Closely Watched DVDs

A guide to Czech cinema on DVD

Icarus XB-1 / Voyage to the End of the Universe

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Krumbachová, Ester, Liška, Zdeněk, Juráček, Pavel, Polák, Jindřich — Michael at 11:36 am on Sunday, September 17, 2006


Ikarie XB 1

1963, black and white, 87 mins

  • Director: Jindřich Polák
  • Producer: Rudolf Wolf
  • Screenplay: Pavel Juráček, Jindřich Polák
  • Story: Pavel Juráček, Jindřich Polák
  • Photography: Jan Kališ
  • Editor: Josef Dobřichovský
  • Design: Jan Zázvorka
  • Music: Zdeněk Liška

  • Cast: Zdeněk Štěpánek (Vladimír Abajev); František Smolík (Antony Hopkins); Dana Medřická (Nina Kirová); Irena Kačírková (Brigita); Radovan Lukavský (MacDonald); Otto Lackovič (Michal); Miroslav Macháček (Marcel Bernard); Rudolf Deyl (Ervin Herold); Martin Ťapák (Petr Kubeš); Jiří Vršťala (Erik Svenson); Jaroslav Mareš (Milek Wertbowski); Marcela Martínková (Štefa); Jozef Adamovič (Zdeněk Lorenc); Jaroslav Rozsíval (doctor); Svatava Hubeňáková (MacDonald’s wife); Růžena Urbanová; Jan Cmíral; Vjačeslav Irmanov

  • Crew: Saša Rašilov, Jr (second cameraman); Oldřich Hubáček (camera assistant); Václav Pohl (lighting); Jan Kališ, Milan Nejedlý, Jiří Hlupý, Pavel Nečesal, Karel Císařovský, František Žemlička (special photographic effects); Miroslav Pešan (stills photography); Jaromír Svoboda (sound); Bohumír Brunclík, Jaromír Svoboda (sound effects); Film Symphony Orchestra conducted by František Belfín (music performed by); František Halmazna (choreography); Ester Krumbachová, Jan Skalický (costume design); Zdena Šnajdarová (costumes); Rudolf Hammer (make-up); František Klema, Karel Holek, Libuše Švejdová (make-up assistants); Karel Lukáš (set designer); Bohumil Dudař (assistant designer); Hynek Bočan (assistant director); Jiří Růžička (director’s assistant); Eva Mičulková (script supervisor); Helena Lehovcová, Růžena Hejsková (assistant editors); Ludmila Tikovská, František Jaderník (associate producers); Ferdinand Zelenka, Eliška Doubková (assistants to the producer); Milan Ledvina, Rudolf Pešek, Vladimír Guth, Milan Morávek, Jan Hospodář, Milan Kauders (professional advisers); Barrandov Film Studios (production company)

The Film

In many ways the missing link between Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Star Trek), Icarus XB-1 is a fascinating sci-fi curio. For decades this was only available to English-speaking viewers in the form of Voyage to the End of the Universe, one of American International Pictures’ notorious hatchet jobs, heavily cut, dubbed (and partially retranslated) into English and with a nonsensical new ending that junks one of the film’s main themes in favour of a crass Planet of the Apes-style shock twist. (The fact that it predated that film by four or five years is the only mitigating factor, but that won’t cut much ice with today’s audiences).

Thankfully, the original is now back in circulation, and reveals itself to be an unusually thoughtful and intelligent genre entry - badly dated in parts (and further unintentional amusement comes via a leading character called Anthony Hopkins and a deadly gas trademarked as ‘Tigger Fun’), but that’s true of virtually everything else from its era. And it’s especially easy to make allowances when the film’s strengths are so clear.

Set in the 22nd century, it depicts various events that happens to the spaceship of the title as its occupants attempt to find life in the Alpha Centauri solar system. The early part of the film concentrates on life on board, initially letting us get to know the forty-strong crew during a birthday celebration, during which they dance, socialise and occasionally conspire. We are shown glimpses of their day-to-day lives as they eat, exercise and even shower together, alongside imaginative touches such as packets of cigarette-style tubes which, when sniffed, appear to evoke memories of life on Earth. A shipboard romance even leads to a pregnancy-and-birth subplot, highly unusual for the time (so much so that it was apparently excised from the US version in its entirety).

The dramatic action moves up a notch when they discover an apparently deserted UFO-style manned satellite cryptically named Tornado. Successfully breaking in, astronauts Peter and Ervin (Martin Ťapák and Rudolf Deyl) discover a room full of dead bodies, perfectly preserved and seemingly killed instantly without any warning, as they’re frozen in mid-action. They find evidence that it’s a 1987 (!) expedition and also of what happened, though I won’t post any spoilers here. The second major set-piece involves an encounter with what is presumably a black hole (called a “dark star” in the subtitles here), which has an adverse affect on the Icarus’ crew in terms of provoking both fatigue and radiation sickness - in one case, Michael (Otto Lackovič) goes mad and tries to return to Earth, threatening the other crew members and jeopardising the future of their mission.

The set-up is so similar to that of Star Trek that one can’t help wondering whether Gene Roddenberry saw it beforehand. Stanley Kubrick certainly did when researching special-effects technology prior to making 2001, and some of Icarus XB-1’s design and conceptual ideas found their way into his film - the spacesuits are very similar, as is the interior lighting, hexagonal corridors, videophone calls to loved ones, and the overarching theme of searching for unspecified (and never directly depicted) alien intelligence beyond the further reaches of our solar system.

Also familiar from Kubrick’s film (and Star Trek) is the notion of international collaboration - the various characters have Czech, Russian, British/American, Scandinavian and French names. True, they’re also resoundingly monoracial, something that Star Trek would correct (though not 2001), but this is understandable, as early 1960s Czechoslovakia wouldn’t have been anybody’s idea of a rainbow nation. Lest this make Icarus XB-1 sound like a wholly innocent victim of others’ borrowings, it should be noted that it also rips off Forbidden Planet via a blatantly Robby-styled robot cutely named Patrick which has a faintly disturbing habit of assuming that if a crew member isn’t moving, he must be dead, and repeating this allegation mechanically until told to shut up.

Director Jindřich Polák (who would go on to helm the cult favourite Nazi time-travel comedy Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea in 1977) does a fine job of blending incidental wit with overarching seriousness. The sequence exploring the shadowy interior of the Tornado is genuinely creepy (especially when its dead pilot is disturbed and a chunk of his long-decomposed flesh floats away from his exposed skull), and Polák also makes a brave if not entirely convincing stab at a Spielbergian sense of wonder at the end (albeit when Spielberg was still in short trousers).

The special effects are somewhat creaky now, but would have looked close to state-of-the-art back in 1963, taking full advantage of the Barrandov Studios’ renowned facilities. Already imaginative sets (the black-and-white cinematography is particularly alive to their various textures) are enhanced by an inventive use of rear projection screens that must have taken no small effort to assemble and synchronise. The music is by the great Zdeněk Liška (Czechoslovakia’s Bernard Herrmann, best known in the West for his many collaborations with Jan Švankmajer), which alternates lush orchestral colourings with chirruping electronics and bizarre dance rhythms with more than a hint of Juan Garcia Esquivel’s then-contemporaneous space-age bachelor pad soundtracks.

I was expecting more overt political content, though it’s easy to see why the Czechoslovak Communist administration of the time had no problems with the implication of a glorious multinational socialist future (explicitly contrasted with the fate of the Tornado, brought down by its excessive reliance on nuclear weaponry), a notion carried through to the end with its theme of spontaneous intergalactic co-operation. Truth be told, this aspect of the film is weaker than the individual set-pieces, and the film as a whole is a definite notch below Forbidden Planet and 2001 in terms of overall achievement - but Icarus XB-1 is still a very welcome rediscovery.


The DVD

Distribution: Filmexport Home Video (Czech Republic), PAL, no region code.

Picture: Thankfully, the DVD preserves the original 2.35:1 Scope aspect ratio, and is anamorphically enhanced. The print is in good rather than great condition - there are quite a few spots and scratches (especially towards the end), but nothing seriously distracting. The texture is somewhat grainy, but this may well have been characteristic of the original. Contrast is strong without being excessive, which particularly benefits the set design and exterior special-effects shots. A full-scale restoration would doubtless improve matters, but this will certainly do to be going on with. DVDFreak offers screengrabs here.

Sound: The sound is the original mono, and has been well preserved - there are a few minor audio glitches, but I have no difficulty believing that these are inherent in the original materials, which otherwise sound exactly as you’d expect an early-1960s film to sound.

Subtitles: In common with every other release I’ve seen on this label, the English subtitles are white, easy to read, and generally flawless aside from one or two idiomatic slip-ups. Onscreen text (such as credits) is also translated.

Extras: Although the disc comes with a really impressive set of extras (especially considering the film’s age), most will be useless to non-Czech speakers. So instead of listing them in menu order, I’ll highlight the English-friendly ones first, starting with three short clips (totalling five minutes) from the American International Pictures version of the film (Voyage to the End of the Universe) illustrating how much it deviated from the Czech original. Firstly, there’s the hilarious title sequence, retaining all the names in the credits but Anglicising the vast majority - so it’s now directed by ‘Jack Pollack’, was written in collaboration with ‘Paul Jurist’ and has music by ‘Danny List’, though my favourite was the way costume designer (and key New Wave figure) Ester Krumbachová became plain ‘Esther Smith’, as though off for a dirty weekend. The second clip shows the confrontation between Michael and MacDonald about three-quarters of the way through, but is most interesting for the way it shows how the US version uses voiceover to add additional plot points or smooth over the cuts. And finally there’s the alternate ending, where the “white planet” turns out to be the Earth (illustrated via aerial stock footage of New York). The clips are all in English, with no subtitle option (not even Czech).

Non-Czech speakers can also appreciate the wittily-designed stills gallery, which involves 42 images (mostly from the film, though there are a couple of behind-the-scenes shots towards the end) in an appropriately retro brushed aluminium frame with sliding metal panels revealing each successive image. This runs just under three-and-a-half minutes, and there’s also a smaller gallery of publicity materials, animated as if floating through space. Each is accompanied by extracts from Zdeněk Liška’s score: electronic for the first, orchestral for the second.

As for the Czech-only extras, these include: a half-hour lecture on the film by historian Pavel Taussig; a 35-minute documentary interspersing copious clips with interviews with Hynek Bočan (assistant director), Radovan Lukavský (Macdonald), Zuzana Poláková (presumably the director’s wife or daughter: he died in 2003) and the sci-fi writer Ondřej Neff (former editor-in-chief of Ikarie magazine, named after this film); text biographies/filmographies of leading cast and crew members; a bibliography of references to the film; the usual raft of sponsors and media partner ads and trailers common to Filmexport releases.

There’s also a DVD-ROM section, which is worth exploring as although most of it consists of Czech and German magazine articles, there’s also a reproduction of the original English press notes, including a full (and detailed) synopsis and biographies of the major players.


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