It’s 200 years in the future and Earth has just sent an amiable group of 40 astronauts into far space. Their mission: To reach Alpha-Centauri and hopefully begin a human colony on one of the planets that it’s believed are present in the system. As a Russian sci-fi film of its era, Ikarie XB 1 offers a very 1960’s inspired future, so these cosmonauts represent a peaceful world that’s a worker’s paradise, not an America space program that celebrates individuality.
The film has four somewhat connected sequences, beginning with a rather cheery introduction to life aboard the roomy spaceship, an encounter with an unknown spacecraft, encountering and trying to survive a radiation-based space illness, and a final discovery of extraterrestrial life. These individual segments effectively reinforce how it’s only as a collective that the crew can survive their mission. There’s even a perhaps obligatory anti-Western portion when the unknown spacecraft is explored (a particularly intriguing story when considered against the tension of the Cold War).
While the exterior shots are typically daft model spaceships against a featureless black background of its era, what really makes Ikarie XB 1 stand out are the interior shots. Featuring atypically roomy and well-designed sets for its genre, they offer up visions of a spaceship that would be comfortable and enjoyable for a 4-year voyage and hint at a society that has the resources to create wonderous things. This is reinforced in the early exterior scenes where the ship is launched from an enormous and quite complex orbiting space station.
What makes Ikarie XB 1 a must-watch for sci-fi fans, however, is its central role in inspiring Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much has been written about the similarities (including how one of the cosmonauts gives birth to what in essence is a star child, inspiring perhaps one of the most famous scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey) but what I found most striking was the design of the spaceship. From the occasionally witty but slightly ominious Master Computer to the decorations on the hallways, director Jindřich Polák offered up a clean, antiseptic, and optimistic architecture of the future that has been repeated again and again in subsequent works of science fiction.
FilmSchoolRejects has a fascinating graphic that compares images and visual concepts from Ikarie XB 1 (on the left) with parallel images from 2001: A Space Odyssey (on the right) that I reproduce here:
Be prepared, Ikarie XB 1 is a tough film to find online. Don’t be sidetracked on your quest by the ghastly American International Pictures dubbed (and mangled) English-language re-release entitled Voyage to the End of the Universe. It might share some footage with the Russian original, but it’s rather an abomination created because it was widely, and no doubt accurately, believed that American audiences during the Cold War wouldn’t want to watch a Russian film that suggested Russian ideology was superior.
Ikarie XB 1 stands as one of the best of the Russian science fiction films produced in that halcyon era when we had enough knowledge to know we were going to make it to the planets and then someday the stars, but didn’t yet know when or what we’d likely find once we got there. With the parallel evolution of the Cold War-fueled Russian Luna project and American Apollo project, culminating in the astonishing success of Apollo 11, science fiction post-1969 fundamentally changed, but during the 1960s? Definitely a golden era for space exploration cinema.