Ikarie XB 1

Film Forum
Dec 4th 2020 — Jan 5th 2021

“The Earth is gone,” a man says quietly, his breath ragged, then screams in anguish: “The Earth never existed!” So opens Jindřich Polák’s 1963 space drama about a ship’s search for life in the cosmos, painstakingly and gorgeously restored from the original film and audio negatives in 2016. Widely regarded as one of the best science fiction films of that era, and profoundly influential to the genre—Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey bears more than a passing resemblance—Ikarie XB 1 asserted early on that a work of sci-fi could also be a work of high art. Shot by a fluid roving camera with a slight fish-eye effect accompanied by a spare, melodic, and eerie soundtrack, the film still chills and excites more than fifty years after its premiere.

Released amidst the space race, during a supercharged era of tension between the West and the Soviet Union, the film was largely blocked in the West as a result. The version known to American audiences until its recent re-edit was bastardized and heavily cut—in particular, for obvious reasons, a corpse-strewn scene of likely American decadence, greed, and betrayal. The moving and profoundly hopeful end scene of the original Czech film was replaced with a kitschy plot twist in which the new planet was actually Earth all along (specifically, a heavy-handed shot of the Statue of Liberty). But even in this early work of the genre, anxieties about space travel pervade: “Ikarie” is the Czech equivalent of “Icarus”—the Greek mythological figure who lost his life after flying too close to the sun.

Still from Ikarie XB 1.