What does a retro, communist space drama look like? It's hard to say. Most films produced during the Cold War never made it past the Iron Curtain.
That is, until now. IKARIE XB-1, a Czech sci-fi film from 1963, is getting a re-release with a new 4K restoration and will stream with Film Forum starting December 4.
It has been a rare gem, indeed. It didn’t resurface digitally until British distribution company Second Run released a Blu-ray version in 2013. In 2016, Cannes Film Festival selected it as part of their Cannes Classic selection, framing it as inspiration Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a throwback to the days of communist, sci-fi space dramas (which are few and far between).
IKARIE XB-1 is based on a 1955 novel by Polish writer Stanisław Lem called The Magellanic Cloud. It follows a large group of astronauts who fly through outer space on a 15-year journey to the star Alpha Centauri, which they refer to as White Planet in the year 2163.
There are a few differences between the film and the book. The cast is smaller (it’s a group of 40 astronauts, not 227). It’s aesthetically arty. And it became a mouthpiece for socialist realism, more so than the writer originally intended, depicting conformity as a kind of perfection. Any capitalistic overtones are abhorred, as we see in the film.
When Lem first published his book, socialist authorities didn’t think it was enthusiastic enough for communism, so they made it sound peppier. They also took out any reference to cybernetics, which at the time was considered “bourgeois pseudoscience.”
Lem had to code, or disguise, parts of the book, so he created a fictional version of cybernetics called “mechanheuristics.” His unedited, original novel wasn’t released until 1990 — after democracy returned to Poland.
The film is equally weird. Directed by Jindřich Polák, this spacecraft on its way to the White Planet on Ikarie (the name of the ship) was released during the space race. Polák envisioned an optimistic view of space discovery, but what he created was basically Soviet propaganda.
IKARIE XB-1 is anti-western. At one point, the Czech astronauts discover another spaceship and invade it with flashlights to find dead Americans who smoked, drank, and entertained themselves to death. Their corpses are covered in casino chips and extravagant clothing, and it becomes clear they killed each other over a greedy bid for oxygen supply. (This was a time when many Europeans were brainwashed to believe the Iron Curtain would take over the world.)
This obscure film was initially ignored by Hollywood, as it wasn’t fit for an American audience. That is, until, American International Pictures did a huge re-edit, dubbed it in English, renamed it “Voyage to the End of the Universe,” and released it in 1964 with a different ending that made no sense. (Warning! Spoiler below).
What makes this film influential is twofold: its high art aesthetic and its avant-garde production design, which was groundbreaking for the 1960s. There are no real special effects here, it really isn’t an action film and it’s kind of artsy. When the spaceship floats through space, it’s a miniature model, but well done and not campy (you don’t see the string it’s hanging from). The interior design of the spaceship is sophisticated — that’s what inspired Kubrick, who watched IKARIE XB-1 as part of his research before shooting his 1968 film.
It’s almost outrageous to watch these astronauts engage with high art as part of their interstellar day-to-day — these are cultured Europeans, remember. With a spaceship that looks like modern art, it even has a ballroom where astronauts don gowns and tuxedos, sipping cocktails while doing a dignified jig. This is probably the only space film to ever have a dance sequence without irony. That is, until they spot a flying object coming their way and go running for cover (not to worry, it’s just the dead American spacecraft).
But is this really a ‘space drama?’ Yes, they get sick and have a mini pandemic (nothing like 2020). Yes, they invade a western spaceship. Yes, they have a ballroom and even a puppy onboard (a German Shepard). But at times, it feels like the galaxy is just a backdrop for soap opera drama: as two astronauts are romantically linked, while one has a pregnant wife back home on earth. (Meh, the usual daytime TV fodder.)
Even still, IKARIE XB-1 is well shot (and was well-received when it premiered at a science fiction film festival in Trieste, Italy in 1963). It isn’t too cheesy and feels like a modernist time warp. The “Master Computer” that uses a mega speaker across the spacecraft is Orwellian (very 1984).
When one of the astronauts ventures out on his own and vies for independence, the rest of the crew look at him like he has lost his mind. After he surrenders, unable to fend for himself (sick with a skin disease), he returns to conformity. (Communism!)
The best part is the house robot, an R2-D2-type bot the size of a refrigerator who lacks any sort of wit or personality but is loyal — that’s clearly what’s important in Soviet space travel.
So is the pristine Soviet influence. It was a time when the space race during the Cold War was tense between the US and the Russians, and this film reinforced that the Soviets would get there first, as there’s a triumphant vibe throughout the entire film.
The ending is somewhat symbolic as the spaceship descends upon the White Planet, rushing through the scenery of snow-covered nature. The American edit changes the script to have them land on the Green Planet (Earth), where we see the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty (why is it always touristic icons?). The American adaptation is self-congratulatory and vapid; it also cuts out 10-minutes of the original.
Meanwhile, the Czech version relishes in the idea of landing on another planet, which is far more unexpected. As they descend, they declare unanimously: “We set out into space to discover life, while life discovered us.” Just imagine what they saw upon landing... IKARIE XB-1 begs for a sequel.
IKARIE XB-1 will stream with Film Forum starting December 4.