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BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH. October 2013 Issue 4

BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH. October 2013 Issue 4


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October 2013: Space: The Final Frontier
October 2013: Space: The Final Frontier

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Published by: BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH. on Sep 17, 2013
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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. 6


Alamo Drafthouse
Programming Director, Houston


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