IKARIE XB-1: The Czech STAR TREK

Jordan revisits the little-known sci-fi film that influenced STAR TREK.

As a Star Trek fanatic it is my obligation not just to watch (and rewatch) every episode and film in the franchise, but to try and iron out a sustained internal logic and obsess over the show's origins. (Exhibit A: my two years' worth of “One Trek Mind” columns at StarTrek.com.) Unfortunately, I've yet to find the smoking gun that proves Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry or his team of producers, writers and designers ever watched one of my favorite lesser known films, Jindřich Polák 's sharp 1963 space adventure, Ikarie XB-1. But just as Scotty said about Dr. Nichols' invention of transparent aluminum, I don't know that they didn't watch it!

If they did -- and there are more than trace elements of Star Trek in this fascinating Czech science fiction movie -- it was most likely a different version than what's available today. As with any genre masterpiece that's slipped through the cracks, there's a bit of a story behind the film.

Until recently it was damn near impossible to see Ikarie XB-1, but a poorly dubbed and chopped up version released by Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures as Voyage To The End Of The Universe played TV as a late movie back in the day. (Ikarie Xb-1 is based on a Stanislaw Lem novella called “The Magellanic Cloud” from the mid-1950s that is still waiting to be translated into English.) The AIP version cut out a lot of the cool parts and changed the ending (more on that in a bit) and, by getting rid of the Czech language, made it far less mysterious and otherworldy to my Western ears.

I had the good fortune to see Ikarie XB-1 in 2004 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which I believe was the first time this Cold War film had ever been screened in the United States. I immediately took to my personal blog (now home to cyber tumbleweeds) to say rapturous things. Excerpts:

One of the most beautiful and simply spellbinding science-fiction movies I’ve ever seen. If Antonioni were to shoot an episode of “Star Trek,” it would look like this. . . But this is MORE than cinematography (it isn’t Black & White, it is Silver!) and mood. This put me in a Movie Trance. It takes a lot for me to totally forget my surroundings and get 100% in The Zone. . . Anyway, the audience was absolutely buzzing after the screening at MoMa. A common comment was how much Gene Roddenberry cribbed from this.

So what the hell is this movie about? And what's the connection with the utopian vision of Trek?

Basically, this is about a large starship -- one with corridors, living quarters, recreation and dining rooms -- on a mission to explore strange new worlds and to seek out new life and new civilizations. The closest star, Alpha Centauri, can be reached in a year's time, and images of a “white planet” in its orbit are thought to contain life. Now's the time to go check it out.

It's a large crew of forty and, remarkably for its time, it is of mixed gender. Some of the crew's function is a little vague -- there's no clearly marked Uhura at a comm station -- but the women on board aren't just there for window dressing. (But, as would be the case on Trek, the film doesn't reject shots of a woman in a bathing suit when appropriate.)

The crew of the Ikarie is, indeed, all white, but the names of crew members are international. More to the point, this film predates the radicalization of the Czech New Wave and the Prague Spring; it is a production in league with the pro-Soviet propaganda of its time. As such, the code is all about selflessness, working for a common good and rejecting greed. Spare time is spent reading poetry, playing chess, listening to classical music or staying fit in a Greco-Roman-esque space gym. A crewman leaves his pregnant wife behind, knowing the two year trip on the ship (at superluminal speeds) will actually be fifteen years on Earth. (Trek never dealt much with time dilation.) When he discovers that a female crew-member is pregnant, and was specifically selected to give birth to the first child of space, he's surprisingly accepting, despite the realization that his wife could have come along. The American version would have been all about his taking over the ship to return home.

The movie breaks down into four chunks -- really like four episodes. The first introduces us to life aboard the ship. It's an unusual design, somewhat boxy, but also features smaller shuttle pods. The interior is part hotel, part abstract art gallery. There are food synthesizers. Engine rooms are vast and strangely empty, and the voice of a computer (male, unlike Trek's Majel Barrett) observes all.

En route, they discover a mysterious spacecraft. Unaware of its origin, an away team investigates. Inside, a dead crew, similar to a number of Trek episodes. In time, we learn it is an Earth ship from the “barbaric” 20th Century (1987, to be precise.) The people aboard the ship murdered one another while fighting over oxygen. They are dressed as capitalists (ties!) and there are closeups of dice and whatnot. As our people leave the ship, they trigger an atomic self-destruct.

Next, members of the crew all start getting mysteriously ill. We watch and see how the different departments react, working for a cure as well as working toward a way to continue the mission even if they all collapse.

In time, they discover the source (radiation from an unseen “dark star”) and learn that their salvation came at the protection of “beings” on their destination planet. Before they can get there, though, they have to deal with a crew-member who has gone mad and looks to sabotage the ship in an ill-fated attempt to return home. Though they could easily gun this guy down, they don't. They corner him and talk to him, with the hopes of nurturing him back to health.

The movie ends with this hardworking crew achieving their goal. They have found life elsewhere in the Universe and it is a pure win for science and exploration. The AIP version didn't like this optimistic, humanist ending so they lopped it off and added a Planet Of The Apes switchemaroo ending. When they get where they are going, we see that where they are going was actually earth. (This kinda keeps the Cold War derelict ship from making any sense, same as the recreational “smell” vials that are meant to remind you of Earth, but I don't think anyone at AIP much cared.)

Ikarie XB-1 kinda lacks for a strong central character, but in true Soviet/Eastern cinema form it is all about the collective. (Though there's a wacky old man who won't take his vitamins and has a pet robot who certainly gets my vote for best in the cast.)

But if the movie has a star it is the overall tone. The look is just remarkable, as is the early electronic music and sound effects. The sets are spare and crafty, but don't come off as cheap. And even though everything is shot with an elevated hum, it feels tactile and lived in. The scene in the swingin' lounge (with all the women wearing long dresses) is crazy and out of place, but the disconnect adds to the dreamlike feel of the whole enterprise. The ship functions, particularly during the trip to the older vessel, are carefully shot in low light to wisely leave much up to the imagination.

A terrific DVD from Facets is available, though this is also a legal stream on places like Archive.org. I strongly advise taking the journey. Personally, I'd like to see a world where the odd 20th Century killer nerve gas called “Tigger Fun” becomes some sort of meme.

This was originally published in the "Space: The Final Frontier" issue of Birth.Movies.Death. in honor of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity. See it at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!

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