Feverish, a man runs down a spaceship corridor.
His frenzy has infected the film: The music (by Zdenek Liska) is electronic, discordant; the monochrome interiors are full of bold repetitions like an Op-Art installation; the camera spins then freezes. We catch a glimpse of the man – he’s still on the run and seemingly losing the battle with his surroundings.
This is the dazzling opening of Jindrich Polák’s Ikarie XB 1.
After this taste of things to come we settle down to day to day life on this spacecraft with it’s mission to search for life on the planets of Alpha Centauri. We meet the crew: the upright captain, an elderly maths professor and a couple of ladies sporting impressive 1960s styles despite this being 2163. There is also a successor to Forbidden Planet’s Robbie the Robot with similar looks but the rather more glamorous name of Patrick.
Taken from the book by Stanislaw Lem (who also wrote Solaris) this is thoughtful Sci-Fi. The script may not have the weight of Tarkovsky’s opus but there are still metaphysical discussions and interesting ideas around time and space. There is also the striking production design by Jan Zázvorka that brilliantly unifies these sterile spaces and clearly influenced so many subsequent portrayals of life in the cosmos.
Ikarie XB 1 takes a different approach to many of the space mission movies of the time. It shows us the boredom of space travel, the isolation, the downtime filled with jealousy, petty rivalries, and stiff dance routines.
When radiation unexpectedly hits the crew it seems to deaden the film too. We too become drowsy and disorientated. In truth much of the film feels disjointed, as if the reels got mixed up but were then left that way to add an enigmatic quality. Despite being shot on film it has the fuzziness of early video that gives it the whiff of a TV pilot for a show that never was – some sort of Quatermass in space.
However the ending, when it comes, is surprising and beautiful.
A deserved cult film but also essentially a B-movie, perhaps Polák followed Roger Corman’s advice:
“You have to get a very good first reel because people want to know what’s going on. Then you need a very good last reel because people want to hear how it all turns out. Everything else doesn’t really matter”