Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on August 14, 2011
A copy of Ikarie XB 1 was recently put in my hands along with an enthusiastic recommendation. “It’s a game-changer,” my friend said. “Its influence on Kubrick is obvious.” As most people know, the seed for 2001: A Space Odyssey came in the form of a short story by Arthur C. Clark written in 1948 called The Sentinel (first published in 1951 as Sentinel of Eternity). However, it’s probably more accurate to say that the bulk of ideas that contributed to the end product of Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece came to the filmmaker and Clark during 1964. That was the brain-storming year when both were reading, watching, and doing as much homework as possible that might be relevant to their project. Watching Ikarie XB 1 now it seems self-evident to me that this Czech film from 1963 directed by Jindřich Polák, based on a story by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (who wrote the novel Solaris in 1961), was clearly on their radar.
The synopsis below will not do not do justice to a host of other interesting discoveries to be had from watching Ikarie XB 1, especially as there are a myriad of innovations to astonish viewers who keep in mind that this film is almost 50 years old. As a small example, consider this: instead of cigarettes there are cylindrical containers that people open under their noses to smell things that remind them of Earth. Instead of forgettable foot gear, the space suits have magnetic boots that light up upon contact with the floor (and this three decades before they were seen on sneakers in the ’90s!). Ikarie XB 1 even mingles the genders in the rec center and shower area long before we saw this again in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997). More relevant to Kubrick, perhaps, are the innovations of an inter-space videophone and a master computer telling crew members aboard the space ship what to do.
Synopsis & spoilers ahead.
ORIGINAL CZECH VERSION
In the 22nd century the Ikarie space ship, loaded with about 40 crew members, sets off on a mission toward “The White Planet” on what is estimated to be a two-year round trip. Significantly, one of the crew members is pregnant. Along the way they come across the Tornado; a capitalist space-ship from 1987 filled with dead gamblers and laser-blasted skeletons. It also has a nuclear device that is accidentally set off, blowing up the Tornado and the two unfortunate explorers who boarded it from the Ikarie. As the Ikarie continues on its mission it passes by a mysterious dark star that emits radiation which blisters the skin of some, makes others go mad, and affects all crew members with such serious fatigue that everyone starts to fall asleep. Should they stay the course and try to sail past the dark star while asleep? Or abort the mission and return to Earth? Despite one spirited attempt for the latter, the former ends up becoming the default pick as everyone dozes off. Happily, the crew does make it past the dark star – but it turns out that this is because of the intelligent civilization on the White Planet which somehow simultaneously protected them from the bad radiation of the dark star while also helping to guide their ship directly toward the White Planet itself. Included in the final scenes, as our protagonists approach the advanced civilization, are some shots of the latest member to board Ikarie XB1: a newborn child.
While I wasn’t able to find the original Czech trailer, here’s a German one made for the DVD release which I feel does justice to the spirit of the original:
THE AMERICAN VERSION
The A.I.P. cut was released in the U.S. one year later in 1964 as Voyage to the End of the Universe. It cut out about 12 minutes, was released in a pan-and-scan version that severely truncated the beauty of the original anamorphic ratio, was badly dubbed, and added a few things of its own. Basically; they tried to make it palatable to an American audience by white-washing, as best they could, the fact that this was a east European film. The original ending is cut out entirely to make room for a different premise: that this was a one-way trip, and the destination ended up being (surprise!): Earth. Not surprisingly, some of the most interesting scenes of the original film, shot on the capitalist space-ship and which didn’t make us out to look so good, were also cut out.
Here’s a trailer for the American version (which sets a completely different tone from the original):
A year after the American release of Voyage to the End of the Universe, on February 22, 1965, MGM would announce to the world that it would finance Kubrick’s next motion picture: Journey Beyond the Stars, a title conspicuously similar to the A.I.P. version given to Polák’s film.
Still… I can’t help but think that Kubrick must have seen the original Czech version. The longer scenes aboard the capitalist space ship are kindred spirits to the destruction wrought by Slim Pickens character in Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In Ikarie XB 1, the crew members of the Tornado don’t just love the bomb, they love their guns too. Specifically, laser guns labeled “Tigger fun fun fun” (?!) – which I’m guessing might be a jab at our reputation for being trigger happy.
Anyway, the transcendental feeling one gets when seeing the image of the newborn child in the original Czech version also seem to have a bond with the star-child of 2001. It’s also fascinating to think how, conversely, Kubrick’s follow-up project, A Clockwork Orange, was as faithful as could be to the American publication of the book and simultaneously completely oblivious to the longer European publication (Burgess did press upon Kubrick to read the omitted and final chapter missing from American pressings, but Kubrick was already in mid-shoot by then, and preferred the American ending anyway).
My wandering mind and wagering money keeps going back to the Tornado. The gamblers aboard the Tornado were into dice games, which I’m not a fan of. What kind of games do the members of Ikarie play? Chess of course. Because they are so much more sophisticated than those brutes aboard the Tornado who prefer financial games of chance. I love chess, but I have been playing poker since I was a kid so I’m ready to put up a bit of a fight here, which I’ll preface by saying that if the communists wanted to show us up as being greedy, selfish, and materialistic – they could have done better. My weekly poker games are an ongoing source of camaraderie amongst friends, with jokes, good food, and lots of fun. To my mind, the use of gamblers as the ultimate metaphor for capitalism run amuck is a bit lazy.
Consider this: what might have happened had Stanislaw Lem’s original story been completely re-appropriated by a more forceful libertarian and free-marketeering agency eager to appeal to sponsorships? The half-destroyed capitalist space-ship Tornado would, instead, replace the Ikarie XB 1 as the main vehicle for the voyage of our intrepid crew. Instead of looking to engage with a higher civilization it probably would be looking for a planet full of oil. Of course, it wouldn’t be called “The Tornado” unless a company existed by that name that would pay for the naming rights, so instead it’d probably be the “Coors Space Module,” or something similar. And instead of small cylindrical objects packed with Earthly smells, those would be brand cigarettes from a tobacco company that would underwrite a good chunk of the budget. The agreement would further stipulate that said brand cigarettes had to be prominently featured while heroic people were doing heroic things. Speaking of heroic people, instead of a small crew who were all equal in stature, there would be a single protagonist in charge of a large crew of workers. The kind of captain of industry that would have better appeal to fans of Atlas Shrugged. He’d be quick with one-liners too. And the edits would be faster, so as to not bore ticket-buyers. After all, the film itself is now an advertisement, so it can’t afford to risk the ire of its shareholders with waning ticket sales and with what some exit polls might deem a sluggish pace. These exit polls set up at preview screenings would dictate so much of the story line, in fact, that teenagers would be added to the story so as to increase the film’s cross-market appeal to make gains with that much-coveted younger demographic. The nuclear weapons aboard the Tornado? They would not be maligned as a source of destruction, but rather revered as a source of power – and used to impressive effect in blowing up the dark star toward the end of the film, Michael Bay-style with our hero doing a slow-mo dog-paddle through space – he’d be in the foreground to the blast and would somehow escape unscathed.
So, all things considered, I think the original A.I.P. version was rather weak and timid in its attempts to commercialize the eastern European product. Especially compared to how far toward the other end of the universe it truly could have traveled. But the original Czech version has definitely piqued my interest for other films by Jindřich Polák. A science fiction comedy titled Clown Ferdinand and the Rocket? A Nazi time traveling movie titled Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea? Hey, as long as he’s making fun of clowns and Nazis, rather than gamblers, I’m game.
Further reading and other resources:
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