Ikarie XB-1 (1963)

Fresh from a summer of fun and relaxation, Nate and I are back, ready to give you more of our opinions on old movies. Today we may be breaking out of our usual menu of bad movies, because I think we might have a good one for you: Ikarie XB-1, a Czechoslovakian movie made in 1963. This is the original version, not the hacked-up English-dubbed version AIP put out, and all sources I've read suggest that it's one of the best science fiction movies ever to come out of the Eastern bloc. We'll see if that's damning with faint praise...

The movie starts off well. It sure knows how to get your attention. A quick shot of a spaceship flashing by is followed by a closeup of a sweaty, unshaven man screaming "Earth is gone!" We get a clue that this man, whose name seems to be Michael, may not be in his right mind, however. A voice shouts "We will save you!" and we cut to the credits, accompanied by Michael staggering his way through what has to be the coolest spaceship ever. The people who made it must have had an interior decorator on the team, for the spaceship boasts interestingly-textured walls, festive light displays, decorative pillars, and tubes filled with bubbling water. The Xiliens' spaceship in Godzilla: Final Wars was drab compared to this one. Also, as with the Xilien spaceship, the corridors and compartments are quite spacious. Too bad the movie's in black and white, I'll be the colors would be something to see.

Right off the bat we can see that the director's idiom is to frame almost every shot with the speaking actor on the extreme edges of the screen. Not sure I'm into that.

Michael pays no attention to the voice's promise to him and just keeps staggering, but in a room that seems to be the control room of the spaceship, several men are peering anxiously at a screen on which Michael can be seen. The oldest man in the room reiterates his promise to save Michael, but Michael doesn't seem to be grateful. In fact, he turns and shoots at the camera, putting it out of commission. No clue as to why somebody can't just go out and take Michael to Sickbay, although now that I think of it, maybe the gun is a clue why.

But they sure will stand around and talk about it for a while.

So what's up with Michael? We don't learn right away, but the old man sits down and starts thinking to himself, and these thoughts are helpfully shared with us. From them, and from other voices which seem to be broadcast from Earth, we learn that the spaceship is the Ikaria (the Icarus to all you non-Czechs), and it contains forty people who are on their way to Alpha Centauri to explore a planet there. The trip is expected to take 15 years, and unhappily, the crew will be subject to that old problem with space travel, time dilation. They'll have aged only 28 months when they come back to Earth and meet all their 15-years-older friends and family. This mission must be very important for forty people to give up such a big piece of time with the people they know. Is there something special about the planet? Does it have valuable minerals? Is the Earth so crowded we need to space? Or is it just curiosity?

Ah, right, so more the natural human desire to explore and discover?

It wasn't really clear at first, but it seems that the action has switched back to a time when the Ikaria first left the solar system, which appears to be before Michael had his little meltdown. The crew is protected from the G-forces by something that's a real improvement over the La-Z-Boy recliners most space crews in MMT movies have to put up with. The crew of the Ikaria is accommodated in what appear to be heavily-padded dentist's chairs! They also wear metal helmets as further protection, and these helmets are of very advanced design, because when the crew (which is made up of both men and women, by the way) remove the helmets, their hair is perfect. The spaceship apparently has instantaneous communication with Earth, although they keep losing the signal, and it looks as though Earth women in future days will adopt the toga for daily wear. However, somewhere along the line the women of the future have taken up the hairstyles of 1963 again. For some reason, the ship has huge (as in, takes up an entire wall) communication screens.

Spacious, if Spartan.

Relieved that they've successfully left the solar system, the crew repairs to the mess hall for a little refreshment. The mess hall is as spacious as the rest of the ship, and our astronauts are chowing down on fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables. A robot shuffles into the room to announce that it's June 26, 2163. Unfortunately, although the robot looks good, much better than Chani from Devil Girl from Mars, he can't speak very well, and he can barely move at all. This isn't surprising, as his owner mentions that he's 80 years old. The robot's name is Patrick, by the way, and his owner says that he brought Patrick along because he couldn't bear to part with him. He reminds the others that crewmembers were allowed to take as many personal items as they wanted. We'll hear a little later that somebody brought a piano with him.

Patrick looks like the Jetson's robot maid.

For the next few minutes, nothing much will happen except we learn something about the daily ship's routine. They have a hydroponics lab and a gym where everybody works out in swimsuits, the women in bikinis. Normal attire for both men and women is loose-fitting knit pants and tops, but for some reason the collars on the women's tops are made of sparkly material. Judging from the names of the crewmembers we meet, it's a multi-national crew, but with a preponderance of Czechs. (Did you expect anything else from a movie made in Czechoslovakia? After all, don't most American science fiction movies have mostly American crews, with a foreigner thrown in here and there? And in fact all the actors seem to be Czech.) They have puppies on board! They also have a number of video cameras located throughout the ship, and the crew seems to find nothing wrong in using them to spy on other crewmembers. It does seem, however, that the cameras are limited to public areas, although some of the nosier members of the crew aren't too happy with that.

Hanging out at the gym, training for the 2184 Olympics.

Life proceeds uneventfully aboard the Ikaria. Everybody seems to be having a good time, in fact nobody seems to do much work at all, and one of the women reveals that she is pregnant. The only blip in the series of placid days is Michael, who unexpectedly yells at one of his fellow crewmen, complaining about a phrase the man constantly uses and a particular way he has of twisting his mouth. But Michael quickly calms down and nobody seems worried about his outburst.

Life goes on, dudes just need to talk it out sometimes.

The crew's beginning to get bored and so am I, so I'll turn the review over to Nate, although first there's a couple of things I'd like to point out. First of all, the ship is enormous. As I've mentioned, all the corridors and compartments are big. The gym is full-sized and has room for gymnastic equipment. We haven't seen much of the private cabins yet, but they seem quite spacious, too. Members of the crew could lug along anything they want, including a grand piano! They had room to bring along a supply of fresh food for a forty-man crew, although it's possible that it's actually intended to last just long enough for the hydroponics lab to produce enough for everybody. Unfortunately this is completely unrealistic. Spaceships, like submarines, have to conserve air, so in real life are as small as feasible, with almost no room for nonessentials. And what's with the puppies? Was all this luxury a subtle reaction to the austere conditions that most Czechs were enduring in 1963? And this brings up another point. So far there's been no sign at all of any political influence aboard, certainly not the Communism that permeated every aspect of Czech society in 1963. More wishful thinking?

Hey, maybe she's right!

Up to this point, a quarter of the way through, the movie's been a visual treat even though it's in black and white. There was certainly no skimping on the budget for sets. Surely the action will pick up soon, and I'm going to hand the review over to Nate to let us know what happens next.

Thanks, Pam, I'll run it out a bit from here. First off I agree completely with Pam's praise of the movie's high production values, especially the interior sets and the overall polished design work on the various control panels and instrument clusters. I keep having to remind myself that this was made in 1963, not 1973, the sets are that good (I wonder if they were reused for other movies?). The generally dour and moody tone of the movie is also refreshingly unique for the era. For fifty years we amateur film buffs have been referring to any sort of dark, high-concept, hard science fiction movie as "2001: A Space Odyssey-esque", but maybe it's time to change that to "Ikarie XB-1-esque" as this one clearly had a strong influence on the defining look and feel of Kubrick's classic from 1968. Now, that's not to say that our movie isn't maidenly slow and overly talky, but it's very engrossing in its own way. I have studiously avoided reading anything in advance on this movie, because I want some element of mystery to remain while I watch it for this review, so I'm actually quite pulled-into the plot at this point, even though absolutely nothing (and I mean nothing!) has happened.

This guy hasn't smiled once all movie, starting to bum me out a little bit.

But that's about to change. The Ikaria now comes across a derelict space ship where none has ever been reported before. They send over a wonderfully designed two-piece shuttle with a couple of men to check it out after much careful (and welcome) deliberation. The model work here is outstanding, as is the gimble camera work, which mixes in a number of really nice panning closeup shots of the ship's hull as well as the requisite medium-distance establishing shots of the model against a starfield. I appreciate good model work, I really do, and am always gratified when a model maker's effort is not ruined by shoddy framing and editing.

Even through a view screen, it's good plastic work.

As they explore the long-dead ship they find that it's a military craft from Earth's distant past (1987!). They find that the uniformed commander of the ship killed off the rest of the crew and passengers (who were all rich capitalists, it seems) and then shot himself in the end, leaving the ship drifting through space. This scene is just chock full of fabulous design touches, from the 30-degree titled camera to accentuate the feeling of abandonment to the way one of the guys holds up a dead man's dogtags to the camera so the Ikaria's computers can Google the details of the old ship (seriously, this was made in 1963?).

Guy's name seems to be Fred, must be an imperialist running dog.

Some mention must also be made of the Ikaria's spacesuit design, as it's superb. As I recall noting before while watching the Rooskie film Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, it seems that the Easterners put a lot of thought into what a real, usable spacesuit would look like, right down to the myriad of airhoses and the chest-mounted lightbars. Most Western sci-movies, regardless of budget, seemed to favor the "repurposed USAF fighter jet altitude coverall" type of spacesuit design, which looks ridiculously inadequate for the rigors of space, but does allow for a more comfortable experience for the actors on set. This might have something to do with most Western movies being more about the actors than the plot, but I over-think this stuff, don't I?

Thankfully no Hollywood-style internal helmet lights.

The two Ikaria crewmen, unfamiliar with the workings of this century-old ship, unfortunately set off a nuclear bomb, atomizing the ship and themselves in a puff of white light. This allows the Ikaria's dejected crew some opportunity to wax philosophical about the ills of militarism and consumerism, as it's clear to their way of thinking that only madmen from a bygone era of bourgeoisie greed and violence (1987!) could create something as insane as a nuclear missile-armed warship in space. This is 1963, mind you, far to the east of the Inner German Border, and such thoughts were commonly expressed in films. Also don't forget that there was little in the way of independent film in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, and the communist-controlled State would have provided the lion's share of the financial backing for this movie.

Nothing says misery like posing against a wall.

Anyway, the next hurdle on the Ikaria's wondrous road trip through space is the sudden, and equally unexpected, appearance of a "dark star" that is pumping out an enormous amount of harmful radiation. It seems that the Ikaria is "radiation-proof" but the crew opened a hatch to do some exterior hull maintenance and unknowingly "let in the radiation". I was expecting this dark star to be some malevolent alien entity in disguise, but it seems that it's just a naturally occurring hazard of intergalactic travel (refreshing, coming from a background in American b-movies where the dark star would, of course, be hiding a green-tentacled moon-monster blob that was after our women).

That's what radiation looks like?

The effects of this radiation poisoning on the crew are gentle but insidious, causing them to quickly grow groggy and fatigued to the point where everyone eventually falls asleep. The autopilot calculates that they'll be out of the radiation's zone in about 60 hours, but no one is sure if they will even wake up after that. Most upsetting, the pregnant girl (Stephie) is understandably worried what will happen to her baby, and her poignant last words before dozing off are both sad and powerful.

Better take some notes, then.

To warn future explorers who might follow in their path, they send off a rocket drone with the news, a nice touch. This is the only time in the movie where I smirked, as the rocket roars off the flames gushing out the back angle up, looking exactly like what it is, a blowtorch welded to a model rocket shooting across a darkened soundstage. The "angled flame problem" shows up in sci-fi movies from all ages and production budgets, though you'd think it could be solved easily by dropping the flaming rocket vertically, nose-down, and then turning the camera on its side. I only mention this because the obvious care and attention paid to nearly every little effects detail in this movie is clearly absent from this scene. Must have been the Second Unit Director, hope it earned him a nice new job in a coal mine in Siberia...

That's Rocky Jones quality, and that's not a compliment.

The grizzled Space Captain does what captains do best, trying vainly to rally his crew to fight the degrading effects of the radiation and keep the ship in good working order. While he strikes the proper commanding chord, he can do nothing to keep nearly his entire crew, officers and all, from passing out in the end, many right at their bridge stations. This is not the movie's strong point, by the way, as seeing people drift quietly off to sleep is not exactly the most exciting thing to watch in a sci-fi movie.

What are you all looking at? Haven't you ever seen a guy fall asleep at the coffee maker before?

But there's a bit of drama as we reach the hour mark, as the Captain (MacDonald is his name) begins to fret that none of them will ever wake up and the mission will be lost forever on a one-way trip through space. After losing faith in science and reason, and struggling mightily to keep his own eyes open, MacDonald reaches a quivering hand for the big red button that will automatically abort the mission and turn the ship around and return it to Earth. Will he do it, Pam?

All the buttons on this entire ship are unmarked, by the way.

No, he doesn't, Nate. He's talked out of it by one of the senior crewmembers, an elderly man I've seen before, but I don't remember his name or what he does. He tells the Captain that he doesn't have the right to send Ikaria back to Earth, and he must have faith that everybody will wake up. The Captain doesn't need too much convincing, and before too long he takes his hand off the button. With that, both men join the rest of the crew in slumber.

Why go back to boring old Earth when you can go here?

Are you on the edge of your seats yet? We get a few minutes of the spaceship interior, mostly empty but with the occasional sleeping figure lying here and there. Poor old Patrick shuffles along the halls, disconsolately calling for his master. Hey, what about the dogs? We've caught a glimpse of one once or twice. Did they fall asleep too, or are they trying fruitlessly to wake up their caretakers? However, not to worry. Before too long, everybody starts stirring, and soon the crew is awake, with no aftereffects except for looking a little rumpled. Everybody's happy until one killjoy (Anthony, the one who brought Patrick along) announces that they slept only 25 hours instead of 60. I don't see why that's a problem, but Anthony seems to think it is.

Love the interior strip lighting, very ST:TNG in parts.

Anthony's theory is that somehow a force field was set up between the Ikaria and the dark star, shielding the spaceship from the radiation. Me, I'd figure that since the type of radiation was completely unknown (and there is no known type of radiation whose only effect is putting people to sleep), its effect didn't extend as far as they'd thought, and somebody brings that up. Anthony dismisses that, but he asks the question I'm sure you've all thought of, which is, Where did the force field come from? While they're worrying about that, they get some more bad news. Erik, the man who went outside with Michael, staggers into the mess hall and collapses. After being brought to Sickbay, he's diagnosed as having problems with blood circulation and his higher nervous system due to the radiation he was exposed to.

Agreed, bu...hey, is that Bea Arthur?

Then everybody remembers that Michael was out there too, and somebody runs to find him. This guy wastes some time asking people he encounters if they've seen Michael, then he apparently remembers that the ship's computer can find him, and they can watch him on those cameras that are all over the place. Once found, we can see that Michael's not looking too good. His skin seems to be discolored, and he plainly isn't in his right mind. Yes, we're back to where we were at the beginning of the movie. For somebody who's in such a bad shape, Michael proves quite difficult to capture, and he's wreaking havoc as he goes. He's deactivated the robots, and they're afraid the next thing will be something vital to the functioning of the ship. He's sealed himself into a compartment, and without the robots, they can't get to him. However, there's an answer: good old Patrick isn't controlled the same way the ship's robots are. Anthony has a control device that allows him to remain at a safe distance and direct Patrick to cut through the wall into the compartment where Michael's holed up. Unfortunately Michael proves to be very well armed. He still has the "blaster" he's been using to destroy the cameras, and he uses it to shoot beams of energy right through the wall and into Patrick, who has shuffled his last shuffle.

Radiation poisoning is bad for the skin.

Patrick's demise has one good effect, it gets Michael out of his hidey-hole and into the ship's corridors. But they're still stymied on how to capture him. Fortunately, the Ikaria was designed in the best tradition of the Seaview and the Enterprise, and it very conveniently has air shafts big enough for a grown man to climb through. One man volunteers to give it a shot. Michael is getting crazier and crazier, and the cameras are taking a real beating. Soon they're down to none, and the situation is getting critical. A quick glimpse of Erik in Sickbay shows that he's looking even worse. I notice that although Michael doesn't look good by any means, he doesn't look nearly as bad as Erik, whose skin is not only much more discolored, but who also seems to be comatose. I wonder why, they had the same exposure to the radiation.

Michael just wants to go back home to Earth, and who can blame him.

Meanwhile, the crewman who volunteered to go after Michael has donned a plastic suit (to protect himself against the blaster?) and is gamely climbing the ladders inside the air shaft. No, it must have been to protect himself against something in the air shaft, because once out of it, he takes the suit off, with a sigh of what looks like genuine relief. It must have been hotter than blazes inside that thing under the set lights. After a little persuasion by the man, Michael surrenders. He's taken to Sickbay, where he makes a full recovery (as does Erik). There's been no sign of anybody else during the whole chase, but it's possible everybody was warned to take cover. In another bit of good news, Stephie's baby is born perfectly healthy, although they don't say whether it's a boy or a girl.

Ok, we get it, you miss the Earth.

Back on the bridge, they find that the force field is moving along with the ship. Anthony, who is an astronomer in addition to being a collector of antique robots, concludes that an energy transmitter surrounded the Ikaria with a force shield once it came close to the dark star. This immediately raises the question of, Where did the energy transmitter come from? Anthony has an answer. He concludes that there's life on the White Planet. And yes, as they approach the planet's surface, the clouds part to reveal a city below.

Nice urban grid, good to know they have planning and zoning commissions here, too.

Ikarie XB-1 would be a wonderful movie, except that almost nothing happens. The interior of the spaceship is nothing short of beautiful, and whoever filmed this movie really knew how to get the best out of black-and white film. Somebody paid a lot of attention to details. Except for the women's hair, and the men's too, for that matter, small details showed that the action was taking place in the future. For instance, although you never saw a closeup of a wristwatch, the glimpses showed that the ones the crew were wearing were most definitely not those of today. Scenes in the mess hall showed people eating with an unfamiliar type of eating utensils. In a party scene, men were shown wearing a completely unfamiliar type of formalwear (although the women's party dresses bore a strong resemblance to styles of 1963). Someone even went to the trouble of inventing new dances. And I guess I can't be too hard on the movie for retaining the hairstyles of the time the movie was made, since this was standard in movies and TV shows then and for many years later. It was obvious that everything had been done to make life aboard the Ikaria pleasant. In fact, sign me up for this journey, I'd love a voyage on the Ikaria.

Ballroom waltzing on a spaceship? How Hapsburgian.

The only problem with it as a movie is, as Nate and I have both complained, there just isn't much going on. It's worth watching for its beauty alone, but for you non-Czech speakers out there, if you can't find a subtitled version to watch, it really doesn't matter. There's no really meaningful dialogue, and any summary you can find, including...ahem...this fine review, will tell you all you need to know about what's going on onscreen. As if you haven't guessed, though, this is certainly not for people who like a lot of action in their movies.

What did you think of this movie, Nate?

Well, Pam, it liked it (provisionally). I think it was about 30 minutes too long for the script, but it was definitely filled with enough unique touches that it kept me mostly entertained. Nice to see something more cerebral in this genre, though you would never, ever get something like this made today, not nearly enough explosions or aliens.

The End.

Written in October 2012 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.

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