In the year 2163, the spaceship Ikarie XB-1 is heading through space to seek life in the Alpha Centauri system. People onboard are getting through their day while they get closer to their destination. As they board what seems like an alien spaceship, the crew finds themselves in the midst of dangerous radiation. Back on the Ikarie XB-1 they will soon lose their health - and their sanity.
You can't deny that when you hear "60s sci-fi", you mostly think about the cheesy, fun classics of that decade. While movies like "Alphaville", "Fahrenheit 451" and so on did something different, most of the sci-fi movies were about cheesy aliens or robots. Before Tarkovsky's "Solaris" and Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", there weren't that many big space journey titles that focused on the people on board in a way that truly put you on the spaceship, facing more humane problems than a rubber suit. But there was one movie - one that undeniably did influence several movies but still remained far from a household title, and is even more obscured today. That was the Czech sci-fi flick "Ikarie BX 1", which got an American cut under the name "Voyage to the End of the Universe". The big difference between the two is the ending, with US actually doing a more bizarre twist ending, than the rather happy original ending. Second Run DVD has now put out the original Czech cut on DVD and we're happy to give it a go.
To set the mood, we're treated to quite a fantastic opening showing what's to come. A very intense, trippy scene of someone's insanity bailing out on him and him claiming that Earth doesn't exist. Then we're thrown back to how we got there. It's been a long time since space traveling was made possible, but now is the time to go further. The year is 2163, we're on board of the spaceship Ikarie XB-1, a ship that is heading to the Alpha Centauri system to find a place to colonize. They stumble upon a previous attempt, a spaceship from Earth that a few of the crew members board. They find various things proving that the spaceship is indeed from the 20th century Earth - a very barbaric time compared to the peaceful lives they are now living. Long gone are the days of Nazism, slavery, terrorism. While boarding the ancient ship, the crew members are exposed to radiation from a dark star. When they get back on Ikarie XB-1 it's not long until they get sick, and quickly after their sanity cracks.
The movie shares a lot of the aesthetics of those cheesier sci-fi's, with a boxy robot, a ton of lights as controls, circular decorations, long light covered corridors, etc. The movie is certainly a 60s movie, it makes it very clear. It's not a surprise when the director was actually quite a mainstream one for its time, and the mood of the movie does sort of prove that. As different and unique as it is, and no matter how dark it gets at times, the ending is very light and it doesn't overstay it's welcome. This is where movies like "Solaris" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" become more epic journeys into man's psyche, but "Ikarie XB-1" is definitely a predecessor of them both. "Solaris" is actually based on a book by the same author who wrote "Ikarie XB-1", so there is no shock that they're leaning towards the same style.
For its time, the early 60's, and its many influential sequences, this feels a lot more like art than your typical sci-fi. There are a few scenes in the movie that I'd regard as some of the most effective that I have seen in sci-fi. The entire scene of them boarding the "ancient" ship is simply eerie and intense. It doesn't go crazy, but it sets a mood unlike most other movies. Without actually introducing a terror it still reeks of absolute psychological horror, and that's something that hit me hard. Beyond that, the scenes of the crew member going crazy (in the opening and later on as it happens) are simply fascinating. The opening is just a wonderful piece of art that unfortunately doesn't show itself again in the movie. That's not to say that the movie isn't beautiful, it is, but it also have a lot of scenes that are trivial in comparison. It goes hand-in-hand with the story of a large group of people staying a spaceship for too long. But this is a story that manages to end on a happy note even though it had just previously went pretty dark. With the movie being fairly short at 83 minutes, it's not surprising, but I would have liked seeing an additional 20-or-so minutes to get to the bottom of everything.
"Ikarie XB-1" instantly jumps to the top of my favorite space journey movies, where it stands together (but below) movies like "Solaris". It's a great, albeit compact, existential movie about people being stuck on a spaceship, exploring the unknown. Within that, there's a definitely judgement on the current Western world's evils as they find an ancient ship from this horrific time (or 20th century, but we're pretty much worse now, aren't we?). It's a pretty obvious message that I have decided to disregard because it doesn't actually go deeper into that, to me the movie focuses on the mentality of people that are stuck together on a spaceship in the middle of nowhere, and how they start turning on each other, and some even losing their health and sanity. You need to buy this Second Run DVD release if you like film, it's something that has to be seen by every film enthusiast. If your collection already consists of "Solaris" or "2001: A Space Odyssey", then this should be a given.