Friday, July 26, 2019
By Michael Popham
Back in the late 1970s I was a junior high school kid living in rural Minnesota. My dad had been lured out to the wilds of Isanti County by the promise of cheap land, but he got swindled into buying 30 acres that were mostly swamp. He moved an old house onto a relatively dry part of the property, and that’s where I grew up.
I spent my summers hanging around the house and slapping mosquitos, trying to stave off boredom. I devised pointless and obsessive projects: I once tried to rebuild an air-cooled VW engine without guidance or spare parts; on another occasion I built a miniature set for a stop-motion animated short that never happened because I had no money for 16mm film magazines.
On the warm humid nights I would sit up late, watching movies on television. This was the era before home video, and if you were stranded in the sticks all summer, as I was, you got your movies from broadcast TV or you didn’t get them at all. There were only 5 channels, but nearly all of them ran movies. In fact there was usually a movie playing on at least one channel from early afternoon until all the stations played The Star-Spangled Banner and signed off for the night, around 2 am.
Late one evening I caught a strange black-and-white sci-fi film that I had never heard of, and which never turned up on TV again. The movie was obviously dubbed, and had both robust production values and a tone that was a lot more serious than most sci-fi I’d seen up to that point.
In the film a group to travelers are on an interstellar journey in a gigantic spaceship, but the toll of the voyage is tremendous: the trip takes years, and the travelers become increasingly disheartened. They encounter a number of perils, some of which get members of the crew injured or killed. The travelers nearly succumb to exhaustion and ennui, but eventually arrive at their destination.
I thought about this somber film a lot in the months and years after I saw it, but I couldn’t find any information about it. I remembered the title as “Journey Across the Universe” but none of my friends had heard of it. I tried looking it up in film encyclopedias but couldn’t find a single reference to it.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that I’d had the title wrong. It was a 1963 Czech film called Ikarie XB-1, released in the U.S. the following year as Voyage to the End of the Universe by American -International Pictures. AIP was the cheapo distributor of Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon flicks, and to keep product in the pipeline would buy up the rights to eastern bloc sci-fi films, strip out anything that might smack of commie propaganda, and release hacked-up, dubbed versions. To disguise their foreign origins, names of the cast and crew were anglicized (top-billed actors Zdenek Stephanek and Franisek Smolik, for example, magically became “Dennis Stephens” and “Frances Smollen”; director Jindrich Pollich was credited as “Jack Pollack”).
But even though I now knew the title of the film, there was no way to see it. It had never been released on video. In the early 2000s I began corresponding by email with a film collector in Poland who had an interest in Eastern bloc sci-fi. He had a particular fondness for Ikarie and said he would try to answer any questions I had about the movie. I only had one.
“How does it end?”
For me, the movie I’d seen on TV all those years ago had only been marred by its ending. The space travelers reach the mysterious “Green Planet” they had spent so many years trying to find. Through their viewscreen the clouds part and the new planet is revealed: there is a grainy stock shot of lower Manhattan, and then the Statue of Liberty. In a twist ending, the spaceship is revealed to be from another solar system, and the “Green Planet” they’ve been traveling to all this time is actually – gulp – Earth!
Even as a kid it didn’t ring true to me. It was too cheap a gimmick for such a carefully made movie. I didn’t want it to end that way.
Happily, it didn’t. My contact had never heard of AIP’s cheesy recut ending, and thought it was amazingly daffy. In the fall of 2004 he tipped me off that a Czech company called Filmexport would be releasing the movie on DVD soon, and I ordered a copy the first day it was available. The DVD menu was in Czech, but one of the subtitle options was English. So finally, after a quarter-century of searching, I finally got to see Ikarie XB-1.
I was fully prepared for a letdown, but sometimes life is kind. The uncut Ikarie XB-1 actually exceeded my expectations. It's a stylish film that, while not widely seen in the west, was influential. Stanley Kubrick was known to have seen it when he was preparing to shoot 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Gene Roddenberry clearly borrowed elements of his Star Trek series concept from it.
Ikarie XB-1 is a rare sci-fi movie from that era that’s actually about something: the inadequacy of even the most towering human ambitions when set against the frailties of individual people and the indifference of a vast universe.
Posted by The Editor at 7:43 AM