi attempts to distract and delay the monster to give the military time to act. Sadly he is killed, but his plane crash revealing a possible means of finishing off Godzilla: trigger an avalanche and bury him in ice. The second pilot, Tsukioka, joins the military to avenge his friend.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about how Asian traditions of storytelling show up in works of popular culture. There is the four-act Kishoutenketsu dramatic structure, which I’ve mentioned some in these posts, but also there is the pattern of Jo-ha-kyū, which has origins in medieval Japan and 14th century Noh plays. When I watch something from Japan that has a puzzling structure, I try to think if I am looking at it from too Western a perspective. Godzilla Raids Again was a strange candidate for this approach, but it seems to have some application.

Roughly, Jo-ha-kyū is “beginning, break, rapid.” An example that comes to mind is the classic confrontation between samurai warriors which you see all the time in movies, manga, and anime. Rather than a prolonged duel of clashing blades, these fights tend to consist of two samurai appearing on the battlefield. They stare at each other, then slowly draw their katanas, taking a few steps, then building to a run. They pass each other, making a single slash with their swords. There’s a pause, and one falls dead. An introduction, a buildup to a crisis, and then a very swift resolution. Beginning, break, rapid. This is also the pattern of two cowboys gunslingers meeting for a showdown: one of the many reason why the cowboy and samurai genres intermix so well.

All three sections of this movie have slow introductions and build ups. We see a lot of how this industrial fishing operation works, from its airplanes looking for schools of fish, to the crews of the fleet, to the administrative structure of the company. Those are the “Jo” sections. These people are really just trying to do their jobs, but Godzilla keeps showing up and interfering with their production schedule. That’s the “Ha”: when the menace has made itself known and everybody has to plan how to deal with it. When Godzillas attacks come it is a sudden escalation of danger and destruction — “Kyū”

Some of the odd scenes in the movie have a clearer purpose when put into this structure. For instance in the third act, to celebrate the recovery of their business, the company has a sake drinking party at a local inn. While there, Tsukioka meets up with some old war buddies (now part of the Japanese Self-defense Force). The only narrative function of this long, complicated sequence is to reconnect him with his military friends so that, at the end, he can request to join them in their final assault on Godzilla. Nothing else actually happens in this sequence. It just shows the lives of these characters, going about their business — until the news of Godzilla upsets things. From a Western storytelling perspective it seems filler, something to give the movie feature film length, but as a “Jo” section it moderates the pacing, giving more emphasizing on ordinary life, contrasting the unnatural events to come.

This may sound like I am presenting this movie as having unappreciated value — but not really. Many plot events just happen at random. Basic facts shift as needed — is Godzilla frighted of lights, or attracted to flames? Why would barrels of burning oil drive off a giant radioactive dragon? In the final act Godzilla comes off as a hunted beast. Godzilla trapped in a valley, with snow covered mountains towering over him is a strange image. He seems more like a lost, out of place animal. One might think he is meant to be pitied, but no other element in the movie supports that.

The rush to start a series of Godzilla films in the 50’s did not go well. Godzilla Raids Again was not a big success. There would not be another until Ishiro Honda returned to direct the color King Kong vs Godzilla in 1962. The remaining Godzilla film I have yet to see is the 1967 Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, aka The One With the Giant Lobster.