B&W, 1963, 87 mins. 30 secs.
Directed by Jindrich Polák
Starring Zdenek Stepánek, Frantisek Smolík, Dana Medrická, Irena Kacírková
Second Run (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), NFA (Blu-ray) (Czech R0 HD), Filmexport (Czech R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Occupying a significant place in the history of sci-fi films is this dazzling Czech production, which would probably be a lot more famous among English-speaking cineastes had it not been picked up in America by AIP, retitled Voyage to the End of the Universe, and tampered with significantly including lazy dubbing and the demolishing of its original ending (which in turn was imitated several times). In its intended form, this remains a startling experience predating everything from Star Trek to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running, not to mention Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (based on a novel by this film's same source author, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem).
Essentially a snapshot of life on a spaceship, this is the story of the title craft heading through space on a fifteen-year quest for life in Alpha Centauri in the year 2163. Along with the aging captain, Vladimir (Stepánek), we have a diverse crew of scientists, artists, mathematicians, and historians, not to mention a robot in the spirit of Forbidden Planet, all affected in different ways when a close encounter with another drifting ship equipped with nuclear warheads and containing the dead remains of rich Earthlings trying to escape an apocalypse. As they continue traveling to their destiny and drift close to a dangerous black hole, the multinational passengers must evaluate their own perceptions of their society and the possible world awaiting them..
One of several Eastern Bloc sci-fi titles altered for western audiences, Ikarie XB 1 at least fared better than the famous Russian epic Planeta Bur, which was diced up and even recycled for stock footage. What's especially interesting here is the depiction of day-to-day life among the astronauts rather than their fantastic adventures; simple things like childbirth, exercise, and hygiene take on a whole different angle when placed in this context, anticipating what Kubrick would tackle closer to the end of the decade. It's also beautifully shot, combining sleek and shiny technology with eye-catching pop art compositions suitable for framing.
A fine but pricey Czech DVD of Ikarie XB 1 was released in 2006, featuring English subtitles for the main feature but not for the video extras. A much better deal on DVD came along with the 2013 U.K. release from Second Run, which is region free and PAL and billed as being the "complete and original version for the first time in the English-speaking world." The new transfer was a real eye opener at the time with excellent black levels and lustrous shades of gray (as well as less dirt and debris than before), not to mention a very clear rendering of the mono Czech soundtrack with a striking, experimental music and effects soundtrack. Optional English subtitles are included, of course, in a better translation than the Czech disc. The sole video extra is a new featurette with writer Kim Newman (12 mins.), who does a succinct job of covering the film's place in the sci-fi pantheon, its English-dubbed version, and its unusual depiction of interstellar travel. The very useful liner notes by Michael Brooke offer a thorough overview of Czech science fiction cinema starting with the 1930s and a few related Russian and Polish projects, as well as coverage of this particular film and its middling box office performance in its native country.
In 2017, the film made its worldwide Blu-ray debut as a Czech release featuring optional English and French subtitles for the feature as well as English-friendly extras including a trailer, restoration demo, and three short documentary films (Before Launching into Space, The Most Ordinary of Occupations, and Hypotheses) about the challenges and concepts entailed in understanding outer space. In 2019, Second Run revisited the film with a region-free Blu-ray edition that utilizes the same excellent 4K restoration from the Czech National Film Archive, and it's a real beauty with the extra resolution bringing out some significant additional detail in those numerous wide shots featuring multiple actors and intricate production design in the background. The Newman featurette is ported over here, and you also get one of the documentary shorts (and the most pertinent), The Most Ordinary of Occupations (Nejv edn j í povolání) (12m24s), a snapshot of the state of Bach-listening "human programmers" who work with computers to advance the use of mathematics for space travel and lab work. Also shot in monochrome, it's a striking and moody little art piece as well as a valuable historical artifact. Finally the disc (which comes packaged with Brooke's liner notes) closes out with the U.S. full frame opening and closing credits, which really make you appreciate the main feature even more, along with a 2016 reissue trailer, the American Voyage to the End of the Universe trailer, and a photo gallery containing the German press book, Czech and U.S. promotional material, and more.
Updated review on March 26, 2019.