Ikarie XB 1 (1963)
November 5, 2023 4:50 PM - Subscribe

Awesome 1963 Czech scifi film directed by Jindrich Polák about a spaceship crew bound for Alpha Centauri, based on an early Stanislaw Lem novella. It's been called an influence on 2001 (we know Kubrick saw it) and Star Trek. It includes eerie encounters with alien spacecraft, fantastic sets and costumes, a wonderful experimental electro-acoustic score by Zdeněk Liška (who later scored Jan Svankmeyer shorts), and the 2nd best outer space dance scene ever, complete with casual drug-sniffing. Available in a beautiful 2016 restoration from Second Run DVD with neat extras, and currently up at YouTube.

I'm gonna rave about this one. The art direction is superb; almost every scene is a feast for the eyes, with cool futuristic interiors, neat lights, various sliding doors, fun accordion-style spacesuits and very Star Trek phaser-like guns. There's the occasional kitschiness you'd expect from the era, particularly the spaceship models and the (very Lost In Space) antique robot one of the crew keeps around and everyone laughs at, but the acting and dialogue are surprisingly sharp throughout and the budget is obviously much bigger than most U.S. scifi films of the era.

It starts with a crew member in the throes of Space! Madness!, then we go back in time to meet the crew and follow their very Star Trek lives and loves for a while, including that awesome dance scene (be sure to get to the part where the groove kicks in and the old folks leave the floor to the kids). Then the troubles begin - first an alien spaceship and a very suspenseful boarding party, then mysterious radiation that causes everyone's biological processes to slow down so they all fall asleep (at this point I was almost falling asleep, but stick with it), then back to Space! Madness! Guy endangering everyone's lives, then the final approach to a planet around Alpha Centauri. It's a very smart, neat outer space film; I've seen it twice now and it was even better the 2nd time.

There's debate about how much of an influence Ikarie XB-1 (aka "Icarus") was on Kubrick. From the Blu-ray release's booklet:

As for 2001, Stanley Kubrick’s long-term assistant Anthony Frewin confirmed that Kubrick saw Ikarie when screening virtually every science-fiction film of any merit as part of his pre-production research for his own magnum opus. Kubrick had been fairly dismissive of much of what he saw (one of the reasons he decided to make 2001 in the first place was because of what he saw as a dearth of intelligent big-budget science-fiction), but he did reportedly think that Ikarie was “a half step up from your average science fiction film in terms of its theme and presentation”. Accordingly, several design and conceptual ideas found their way into 2001 – the spacesuits are very similar, as are the interior lighting, hexagonal corridors, videophone calls to loved ones, the amount of attention paid to non-narrative detail such as relaxation on the long journey, and the overarching theme of searching for unspecified (and never directly depicted) alien intelligence beyond the further reaches of our solar system.

Film School Rejects discusses the possible influences, noting that the U.S. release's name, Voyage to the End of the Universe, "bears a passing resemblance to Journey Beyond the Stars, the original title of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Ikarie XB-1 was chosen for the Cannes Classic selection at the 2016 film festival, their citation went so far as to call it 'among the most important sources of inspiration' for Kubrick’s magnum opus."

But if you look at the direct quote from Anthony Frewin, Kubrick's assistant from 1965-69, you'll also see the part in bold that isn't included in the disc booklet quote above:

Stanley had seen Ikarie XB-1 when he was researching and writing 2001: A Space Odyssey in New York prior to the move to London (along with anything else of remote interest that he could lay his hands on). It certainly wasn’t an inspiration to him though he did think it was a half step up from your average science-fiction film in terms of its theme and presentation, but then, as he admitted, that wasn’t too difficult in those days. I don’t think there were any futuristic or science-fiction films that inspired him. And the fact that cinema hadn’t delivered in these areas was a contributing factor in his making 2001.

After watching Ikarie XB-1, I think Frewin may have been overstating the case to boost his boss's reputation. The influences are very clear.

Anyway, the film is a treat; I'd even call it an essential must-see classic in the history of scifi, a much more mature and intellectual movie than the often hokey plots and acting of most 1950s space films, and whose 40-person international crew, their gym, dining area and all those darn sliding doors, were probably an influence on Roddenberry as well.

The 1963 U.S. release was chopped, dubbed and had a terrible ending* tacked on by American International Pictures, a company known for butchering/dubbing cheap Eastern bloc films for the U.S. market. Along with cuts that eliminated the film's sharp digs at the decadent militaristic capitalist West and a few interesting crew subplots, the biggest change is a quick final shot, when the crew arrives at their destination planet to find - TWIST! - an overhead view of New York City, complete with (I kid you not, fellow Planet of the Apes fans) a direct shot of the Statue of Liberty. The new shock ending obviously required major dialogue changes that wreck many of the film's social messages and ruins much of its philosophical speculation about humanity, Earth and outer space, but the U.S. version is almost certainly the one Stanley Kubrick saw when he binged scifi movies before making 2001.

*The alternate beginning and ending are included for comparison on the Blu-ray and DVD.
posted by mediareport (13 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
oops Jan *Svankmajer deserves to have his name spelled right
posted by mediareport at 5:42 PM on November 5, 2023

This was really interesting. Set design was amazing and I loved both the costumes and the crew of different ages.

Poor Patrick the Robot got a raw deal, though. As often happens in these old SF films.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:47 PM on November 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

There's a neat subthread in the film about what computers can and can't do, and what humans might do better, including debates about the alien ship boarding party and, as everyone starts to fall asleep, over whether to turn around or keep going and hope the radiation fades and they all wake up.

The scene of Patrick rolling through the silent ship calling out "AN-TO-NY.....AN-TO-NY..." as everyone is slumped over does break one's heart, though :(
posted by mediareport at 5:06 AM on November 6, 2023 [2 favorites]

You can't leave us hanging like that. What is the BEST outer space dance scene?
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:05 AM on November 6, 2023

The alien ship boarding party sequence was so good.

In US films, they just evaded popcorn "asteroids" for the obligatory mid-flight danger sequence. Here they have a long debate about the right approach and what to do.

The robot also reminded me a little of the one in The Silent Star / First Spaceship on Venus (a Polish/East German co-production) , which I first saw on MST3K but really like on its own merits.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:47 PM on November 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

Oh, I saw a great print of this at the Boston Sci Fi Film Festival a few years back. Very cool and so very very earnestly "our glorious wholesome socialist future" in parts. Poor robot!

I'm not sure what the best outer space dance scene is, but some of the sci-fi-future dancing in "Space Patrol Orion" ("Raumpatrouille Orion" is the original title in German, I believe) is definitely in the running.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:56 PM on November 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

I really liked this when I saw it at some online film-festival when the new print was release. The plot might be considered dull and maybe nonsensical by today's standards but I really liked the interplay between the crew and of course the fantastic sets. And implicit communist propaganda makes a nice change from the all the USA-centric propaganda of American sci-fi films of that era.

This is clearly the best outer-space dance scene.
posted by AndrewStephens at 2:23 PM on November 6, 2023 [3 favorites]

Oh, well, if you're going to bring futuristic disco awesomeness in, okay, yes, that is some excellent sci-fi dancing.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:39 PM on November 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

Yeah, 70s space disco almost feels like cheating. You just can't win against it. (And is that *the* Sarah fucking Brightman?? holy shit)

This is new to me, though:

some of the sci-fi-future dancing in "Space Patrol Orion" ("Raumpatrouille Orion" is the original title in German, I believe) is definitely in the running

and wow. It comes close to bumping Ikarie XB 1 from my #2 spot. I've never heard of it before, but a seven-episode German TV scifi series that debuted exactly 9 days after Star Trek first aired in the U.S.? And all seven episodes are available on Youtube with English subtitles? And apparently they *all* have freaky space dancing? I'm in heaven, rmd1023, thanks.

I was about to ask which episode had the dancing, but apparently it's a running theme; that last link looks like a compilation of lots of various scenes in the underwater disco (!) with dancers doing all kinds of strange moves in the background as different folks gather to drink and talk in the bar. Definitely in the running for the top 3 best scifi dance award, except I want to keep Ikarie slightly ahead because I'd bet money that the folks who made Raumpatrouille Orion 3 years later had seen that 1963 party scene, and some of those 1966 moves sure do look familiar.

(I think I'll be saying that for a while about any scifi popcult thing made in the 10 years after Ikarie XB 1, ha.)

Oh, and here's my #1. Or maybe it's The Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman's Breast performing for the oppressed workers of Jupiter. Or the homoerotic Dance Contest in the all-male outer space dive bar. That flick has a lot of contenders, is all I'm saying.
posted by mediareport at 6:34 PM on November 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

My vote for best outer space dance scene has to go to Define Dancing, but I am excited to watch Ikarie XB-1! I'd never heard of it before but between the descriptions of the aesthetics and the attitude of the film, I think I'll enjoy greatly.
posted by sigmagalator at 9:06 PM on November 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

A longtime favorite. I've used it as a projected video background to my live electronic music performances for years, to the point I've had to give it a rest lest I develop a reputation for repetition. It's also a perfect companion to Mario Bava's gorgeously atmospheric and stylish Terrore Nello Spazio in my periodic popcorn science fiction double features.
posted by sonascope at 8:56 AM on November 7, 2023 [1 favorite]

And mediareport, The American Astronaut is near the top of my top ten all-time lovelovelove sci-fi list. Such a brilliant, quotable film that's like nothing else ever...except Stingray Sam, which is astonishing in its own way, too.
posted by sonascope at 9:01 AM on November 7, 2023 [1 favorite]

The robot also reminded me a little of the one in The Silent Star / First Spaceship on Venus

That one's now on my list, too - according to the booklet with the Ikarie Blu-ray, it too is based on an early Stanislaw Lem novel. Now that I think about it, Patrick's general shape and clear glass head also resemble Robby the Robot from 1956's Forbidden Planet. I wonder if the fact that Patrick is an antique was meant as a kind of joke reference to Robby.

The booklet's essay is great, btw, as is the 14-minute video appreciation by scifi and horror author/critic Kim Newman (of Anno Dracula fame). There's an excellent discussion of the disc extras (and the film itself) at Cine Outsider, including, I've just been delighted to read there, a 14-minute audio-only Easter egg from Second Run's founder:

In what is a first for Second Run, this Blu-ray includes an audio-only Easter egg, which you’ll find by experimenting with the direction buttons on the remote control of your Blu-ray player whilst on the Special Features menu. In this Barbican Film Podcast, Second Run’s Mehelli Modi talks about the film, some of the key personnel, what makes it remarkable, its influence on Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the recent 4K restoration, the reason it was so hard to see for so long, and more. It’s a very nice introduction to the film...

Can't wait to check that out.

[Minor quibble: Cine Outsider gets one thing wrong; while a young Francis Ford Coppola did indeed work for AIP cutting, rewriting and inserting monsters into at least one Soviet scifi film to create 1962's Battle Beyond the Sun, there's nothing in the booklet about Coppola working on Ikarie XB 1.]

It's also a perfect companion to Mario Bava's gorgeously atmospheric and stylish Terrore Nello Spazio in my periodic popcorn science fiction double features.

Thanks for that, sonascope; I've been hearing about how good Planet of the Vampires is for a long time. That and the two Soviet Venus films from around that time, The Silent Star and Planet of Storms, are next on my list!

And while we're here; folks who loved the Ikarie art design might like the jaw-dropping Constructivist sets and costumes in the 1924 Soviet silent film Aelita: Queen of Mars, which is also up on YouTube. The Earth story is a total bore, but the Mars stuff visually?

*chef's kiss*
posted by mediareport at 5:55 PM on November 7, 2023

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