July 27, 2011

2163: A Czech Space Odyssey

Ikarie XB-1 (1963)

I've avidly followed human spaceflight for years. My first cub scout project was compiling a scrapbook on the Gemini manned flights of the mid-60s. Like everyone else on July 20, 1969, I was glued to the TV watching grainy pictures from Apollo 11. The next year I was glued to the TV again as the drama of the crippled Apollo 13 spaceship played out. At that point, my friends and classmates couldn't have cared less. With the ultimate goal of a moon landing achieved, public interest dropped precipitously, and, while NASA managed 6 more moon flights, the fate of the program was sealed the moment the Apollo 11 astronauts planted the flag in the Sea of Tranquility.

My interest never flagged, and as I grew older, I expanded my spaceflight horizons. Over the years, I've collected quite a library. I'm looking at the space travel section of my bookcase right now. I've got the official NASA history of the Mercury manned program, This New Ocean. To the left is an illustrated history of The Soviet Manned Space Program, to the right is Heppenheimer's Countdown: A History of Space Flight. Also crammed in there are histories of the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs; astronaut and cosmonaut memoirs; and speculations about manned Mars missions, space colonies, interstellar flight, and more.

With all that interest you'd think I would have again been glued to the coverage of the final space shuttle flight. Well, not so much-- it was just too depressing. Atlantis' final flight feels more like the end of U.S. piloted space flight, period, than just the end of an era. Plans to return to the moon were effectively nixed even before the downturn in the economy and the resulting budget squabbles. I've read about the vague proposals for sending astronauts to check out an asteroid as preparation for an eventual Mars mission, but like the return-to-the-Moon plans, they seem like a halfhearted, half-baked attempt to find a reason for NASA to exist.

I'm no math whiz, but between a recession that refuses to go away, ballooning deficits, and spending commitments to Social Security, Medicare and the military that are effectively untouchable, there would seem to be very little left over for expensive national projects like a vibrant space program. Very reasonable people can and do object that in tough times it's hard to justify spending billions on something that has no obvious returns on investment for the average person.  Believe me, I do see this. On the other hand, I wouldn't dismiss the return on investment of a piloted space program too quickly. Launching people into space and keeping them alive there for long periods of time is very, very difficult. These challenges stimulate some of the greatest minds in the world to innovate and realize ever greater efficiencies, from lighter, stronger materials, to getting more out of energy sources, to recycling waste products, to maintaining elaborate, self-contained biospheres. And guess what-- that translates to innovation and progress on earth: lighter, better building materials, more fuel efficient cars, energy sources of all types that aren't dependent on fossil fuels, crops that can be grown in extreme conditions, and on down the line.

Beyond all those practical issues is something that's a lot more philosophical. It's the notion that a truly healthy society needs to constantly wonder about what's out there beyond this blue cradle we call Earth, and explore those new realms with all the tools at our command, including ourselves. Otherwise, we continue to sink into the cheesy, self-obsessed depths, where the most important matters of the day become who's been voted off American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. If we're to continue as an ambitious, inquisitive and exploring species with an eye toward the stars, we'll have to pool our resources and brainpower on an global scale, and involve governments, private industry, universities, and non-profit research centers. Which leads me (finally!) to the main subject of this post.

Ikarie XB-1 is a remarkable vision of just such a future. It bypasses many of the standard, gimmicky sci-fi conventions to tell a very straightforward, yet dramatic, tale of life in space. In contrast to many similarly-themed American sci-fi movies of the period, Ikarie is aimed at a literate, intelligent adult audience. There are no bug-eyed monsters, evil alien plots, or killer robots to liven things up. The drama arises out of the inherent challenges and conflicts of an extended deep space mission, with a large crew living in close quarters.  And, considering that the film was produced by a Soviet satellite country at the height of the cold war, it's remarkably propaganda-free (with one exception, which I'll get to later).

The year is 2163, and a united humanity has launched its first interstellar mission to explore the nearby Alpha Centauri system. Through some fairly subtle exposition, we learn that at near light speed, the crew's loved ones on Earth will have aged 15 years during the course of the ship's 28 month mission. This sets up the first bit of pathos, when, in the early stages of the mission, Commander MacDonald (Radovan Lukavsky) talks to his pregnant wife back on Earth through a fading communications linkup. His wife teases him that when he returns, she'll be 15 years older, and he, only having aged a couple of years, won't find her desirable anymore. More to the point, MacDonald sadly observes, is that his child, now in the womb, will be 15 by the time he gets back.

Anthony the mathematician introduces the captain
to his "antiquated" robot companion.
Ikarie is full of interesting bits of business and scenes that illustrate the challenges of being human -- needing to laugh, love, and enjoy life -- while at the same being sealed up in a technologically-advanced "tin can" traveling the vast recesses of deep space. In one scene, a crew member tries to stump the ship's computer, which also happens to be the "cook," by ordering all kinds of unlikely food combinations. He gets what looks like an Alka Seltzer tablet for lunch, while his shipmates chow down on more standard and appetizing meals. Another crew member, an older mathematician named Anthony (Frantisek Smolik), has brought aboard what looks to be a sophisticated robot as part of his personal gear ("Patrick" the robot looks very much like the bubble-headed robot from the Lost in Space TV series). While Patrick is very loyal, following Anthony around wherever he goes, he also happens to be "ancient" by 22nd century standards, and the rest of the crew make cruel fun of Patrick to the consternation of his owner. In another bit of interesting business, we see the bridge crew using the ship-wide video com system to spy on one of their shipmates who's trying to woo a female crewmember. He's wheedled a makeshift "bouquet" from the botany team to try to impress the woman. Once he's invited into her cabin, the officer-of-the-day calls a halt to the surveillance, telling his disappointed crewmates that what takes place in the ship's cabins is no one else's business.

While Ikarie is full of such human touches, it also provides high drama without resorting to monsters or ray-gun fights. Midway through the flight, the Ikarie comes upon a mystery spacecraft that's either been abandoned, or is occupied by someone or something that doesn't want to communicate. The captain (Zdenek Stepanek) throws caution to the wind and orders two of his crew to investigate. The ensuing sequence is masterfully done and very believable (see the clip below). The solving of the mystery, which I won't reveal here, is the film's one and only concession to Cold War era "anti-capitalist, anti-warmongering" propaganda.

The climax of the movie involves a mystery illness, a kind of sleeping sickness, that infects the whole crew as the ship draws nearer to the Alpha Centauri system. Most of the crew members recover, but one is so badly affected that he goes mad and endangers the whole mission. We learn in the last few minutes that radiation from a mysterious dark star is to blame, and that some intelligent agency has stepped in to shield the Ikarie from its fatal effects.

Commanding a starship is lonely work.
Ikarie XB-1 prefigures both Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Gene Roddenberry's optimistic vision of the future that became the classic Star Trek series (1966-1969). The Wikipedia entry on the film speculates that Kubrick screened Ikarie in his preparations for the 2001 project, and was greatly influenced by it. Parts of Ikarie will seem very familiar to both 2001 and Star Trek fans, from the astronaut's heartbreaking video talk with family left behind on earth, to the ship's computer's disembodied voice, to the revelations of an intelligent alien agency at the film's end.

One unfortunate result of the cold war is that Americans never got the opportunity to see some very good films that just happened to be made behind the Iron Curtain, or at best, saw heavily edited and crudely dubbed versions that managed to lose most of the wonder and charm of the originals. American International Pictures (AIP) released a chop-job of Ikarie XB-1 retitled Voyage to the End of the Universe. It shaved 10 minutes from the running time and changed the ending. Avoid this version. I purchased a two-disc set from Sinister Cinema that has both the original Czechoslovakian cut and the AIP U.S.-release version. The original Czech version is a glorious, clean, widescreen print. The less said about AIP's version, the better. Get it, watch it… you won't be disappointed.

Intrepid explorers from the starship Ikarie investigate a mysterious derelict spaceship:

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