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?