'Ikarie' translates into Icarus referencing the Greek legend of the man who flew too close to the sun only to have his wax wings melt. In the year 2163 the Ikarie space station leaves Earth to voyage to the Alpha Centauri solar system where the astronauts believe they will find intelligent life. The forty crew members (male and female) are communally engaged.
🔻They keep fit in the gym, play music, dance, listen to poetry, eat together, celebrate birthdays, argue, tease and conspire (A film highlight is the delightful dance scene with a ‘futuristic’ choreography combining 18th century court formality and nineteen sixties jive.)
Their socialising is interrupted by the appearance of a strange space craft. Two members of Ikarie go outside to investigate. They discover a technological relic that they immediately date from the mid 1980s. Inside are its long dead crew, poison gas canisters, oddly labelled as Tigger Fun, and two nuclear weapons. Then an accident happens, the craft explodes killing the Ikarie investigators.
The exploration of the old ship sequence lasts for about fifteen minutes. Charged with highly effective camera movements and ominous lighting it powerfully conveys a chilling atmosphere of caution and foreboding. It’s obvious that something terrible occurred on board that made its twentieth century voyagers fight amongst themselves for survival: resulting in their general in command poisoning the crew and then himself being killed.
Director Jindrich Polak and scriptwriter Pavel Juracek mine this moment to deliver a solemn judgement. The commander of Ikarie is contemptuous of these early astronauts. A crew member, playing on his piano, says that we cannot choose our ancestors. The commander refutes this and calls them “human trash” and then “beasts that caused Auschwitz and Hiroshima ... in the twentieth century.” His colleague reminds him that he’s playing the music of Honegger, inferring the positive creativity of the twentieth century to counter the barbarism? But Honegger’s relationship with the Nazi’s is still unclear, so perhaps his naming in Ikarie XB1 is ironic? Whatever the reason there aren’t many SF films which deliver angry reflections on history such as this.
Whilst trying to recover from the loss of two men the other Ikarie crew members are affected by a strange tiredness. On approaching its destination the space station is pulled into a Dark Star (presumably a Black Hole) that enervates their bodies, causing them to fall asleep for twenty five hours. They awake unharmed. Yet one of the crew called Michal becomes deranged and violent, insisting he be returned to Earth. After physically restraining Michal they are eventually transported, by an alien force (never depicted) away from the dangers of the Dark Star and optimistically flown (without any dubious sentimentality) towards the White Planet of Alpha Centauri.
Ikarie XB1 is beautifully shot in black and white on wide screen by Jan Kalis and is complimented by the striking production design of Jan Zazvorka. The tingling electronic / orchestral score of Zdenek Liska provides musical texture for the set and space itself.
Arguably the script allows characters and motivations to meander somewhat, especially between the accident and the involuntarily sleep scenes. There’s no one principal character we identify with in Ikarie XB1. The hopes and fears of the ensemble cast is our anchor. Yet this is thankfully un-Hollywood and keen to stress the energy of co-operation without a hint of a socialist triumphalism.
It’s documented that Stanley Kubrick watched this film whilst doing research for 2001. The astronaut suits, video phones, stress on recreational activities and some model shots of spacecraft are similar to Kubrick’s realised design – though by 1968 technically greatly refined. Thematically there are links between the two films.
Both are concerned with the search for an alien intelligence. And both have notable birth / pre-birth moments. In Ikarie XB1 crew member Stefa (already pregnant before the mission) has her baby. Whilst 2001 delivers a hovering star-child foetus: though they portend very different conclusions.
2001 is mystical and enigmatic - critics have been arguing for years whether Kubrick’s ending is profoundly positive or negative for the human race. Ikarie XB1 is resolutely positive, for within an hour of landing, on the White Planet, the space station crew believe they will encounter benign and reasonable aliens.
Ikarie XBI is a fascinating and intelligent SF film adapted from novel The Magellanic Cloud by Stanislaw Lem. Yet does Ikarie have the same alluring ideas about alien life forms and intelligences that we find suggested in 2001, Solaris (again Lem) or revealed in Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under The Skin? Well, no. The film left me uplifted rather than mystified and disturbed. Perhaps I prefer the troubling complexity of darker forms and forces in my SF.
However Ikarie XB1 does have that tough condemnation of the destructiveness of the twentieth century as a sort of philosophical compensation. Perhaps it’s unfair for the commander to be so scathing of history for we’ve no idea what will transpire once Ikarie’s crew greet their own aliens. It’s quite likely the aliens experienced their own tragic past mistakes before they became more enlightened and reached out a friendly hand (?) to us.
- Alan Price.