Thursday, 18 February 2010

Voyage to the End of the Universe (Ikarie XB 1, 1963)

Ikarie XB 1 (released in the US as Voyage to the End of the Universe) is a 1963 Czech science fiction film. Like so many other great sci-fi films (such as the 1972 classic Solaris, not to be confused with the abysmal Hollywood remake) it was based on a story by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, not a particularly well known writer in the West but in fact one of the greatest talents produced by the science fiction genre.

And this is no cheapjack B-movie. This was a major production, with lavish sets and an excellent cast and some of the best production design you’ll se in any sci-fi movie. The look of the movie was an obvious influence on later western movies such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

It was also a major influence on later serious science fiction movies in that it’s not a space opera or a shoot ’em up in space, but deals with the big issues such as our place in the universe, our ultimate destiny, our motivations for wanting to explore space, our likely response to contact with alien cultures and the human costs involved in space exploration. Notwithstanding these serious themes, it’s also a highly entertaining and gripping human drama.

The spaceship Ikarie XB 1 and its crew have been sent on an epic mission into deep space to investigate what appears to be a very distant but very earth-like planet. They run into the usual hazards, but some unusual ones as well. They encounter what seems to be a derelict spacecraft in orbit around this remote planet. The first chilling discovery is that the spacecraft is of human construction, and has been floating in space for centuries, since the earliest days of space exploration. But there are more disturbing revelations to come. The passengers are all dead, and all apparently expired at the same time. They are wearing evening dress, and are surrounded by the impedimenta of some kind of gambling operation. And the craft is loaded with weapons, weapons of terrifying destructiveness. It is an unsettling reminder of a violent human past.

A stranger hazard is a vast and mysterious cloud of some radioactive substance that has the unusual property of putting all of the crew of the Ikarie to sleep. As they succumb one by one the question that haunts them is - will they ever wake up?

There are plenty of human touches. A baby is born. Two crew members fall in love. There are tensions, but there is also a willingness to pull together and to work to overcome problems. There is certainly hope.

Some superb science fiction movies were made in eastern Europe at this time, but unfortunately most were butchered for their US releases. Ikarie XB 1 fared reasonably well by comparison, especially considering that it was distributed in the US by AIP who were especially notorious for vandalising excellent eastern European science fiction films. Ikarie XB 1 was left substantially in its original form, with only one very small piece of additional (and completely unnecessary) footage added. It was of course dubbed, and dubbed in such a way as to disguise the fact that these space explorers were in fact wicked commies. There were also apparently a couple of minor cuts made, also for political reasons.

Despite this the movie remains more or less intact and these small changes are unable to ruin what is in fact one of the best and most interesting science fiction movies of the 60s.

I have no idea if the original Czech version is available on DVD or not. There was a German DVD release, but I don’t know if it was the original cut. The version I saw was on a budget Region 4 DVD and it was quite atrocious - fullscreen and with quite a bit of print damage. On the other hand it was a rental and it’s such a good movie it’s still worth seeing even in this very unsatisfactory form. I imagine that a restored version in the original aspect ratio would be quite breath-taking.


Dunks said...

Good review of a great movie. Thanks. I was blown away when I saw the American version of TV here in Oz some years ago. The first thing that struck me was that Kubrick should have paid them royalties -- it's fairly certain that this is one of the many space films he saw while researching for '2001' and there are quite a few direct steals, not least in the set designs (does that octagonal corridor look familiar, or what?) as well as the plot point about the crew member going mad and threatening the mission.

I agree with you that AIP were *relatively* lenient ... especially compared to the terrible hatchet job they did (twice) on the Russian sci-fi film "Planeta Bur" ... nevertheless, cutting 20-odd minutes from an 80-minute film is not what I call minor -- e.g. they hacked it down from 2.35:1 to 4:3 ratio, totally excised the major plot point where the crew discover that the White Planet has projected a force field to protect them from the radioactive nebula, and inserted that dicky ending shot, which completely ruins the intent of the original ending.

FYI the original Czech version was released on DVD in 2005. It's now out of print but I found a copy on Ebay today which I've just bought. I think you can also download it from Rapidshare if you look. Cheers!

CiNEZiLLA said...

Dude you have to check out Pavel Klushantsev's stuff. It's definately where Kubrik nicked the award winning special effects for 2001 from.

There's an awesome Danish documentary on Klushantsev (The Star Dreamer 2002) that explores his films, and shows how Stalin and co. forced him to make propaganda films instead of the fantastic Sci-Fi movies he really wanted.

Road to the Stars 1958, and Planeta Bur 1962 are masterpieces.

Great piece, once again.

dfordoom said...

I only saw this one because it happened to be available for rental and looked vaguely interesting. But having seen it in its AIP-mangled version I'd now love to see it in its original form.