1963 Czechoslovakian film Ikarie XB-1 is an enjoyable enigma.
Based on Solaris author Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Magellanic Cloud, it tells the story of the Ikarie and its crew – a group of 22nd Century space explorers led by Captain Abajev (Zdeněk Štěpánek) charged with spending 28 months in space.
Their destination is the ‘White Planet’ in the Alpha Centauri system but what will they find when they get there and how they cope with the long months in confinement?
Time passes differently for the people on board compared with Earth as well. 15 years will pass back home before they return, which is particularly poignant for Wertbowsky (Jaroslav Mares), whose wife has stayed behind, and is carrying a child who’ll be grown up by the time he returns.
The days roll by uneventfully at first and a kind of boredom sets in, but this is soon shattered after the discovery of an abandoned vessel, and more seriously when the crew begin to feel the effects of an unknown form of radiation emanating from a dark star. People begin to fall asleep uncontrollably and one crewman, Michel, (Otto Lackovič) suffers from a breakdown that threatens the safety of the ship.
Ikarie XB-1 is a masterclass in atmosphere, with lingering corridor shots and symmetrical set designs which no doubt inspired both Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s Alien. On top of that the soundtrack is enjoyably creepy with bursts of jolting synth noises. There’s even a robot lifted straight from Forbidden Planet, which film director Jindřich Polák most certainly had an eye on himself.
The production values are excellent for the era, with pretty good special effects and attention to detail. The film is littered with pulsing lights coupled with eerie sounds. During the scene aboard the derelict, the soles of the rescue team’s space boots light up with each step – details like that are what make films special.
For a movie made in the Eastern Bloc during the height of the Cold War, Ikarie XB-1’s only flirtation with overt political commentary is its understandably negative perception of nuclear armament, although despite being bookended with tension the film ultimately ends on a hopeful note.
This is a stylish and atmospheric film with intense central performances and a simple set up that highlights how satisfying yet tense the simple concept of exploring space – sans aliens and gore – once was on film, and perhaps should be again.