B&W, 1963, 83m.
Directed by Jindrich Polák
Starring Zdenek Stepánek, Frantisek Smolík, Dana Medrická, Irena Kacírková
Second Run (DVD) (UK R0 PAL), Filmexport (Czech R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Occupying a significant place in the history of sci-fi films is this dazzling Czech production, which would probably be a lot more famous among English-speaking cineastes had it not been picked up in America by AIP, retitled Voyage to the End of the Universe, and tampered with significantly including lazy dubbing and the demolishing of its original ending (which in turn was imitated several times). In its intended form, this remains a startling experience predating everything from Star Trek to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running, not to mention Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (based on a novel by this film's same source author, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem).
Essentially a snapshot of life on a spaceship, this is the story of the title craft heading through space on a fifteen-year quest for life in Alpha Centauri in the year 2163. Along with the aging captain, Vladimir (Stepánek), we have a diverse crew of scientists, artists, mathematicians, and historians, not to mention a robot in the spirit of Forbidden Planet, all affected in different ways when a close encounter with another drifting ship equipped with nuclear warheads and containing the dead remains of rich Earthlings trying to escape an apocalypse. As they continue traveling to their destiny and drift close to a dangerous black hole, the multinational passengers must evaluate their own perceptions of their society and the possible world awaiting them.
One of several eastern bloc sci-fi titles altered for western audiences, Ikarie XB 1 at least fared better than the famous Russian epic Planeta Bur, which was diced up and even recycled for stock footage. What's especially interesting here is the depiction of day-to-day life among the astronauts rather than their fantastic adventures; simple things like childbirth, exercise, and hygiene take on a whole different angle when placed in this context, anticipating what Kubrick would tackle closer to the end of the decade. It's also beautifully shot, combining sleek and shiny technology with eye-catching pop art compositions suitable for framing.
A fine but pricey Czech DVD of Ikarie XB 1 was released in 2006, featuring English subtitles for the main feature but not for the video extras. You'll find a much better deal with the 2013 UK release from Second Run, which is region free and PAL and billed as being the "complete and original version for the first time in the English-speaking world." The new transfer looks terrific with excellent black levels and lustrous shades of gray (as well as less dirt and debris than before), not to mention a very clear rendering of the mono Czech soundtrack with a striking, experimental music and effects soundtrack. Optional English subtitles are included, of course, in a better translation than the Czech disc. The sole video extra is a new featurette with writer Kim Newman, who does a succinct job of covering the film's place in the sci-fi pantheon, its English-dubbed version, and its unusual depiction of interstellar travel. The very useful liner notes by Michael Brooke offer a thorough overview of Czech science fiction cinema starting with the 1930s and a few related Russian and Polish projects, as well as coverage of this particular film and its middling box office performance in its native country. Highly recommended.
Reviewed on October 12, 2013.