Voyage to the End of the Universe (1963)

IKARIE XB-1 is one of the most compelling science fiction films ever made. Filmed in very Cold War era Czecheslovokia and rarely seen in North America in it’s complete widescreen form, this is a movie that was so ahead of it’s time that only 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY managed to raise the bar above what was set here with it’s meticulous depiction of outer space vehicles in action.

If there is any shortcoming to IKARIE it’s simply that: The space ship model effects are somewhat awkward & unconvincing, a setback that the movie might not recover from in the mind’s eye of viewers raised on 30+ years of George Lucas & Steven Spielberg special effects films. But viewers who are interested in a story will be more than rewarded with a complex drama about a group of humans off in search of a brave new world to populate, with an ending sequence that is perhaps the most provocative element of the entire film — and would later find form again in Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, albeit in a different manner. There is no doubt that the Italian master was influenced by this film.

For me the most striking sequence is a daring, risky, and potentially scandalous commentary by these Soviet Bloc filmmakers when they have their explorers encounter a derelict craft floating aimlessly & without power in the empty nothing between the stars. A boarding party is dispatched to discover that it was an early Earth craft which had been dispatched during a nuclear conflict who’s crew was made up of decadent aristocrats who had been attempting to escape the carnage back on Earth. They are long dead, mummified to the point where their bodies disintegrate when brushed against, and had apparently been killed off by the military flight crew when it became clear the oxygen supply was about to run dry. The quiet, calm horror of the scene is unprecedented even by today’s standards, with the accidental triggering of one of the ship’s obsolete but still functional nuclear warheads providing a nerve-shattering moment as the two hapless crewmen attempt to escape the airless, gravity deprived hell in space.

One of the aspects that makes the scene so convincing was the space suit designs created by the artistic visionaries behind the film. They look even more functional, practical and “real” than the Mercury era space flight technology of the day: Bulky, armored, pressurized tin cans with knee joints, claw-like cloves, and magnetized boot plates. The scene of the two astronauts trying to run across the derelict flight deck for the airlock to escape the explosion is a marvel of not only applied science but choreography. In my opinion the film is worth tracking down for this one sequence alone.

And now you can: The film was issued in 2005 on a marvelous Czech made PAL format DVD that shows the film in the correct 2:35:1 Techniscope widescreen format with the original, unaltered & un-messed with ending sequence intact. Any serious fan of Cold War era science fiction simply must acquire one. I will admit that some of the more talky middle “soap opera in space” segments sort of lag the pacing a bit, but the 81 minutes is over quickly and the impression one is left with is that the thinking behind the movie was miles ahead of anything that came out of the West at the same time. Along with the Russian PLANETA BUR and the East German/Polish SILENT STAR aka FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS, this is one of the most important & overlooked masterpieces of science fiction from the time when manned space flight was becoming a reality.

All three films are grounded in actual science with impressive visual power that still has potency. What makes IKARIE XB-1 even more impressive is that it lacks some of the glory-boy propagandizing of the Soviet Bloc’s entertainment machine, which was designed to enthrall the masses with depictions of glorious Soviet cosmonauts conquering the cosmos — something that never really quite happened. Those movies were meant to placate the Proletariat and give them a reason to make do cheer for the genuine oppression under which they lived. By contrast, IKARIE is almost a work of pure artistic expression, which is in itself remarkable considering the conditions under which it was made.