Janus Films has restored the original “Ikarie XB-1,” which was previously introduced to American audiences as “Voyage to the End of the Universe.” Photo courtesy of Janus Films

You may have actually seen the 1963 Czechoslovakian science fiction film “Ikarie XB-1,” as unlikely as that may sound. In the tradition of American movie moguls since the silent film days, director Jindřich Polák’s austerely thoughtful work of speculative fiction (loosely based on a novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem) was, in 1964, scooped up by spectacle-happy American distributors American International Pictures. (Right around the time of AIP’s “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” and the “Beach Party” movies.) Re-dubbed, recut, and retitled as “Voyage to the End of the Universe,” the Czech flick was sent out to drive-ins and second-run theaters across the country. (The same fate befell no less than legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 coming of age drama “Summer with Monika,” re-released with lurid publicity from American schlockmeister Kroger Babb under the saucy title, “Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl.”)

Eventually, this version of “Ikarie XB-1” turned up on the late, late show on TV, where viewers of a certain age probably saw this austere black-and-white, moderately budgeted curiosity badly lip-synched by indifferent American actors, assuming it was just another in the raft of ’50s and ’60s flying saucer cheapies. But the original “Ikarie XB-1,” now screening through PMA Films after a gloriously meticulous 4K restoration by Janus Films, is a quietly influential mini-classic of the genre, and watching it now in all its stern but thought-provoking glory is both catnip for film and science fiction fanatics, and uniquely timely. 

After all, with Earth’s billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos building themselves private space rockets and weaving tales of Mars colonization (for themselves and their richest and, no doubt, whitest pals), “Ikarie XB-1” proves positively clairvoyant. With the multinational (if all-white, sure) crew of the 22nd-century spacecraft Ikarie XB-1 on a 15-year voyage to possibly find intelligent life on the planets surrounding Alpha Centauri, the crew encounters the impossible – a derelict spacecraft, seemingly from Earth. Drifting improbably far from home, the 20th-century saucer is discovered to be filled with wealthy and very dead Americans, all still dressed in evening wear, martini glasses and wads of cash clutched in their hands. Investigation suggests a secret, privately funded escape mission for the ultra-rich, with the saucer’s payload of innocuously branded nerve gas and nuclear warheads posing a serious risk to the Ikarie’s mission. 

You don’t have to be a sociologist to read the capitalist critique there, proven by the fact that this entire, tense and genuinely creepy sequence is edited out of the American bastardization of the film. But “Ikarie XB-1” is hardly a hard-line Soviet Bloc ideological film. Indeed, the movie came out right at the flowering of the Czech New Wave (most famously the birthplace of future Oscar winner Miloš Forman), where canny and subtle directors wove subversive messages (through absurdist comedy or sci-fi) into films that flew under government censors’ radar. 

Played by stolid Czech actors, characters in “Ikarie XB01” have names like MacDonald and, as in one unintentionally amusing case, Anthony Hopkins. Photo courtesy of Janus Films

Here, Polák’s film presents an interstellar mission untroubled by politics, as the crew sets out on an idealistic, rather than ideological, quest of discovery. (Played though they are by stolid Czech actors, characters have names like MacDonald and, as in one unintentionally amusing case, Anthony Hopkins). Their concerns are scientific, and human, the continuation of humanity’s often blundering pursuit of knowledge, right into the often perilous unknown. The set design is stark and minimal, the astronauts’ work gear lived-in and uniform without looking off-the-rack regimented. (They look like rather comfy velour, to be honest.) There are romances, jokes, eccentricities (one older scientist has brought his balky antique robot named Patrick), the first-ever birth in space. (The way that the crew flies to see the “newest crew member” is warm and joyful in defiance of sci-fi tradition.) And the human drama comes in the form of loneliness for those left behind (the crew will be gone 15 Earth years, but will have only aged 28 months, thanks to Einstein and such), and concerns such as jealously and love, all without ever tipping into mission-jeopardizing melodrama. 

Stanley Kubrick screened “Ikarie XB-1” in his tour of all world cinema’s science fiction in preparation for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and it shows, with the humdrum daily routine of the spacefarers given equal thought to the larger quest. (If you want shots of fit young Czech men and women doing near-nude calisthenics in a new age gymnasium, this is your movie.) When crisis does eventually come, it’s in the form of crippling ennui, a sort of space-borne fatigue that only underscores that “Ikarie XB-1” isn’t about to break into laser battles any time soon. 

But I appreciated the film’s pace, and its tone, the meticulous (if utilitarian and sparse) thought that’s gone into every piece of the Ikarie’s functional design. The actors are all understated, as befits a crew of career professionals, with the occasional emotional outburst only serving to punctuate what a cold and dreary existence space travel really is. But, unlike Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 “Solaris” (also based on Lem), the meditative journey of the Ikarie XB-1 clocks in at a brisk 86 minutes. (I love “Solaris,” but its three hours of somber, deliberate sci-fi speechifying seems designed at points to weed out the unwary.) 

This resurrection of a not so much lost as forgotten and ill-served sci-fi classic is just the sort of gift a carefully curated art theater brings to a community. So here’s to the Portland Museum of Art (which, for their trouble, receives a healthy portion of every online rental), for helping us through our own, earthbound voyages of isolation and loneliness. 

“Ikarie XB-1” is showing as part of PMA Films’ virtual video store and can be rented at the PMA Films website, portlandmuseum.org/films. Tickets are $12 for a 72-hour rental, and part of the proceeds go right to the PMA. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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