Jindrich Polak's 1963 Ikarie XB-1 (on Region 2 DVD and online) starts off on a strong note: a man with scorched face mutters "the Earth is gone!" follows it up with a cry: "The Earth never existed!" He shuffles through shot after shot of beautifully lit geometrical designs and hallways and artifacts while an offscreen voice begs him to stop.
Based on Stanislaw Lem's novel The Magellanic Cloud, the film takes the idea of an epic expedition to our nearest star (Alpha Centauri) and gives it the big-budgeted movie production treatment, complete with bizarre electronic music, elaborate sets, intricately detailed miniatures.
That said, the picture is hardly perfect. The science is in many ways better than its closest model Forbidden Planet (the Czechs allow for relativistic effects and the need for room, exercise, and entertainment--which includes music, particularly music played on a piano--during the fifteen year trip) in other ways doesn't quite touch the level of obsessive realism Stanley Kubrick achieved in 2001: A Space Odyssey, made five years later (ships that sport an aerodynamic look (in the vacuum of space?); gravity inconsistently applied (why would spacesuited men walk in slow motion past bodies firmly stuck to the floor?); mysterious 'radiation' that not only causes madness and burns, but narcolepsy).
That said, you know Kubrick saw Ikarie before he started his own project. Like Polak, he opens the space travel portion of his film with a news report (cleverly filling us in on all the big-picture details about the voyage before the story proper begins). He includes a mostly emotionless 'master computer' (though I have to admit Kubrick's HAL 9000 has a more entertaining personality), and at least one crew member cracking up, to the discomfiture of the rest.
Some critics have taken Polak's film to task for focusing on the minutiae of spacegoing life but I submit that's actually the most interesting aspect of the picture: the way a community of forty individuals are able to live and work together for long periods of time (as the opening news report puts it when describing the ship, it's really a 'small town for forty inhabitants'). Discussions of nutrition and the dangers of avitaminosis (complete with elderly Russian mother figure force-feeding her undernourished ward); scenes of crew members working out in their gym (with facilities for gymnastics, boxing and calisthenics, all tanning under the rays of a salon-style UV lamp tower); a man taking a (difficult to procure) sunflower with him on the way to a girl's cabin, this Soviet-style future's version of an onboard romance; a pregnancy in space, the first.
And the parties! Everyone dresses up in '60s style evening clothes (nothing dates a decade faster than that decade's idea of the future); the dancers pair off; the choreography is made up mostly of mincing steps, predicated on the idea that dance two hundred years from now involves high concept (and somewhat mechanical) movement rather than actual physical effort/contact.
It's not all vitamin drinks and hydroponic sunflowers and oddball choreography though; the film's dramatic highlight has the ship encountering a dead vessel with an equally dead crew (and while I carp about the scientific details, the filmmakers do get this much right: that dead bodies preserved in vacuum would rot slower than dead bodies exposed to air--one of the film's most haunting image is of a corpse's face disintegrating to dust in front of our eyes). You can imagine Andrei Tarkovsky scribbling down notes while watching for his film Solaris (1972), set on a largely--but not completely--derelict space station.
Afterwards two crew members sit down together to try and winkle out the significance of the incident, and one member snarls: "human trash that left Auschwitz, Oradour and Hiroshima behind them. The 20th century!" Nice of him to spread the blame equally among Germans and Americans, but also can't help noticing that no Eastern bloc atrocities are mentioned (the NKVD prisoner massacres, anyone?); genocide is apparently a strictly Western capitalist affair.
The ending is interesting (skip rest of this paragraph if you plan to see this or Kubrick's picture) with unseen aliens taking control and landing them safely (no Star Gate sequence alas). What's the film ultimately saying? Much like what 2001 is saying, surprisingly: that our ultimate survival may depend on the help of others; that these others may or may not be friends or have our interests at heart (both films refuse to directly answer, though Ikarie's grand finale music--with an insert shot of a newborn babe gazing Star Child-like straight at the screen no less!--is a good clue).
A fascinating film, not so much for the adventure (despite coming from a Lem novel) as for the sets, design, and look into another nation's science-fiction cinema, from another time.
First published in Businessworld, 7.9.15