'Ikarie XB-1' is the Forgotten Czech Film That Inspired '2001: A Space Odyssey'

Jindřich Polák’s communist space drama anticipated now-iconic '60s sci-fi.

Ikarie Xb
Second Run

In the 1960s, the question wasn’t if human beings would venture into space, but when. US-Soviet tensions fueled the space race, as the Cold War competition to leave Earth’s atmosphere left many of us imagining life amongst the stars. Ahead of the Moon landing, landmark sci-fi such as Star Trek and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey captured this public fascination, forever influencing how film and television capture the awe and terror of space exploration. But both are influenced by a 1963 Czech film that was, until recently, resigned to almost-complete obscurity: Jindřich Polák’s Ikarie XB-1.

Based on the Stanislaw Lem novella The Magellanic Cloud, the film unfolds through a series of vignettes as a 40-person space crew completes a year-long journey to nearby star Alpha Centauri in the year 2163. The Ikarie is the name of their ship and ironically translates to the ill-fated Greek figure “Icarus.” Images of a “white planet” in its orbit are thought to contain life, and their mission is to check it out. Through four episodic segments — an introduction to life aboard the ship, the interception of an unknown spacecraft, determining the cause of a radiation-based illness, and a triumphant discovery of extraterrestrial life — Ikarie XB-1 provides an optimistic, albeit propaganda-backed vision of a future in space.

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Because Czechoslovakia was under Soviet rule, the film is in league with communist ideology. Anti-Western influence is clearest in a sequence where crew members investigate the mysterious ship that they’ve come across. Upon entry, the characters discover that the spacecraft is filled with the dead bodies of 20th-century “barbarians” who, in the image of Western capitalists, killed one another over the ship’s oxygen supply. In another sequence, a man chooses to uphold the ideals of putting one’s society ahead of individual desires by leaving his pregnant wife behind in order to go on the mission — never mind that, thanks to the dilation of time in space, his unborn child will be 15 when he returns. The film’s international crew suggests that the Iron Curtain has actually fallen in the favor of a widespread communist society.

Naturally, Hollywood didn’t see a foreign film with anti-Western sentiment as a suitable fit for US audiences. The distributor American International Pictures reedited a new version with a haphazard English dub, replaced the original actors’ names with American-sounding names, and scrapped the original film’s hopeful ending altogether — instead, in a Twilight Zone-esque twist, it’s revealed that the crew are actually aliens heading for Earth, rather than humans searching for alien life. The film that Americans saw was largely incoherent as a result, and had a new name: Voyage to the End of the Universe.

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A Westernized version of the film was released in 1964.

The name bears a passing resemblance to Journey Beyond the Stars, the original title of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Ikarie XB-1 was chosen for the Cannes Classic selection at the 2016 film festival, their citation went so far as to call it “among the most important sources of inspiration” for Kubrick’s magnum opus.

Parallels between the two films are present throughout. Ikarie XB-1 opens with an extended sequence showcasing life aboard its main spaceship, much like the lavish introduction of 2001‘s Space Station V. The beeping, simplistic models that stand in for space in Ikarie XB-1 seem quaint alongside the groundbreaking technical achievements of Kubrick’s film, but the auteur himself admitted to taking some visual cues from it. The wide shots of the Discovery One space corridors echo the Ikarie’s with strikingly similar images of crew members venturing into angular, sleek hallways or shafts.

The 1963 film also has its own all-seeing HAL 9000-like computer and anticipates the future of video conferencing in a scene where a crew member, much like Dr. Heywood Floyd calling his daughter in 2001, speaks to his loved ones on a system resembling Skype. Ikarie XB-1 even includes a literal Star Child, as an infant born during the voyage stands in for mankind’s evolution in the age of space exploration.

Ikarie

Ikarie XB-1 (1963) versus 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

There’s no such concrete evidence that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry or his team ever drew direct inspiration from Ikarie XB-1, which predates the first episode of the show by three years. But some of the close comparisons between Ikarie XB-1 and Star Trek are hard to ignore. Much like Star Trek‘s large ensemble of characters, people from all over the world make up the Ikarie crew. Although everyone in the film speaks Czech, the names of the crew members — from the Czech surname Kube to the American surname MacDonald — can be traced all over the world. The episodic nature of a space crew exploring the solar system while still dealing with day-to-day ship upkeep is a signature of Star Trek, and more than a few of the show’s episodes resemble the Ikarie XB-1 characters’ discovery of a mysterious ship.

Until 2013, Ikarie XB-1 was nearly impossible to watch outside of the rare late-night TV appearance. British prestige label Second Run took notice of the film and released a region-free Blu-Ray in 2013. In March of this year, the company re-released it as the 4K Cannes restoration that debuted in 2016, complete with brief excerpts from the Voyage to the End of the Universe dub. Given the film’s long-forgotten contribution to how we experience space on screen, Ikarie XB-1 is a trip well worth taking.

(Intern)

Culture journalist and Vox Magazine writer who hasn't been adopted by Paul Thomas Anderson and Maya Rudolph (yet).