Space exploration is a flummoxing pursuit, in which the outer boundaries of the unknown rarely rescind once we discover a new piece of the puzzle. It instead leaps to different ideas and opportunities that didn’t seem feasible before. An image of a black hole, the launch of the privatized Crew Dragon — these progressions might be an answer for one and a rabbit hole for others. Chasing among the dying stars and millennia-old planets, astronomy may never get to a measurable level of completion with our universe anytime soon. As one of the earliest pioneers in space cinema, Jindřich Polák’s 1963 Ikarie XB-1 was created at a sensitive place in history where non-dehydrated food and large recreational rooms in a spaceship weren’t preposterous, and the dangers of space travel were only limited by imagination.
Here, the year is 2163, and the crew of Ikarie are trying to reach “The White Planet,” which hovers near Alpha Centauri, to expand Earth’s civilization. Though the travel is expected to last a little over two years, fifteen years would have elapsed by the time the crew returns to Earth. Despite the crew’s personal sacrifices, there is an outward jubilee that bleeds into metropolitan-lite parties and beach bod exhibitions. The calmness is an abnormal presence in space odysseys, but as “Also sprach Zarathustra” magnified an unnamed vastness beyond our own world, Zdeněk Liška’s lounge-like music in the minor scale suppresses the lurking disasters waiting to erupt. Even more so, Ikarie XB-1‘s greatest virtue is the visual translation of man’s confrontation with infinity. Often times, a character will be alone in a hallway or the crew pit, an intentional loneliness despite there being about forty people on the Ikarie. In these specific frames, Polák redefines space through a tense division of the word: negative space as an absence of being and outer space as an ominous beast, crouched and ready to strike.
Infamously, Ikarie XB-1 underwent an worthless Americanization before arriving to the States in 1964. Released as Voyage to the End of the World, the Czech cast’s names were anglicized and the ending was changed via a Soylent Green gimmick that had devalued the audience’s hour-long trip before (I should note that Voyage wasn’t as popular at the time, and Soylent Green was released nine years later — these endings must work sometimes!). Now, as the original release can be seen in the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, the attempted marketing ploy/insult is somewhat humorous. At the time of its release, the film’s Eurocentric nature was supported by history of the USSR’s lead in the Space Race (the amount of female astronauts on the Ikarie seem to stretch out the two-decade difference between Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride). But even after eradicating the context behind production and release, Ikarie XB-1 is still floating above the nebulas of space films to come and go, resting soundly after breaking the first frontiers.
dir. Jindřich Polák
New restoration — available via the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room on Friday, December 11!
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