Ikarie XB-1: Imagining a Journey Across the Stars, Martinis Included


Ikarie XB-1 (1963) Directed by Jindřich Polák. Starring Zdeněk Štěpánek, Radovan Lukavský, František Smolík, and Dana Medřická. Screenplay by Pavel Juráček and Jindřich Polák based on The Magellanic Cloud by Stanislaw Lem.


Let’s start with the ending, so we can get that nonsense out of the way.

After its release in Czechoslovakia in 1963, Ikarie X-1 was picked up for distribution by American International Pictures, an American film production company that had a sideline in importing, editing, and dubbing foreign films in the 1950s and 1960s. The film had a bit of buzz at the time; it had won the top award at the inaugural Trieste Science Fiction Film Festival (alongside Chris Marker’s French New Wave short film La Jetée, which we will watch in the future). But when AIP acquired Ikarie XB-1, they changed the title to Voyage to the End of the Universe, rewrote a lot of the dialogue, cut several minutes from the running time, altered many of the names in the credits to look more American, and gave the film an entirely different ending.

An entirely different and—let’s not mince words—really incredibly stupid ending.

In the original film, when Ikarie finally reaches Alpha Centauri’s mysterious White Planet, the crew gaze down on a heavily developed and populated surface, knowing they have encountered an alien civilization. In the American version, the view of the alien planet is replaced—this is painful to type but I promise I am not joking—by stock footage of New York City.

The intent, it seems, was to give the film a shocking! twist! ending! by suggesting that Ikarie and its crew were from another world, and their destination was Earth all along.

It’s so stupid. It’s such a bad choice! Why did they even bother? I know, I know. These are rhetorical questions. Because it’s Hollywood. Because they wanted to Americanize the film to keep any suspected Eastern Bloc socialist cooties away from it. Because sometimes people make really stupid decisions while believing themselves to be very clever and/or trying to make a lot of money.

I know some of you are wondering the same thing I was wondering, so: the dubbed Voyage to the End of the Universe was released in 1964, four years before Planet of the Apes and its famous Statue of Liberty twist ending.

The incomprehensible twist ending did the film no favors: Voyage to the End of the Universe was not exactly a smash hit, although a lot of sources claim it was an inspiration to Stanley Kubrick and many speculate the same for Gene Rodenberry. For a few decades it just sort of bounced around in the obscurity of niche sci fi film circles. Due to the names in the credits being Americanized, there was even confusion about where it came from and some viewers heard that it was Russian in origin. It was more than forty years before the original film would become widely available through DVD/Blu-ray releases and streaming for international audiences to watch again. (Matthew Keeley wrote a bit about this on this site: “Ikarie XB-1, Based on the Fiction of Stanislaw Lem, Is a Fascinating Obscurity.”)

And I, for one, am very glad that it is, because I think this is a fascinating movie. I didn’t know what to expect going in; all I knew was that a lot of people across the internet recommended checking it out as a worthy entry into classic sci fi films.

The film opens in media res, with a tense and disorienting scene in which the crew of a spaceship are trying to calm a man named Michael, who is having a dangerous breakdown in a series of corridors straight out of a trypophobic’s worst nightmare, accompanied by the unsettling and often jarring score by Zdeněk Liška. Before we learn anything about this situation, we skip backwards several months to the very beginning of Ikarie’s journey.

In the year 2163, the spaceship Ikarie (Icarus, which is, yes, a terrible name for a spaceship, but no, never explained) has set out from Earth with an crew of forty men and women. They are headed for Alpha Centauri, where their scientists have identified Earth-like planets that could be home to life. This is purely a mission of scientific exploration and possible contact; life on Earth is implied to be pretty nice. The crew have a range of names clearly intended to convey people of multinational origin: Abayev, MacDonald, Svensen. The introductory voiceover tells us that fifteen years will pass on Earth while they make the round-trip journey, but only eighteen months will pass aboard the ship due to time dilation.

Before we get into the story, I want to talk a bit about the lookof the film. Pavel Juráček and Jindřich Polák even visited Stanislaw Lem during production to ask him about how he imagined The Magellanic Cloud; but he was, apparently, not terribly interested in providing many details. So it was up to set designer Jan Zázvorka, which turns out to have been a very good thing, because the delightfully modernist interiors he built are incredible. Filmed in striking, high-contrast black and white by Jan Kališ, this is an environment of pronounced geometry and open spaces, carefully placed light and shadows, octagonal corridors and long perspectives. The exterior shots of the ship are largely forgettable, and inside there are plenty of standard sci fi technological details—the usual flashing lights and unlabeled buttons—but it scarcely matters because the rest of the environment is so beautiful.

The first part of the film is essentially a slice-of-life look at Ikarie’s journey. We learn how the crew eats, how they stay healthy, how they socialize, what they left behind, what they hope to discover. In a very obvious narrative example of Chekhov’s Gun—with a robot on the stage rather than a firearm—they tease Antony, an elderly scientist, for bringing a beloved, outdated robot aboard as a personal item. (The robot, Patrick, seems to share some robot genetics with Forbidden Planet’s Robby.) A young couple embarks upon a happy flirtation; a married couple worries about their unborn child. It’s all very congenial and pleasant, with much of the same feel that would come from moments of downtime aboard the Enterprise when Star Trek premiered a few years later.

Ikarie’s journey runs into its first trouble during Antony’s amazingly groovin’ birthday party, where everybody was having a grand time drinking martinis, dancing, and sharing huffs of earthy scents in place of cigarettes. An alarm interrupts the festivities: the ship has spotted an unexpected object in space. Closer inspection reveals it to be a spaceship. After some debate about the best way to greet potential extraterrestrials—with impersonal robots or friendly faces?—they send two men over to check it out. Just as I appreciate the inclusion of time dilation in the travel time and the presence of women on the crew, I also appreciate the film’s attempt to show some realistic zero-gravity movement in this section—especially considering that in 1963, humans had been going to space for all of two years.

They discover that it’s not an alien ship after all, but a ship from Earth’s dark and violent past—that is, the year 1987, and implied to be American, or at least distinctly Western. The men from Ikarie learn that the people aboard were poisoned, presumably by the final two crew members, in an ill-fated attempt to save themselves as they ran out of air. I love a spaceship full of corpses, it’s one of my favorite sci fi tropes, so I appreciate this entire tense sequence in which the men explore the derelict ship. The moment in which the desiccated flesh crumbles from the pilot’s skull is a particularly great, gruesome image that I totally want to steal for the next time I write a novel about a spaceship full of corpses.

But it ends poorly for the two men from Ikarie as well, because the ship is carrying nuclear weapons in addition to poison, one of which is accidentally armed during the search of the ship. It explodes before the men can get away, killing them instantly—which I was absolutely not expecting, even though the movie opened with a scene proving that the journey would eventually encounter some very serious problems. There is anger among the crew back on Ikarie, most of it directed at the humans of the past, the ones who built chemical and nuclear weapons, then fled Earth only to bring all that careless greed and violence with them. (I would also be angry if in the year 2163 the relics of the Reagan Era are still ruining everything. I’m already angry about that in the 2024.)

After the tragic encounter with the 20th-century ship, the crew of Ikarie face some more excitement: the Dark Star (not to be confused with Dark Star (1974), which we’ll watch during this film club’s future John Carpenter month), the mysterious radiation, the equally mysterious force field that saves them from the radiation, and poor Michael almost losing his mind, as shown in the film’s opening.

When they reach Alpha Centauri’s White Planet, they are triumphant and excited, a mood emphasized by the successful birth of a new baby. Not only have they achieved the goal of their journey in finding life on another planet, but this life has already proven itself to be helpful in protecting their ship from the dangerous Dark Star.

The movie ends very abruptly after that, but the point is made: their journey was a success, they found what they hoped to find, they are breathless moments away from making contact, the galaxy is full of exciting things to discover and encounter.

The bright optimism of the ending just makes the changes in the American dub so much worse, but never mind all that. Let’s pretend it never existed, now that we have the original to appreciate.

I love this ending, abrupt though it is, as a natural extension of the themes set up in that great sequence aboard the ’80s spaceship full of corpses. Because the film is saying space exploration is dangerous, but worthwhile. It will take a while. We’ll fuck it up before we get it right. We’re always going to bring our problems with us. But when we get there, it’s going to be even more worthwhile if we’re not going out there conquer or colonize or make money—all the usual reasons humans have historically gone places—but simply to discover.

At the same time, it’s very interesting to me how much commentary about this film frames that optimism as nothing more than Soviet propaganda. It’s not entirely off-base; Ikarie XB-1’s screenwriter Pavel Juráček would come to be very critical of the film himself, viewing it as a failed attempt to work within a utopian vision of the future without accepting it unquestioningly. Less than a decade later, Juráček would be blacklisted from the Soviet-controlled Czechoslovak film industry for his absurdist satirical film Case for a Rookie Hangman, when it was judged that his “activities disrupted the socialist social order.” So I think it’s a mistake to view Ikarie XB-1 as nothing more than propaganda. It is, yes, presenting a socialist future as a good one, and the entire sequence with the derelict ship is a critique of capitalism, but there is a difference between a story intended to impose a future and a story intended to imagine a future, however imperfectly it does so.

For me, there something refreshing about Ikarie XB-1’s kind of optimism. Not only because there is often a tendency for science fiction films of any era, from anywhere in the world, to be cynical about science, but also because sometimes it feels like it’s almost fashionable these days for sci fi to be more interested in asserting that we can’t do exciting things like travel to other stars or live on other planets, rather than imagining how we can.

That’s what Ikarie XB-1 is doing: imagining how future space travel might go, from the lofty mission goal of discovering life on another planet right down to the minute detail of everybody on board taking their vitamins. Science fiction is a massive genre, with room for any kind of story. I want there to always be one little corner that saves some room for imagining the great and exciting things we can do and how we might be able to do them.

What did you think about Ikarie XB-1 and its rather domestic portrayal of interstellar travel? Has anybody seen the Voyage to the End of the Universe cut and have thoughts on the two versions? Why do you think the ship is called Icarus, because I honestly couldn’t find an explanation for such an ominously portentous name for a ship that never suffers any tragic fate? Do you also love it when a movie provides a surprise spaceship full of corpses?


We Hear Earth is Lovely This Time of Year

Last month we sent humans into space, so this month we’re bringing some aliens down to Earth. It’s weird how so many of them showed up after WWII to offer pointed commentary about the nature of humanity.

April 3 – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), directed by Robert Wise
An alien goes to Washington D.C. during the Cold War, and seventy years later some people on the internet still insist Golden Age American sci fi was apolitical.
Watch: Cultpix, Apple, Google Play, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft, Hoopla (if available).
[Note: Hoopla and similar site Kanopy are streaming services that allow you to use U.S. public or university library logins to access videos. I have no idea if public library systems in other countries have something similar—if they do, let me know. Support your public libraries!]
View the trailer here.

April 10 – The Mysterians (1957), directed by Ishiro Honda
Aliens go to Japan in the 1950s and probably do not actually come in peace.
Watch: Criterion, FlixFling. And, as always, I suggest a search of YouTube and the Internet Archive, although the quality of different uploads seems to vary widely.
View the trailer here.

April 17 – The Brother From Another Planet (1984), directed by John Sayles
An alien crash-lands on Ellis Island and experiences Harlem in the ’80s.
Watch: This film is widely believed and reported to be in the public domain since its release, so you can watch it in any number of places, including Amazon, Roku, Tubi, Shout TV, Apple, all over YouTube, and Internet Archive.
View the trailer here.

April 24 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), directed by Steven Spielberg
Alien graduate students go to Wyoming to complete their thesis research on columnar jointing in unique intrusions of phonolite porphyry. At least that’s why I would go to other planets: to look at cool rocks.
Watch: Apple, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft. There’s the original version, the special edition, and the director’s cut/collector’s edition, but, hey, just watch whichever version you feel like.
View the trailer here. icon-paragraph-end



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