Critipeg: Ikarie XB-1

Plays Jan. 8 to Feb. 5 at Cinematheque, ★★★★☆ 1/2

The 1963 Czechoslovak sci-fi film Ikarie XB-1 (originally released as Voyage to the End of the Universe in English-language markets) follows a 40-person starship crew in the year 2163 as they embark on a precarious 28-month-long voyage. Their destination is the Alpha Centauri system with the purpose of discovering the “White Planet.” 

With the film having inspired the creation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it comes as no surprise that Ikarie XB-1 is a classic.

The film’s plot focuses on the human crew aboard the vessel as they try to maintain some semblance of their earthly life. Because of this, Ikarie XB-1 has a domestic quality to it initially. 

As the film progresses into an air of unease, however, the brilliance of its pacing and mood begins to shine through. 

The gradual build into disquiet is executed with patience and skill. The shift from the peaceful and somewhat quaint mood into instability is done in a way that’s seamless and engaging. 

Impressively, the film doesn’t rely on action to convey a sense of danger. In fact, threats come in the form of exposure to radiation, sickness and insanity, as opposed to extraterrestrials or rogue machines. There’s no villain or corrupt force bent on destroying the crew. They’re alone and have to look out for one another to survive. 

In essence, the plot does exceedingly well in conveying themes of integrity while exploring the perils of human error. The film’s story, in its simplicity, is poignant and meaningful. 

In addition to an exceptional narrative, the film’s visual aspects are equally astounding. 

The set design, though somewhat dated, is pleasing to look at, if not a little charming. The interior areas of the starship are vast. They’re clean and sleek, with intriguing structures that carry a futuristic quality. Outside of an obnoxiously clunky robot, the starship’s technology holds up relatively well (even if it’s a little campy at times). 

But the most praiseworthy elements of the film’s visual traits are its cinematography and practical effects. The framing of each shot is phenomenal and does well in showing off the remarkably convincing special effects. 

Specifically, the sequence where two of the crew members explore a decrepit spaceship features the coolest part of the film in terms of camera work and effects. Those scenes alone make the entire movie worth watching. 

Taken together, Ikarie XB-1 is the perfect film for hardcore and casual sci-fi fans alike. Plus, if English-speaking viewers have to rely on subtitles to understand what’s going on, the manageable 90-minute runtime poses less of a challenge. Even for those who’re put off by subtitles in general, the film is indisputably worth the effort to watch. 

Published in Volume 75, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 27, 2021)

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