Just because government foreign policies don't always align doesn't mean we can't admire a geopolitical rival's science fiction.
There were all manner of great movies made outside the United States throughout the Cold War, and we're missing out if we don't take a look at the incredible Soviet-style outer space flicks that didn't make it across the Iron Curtain — especially because so many of them were inspired by the conflict.
The Cold War that heated up between the Soviet Union and America in the aftermath of World War II produced sexy super-spies, simmering suspicion, and an obsessive quest for exploring the outer reaches of the cosmos.
The era's science fiction movies also capitalized on the U.S.S.R.'s dominance in the space race. Russia's people trembled at the roar of their mighty Vostok vessels, as aerospace engineers and scientists advanced space programs to compete with the United States.
Some of the most stunning and influential sci-fi films were born in the turbulent '60s, which saw the U.S.S.R. make cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin the first man in space, in April of 1961. Soviet austerity and propaganda played heavily in these creative endeavors, emerging as the Khrushchev era relaxed oppression and began encouraging artistic expression.
The Eastern Bloc movie-making community took full advantage of the cinematic space race, and many all-time classics were launched during this tense period of escalating tensions between the superpowers. Directors like Andrey Tarkovsky, Yevgeni Sherstobitov, and Pavel Klushantsev, whom George Lucas once called "the Godfather of Star Wars," presented some of the most spectacular stories and effects ever seen on the big screen.
Created with a liberal dose of kitsch, a stern socialist agenda, imaginative special effects, Utopian optimism, banks of blinking computers, and layered with eerie Theremin music, these movies from Mother Russia and her allies were instrumental in delivering science fiction in a realistic (for the time) form, and paved the way for today's mega-budget spectacles like Interstellar, Sunshine, and Prometheus.
One of the best examples of these otherworldly offerings is the excellent 1963 Czech sci-fi saga, Ikarie XB-1, also known as Icarus XB-1 or Voyage to the End of the Universe in English-speaking countries.
Directed by the Prague-born Jindrich Polak, this seminal exploration of the visceral power of the speculative fiction genre showcases an interstellar expedition embarking on a mission to Alpha Centauri, to explore a heavenly body known as the "White Planet." En route to the planetary system, the crew of the Ikarie encounters a 20th-century derelict spaceship, and a saucer-like shuttle is launched to investigate. What could possibly go wrong?!
WARNING! Potential Spoilers Ahead!
The movie was chopped to pieces for its English-dubbed version, released in 1964 by Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures. So when hunting this one down, always go for the original foreign release.
Ikarie XB-1 has a fascinating premise and absorbing execution, and is relatively bereft of overt political statements... except when these curious cosmonauts venture aboard the tomb-like spaceship and discover a seedy den of capitalist avarice and wealth.
Corpses in formal attire are scattered around a casino-like deck, their stiff bodies in a state of perfect preservation in the cold vacuum of space after their oxygen supply was exhausted. Chemical weapons were used to try and quell the uprising, but there were no winners in this gambling crypt. A secret stash of still-active nuclear weapons is revealed in the cargo hold, and the result is an explosive one.
As their voyage continues, the multinational crew must contend with a disastrous, radiation-spewing "dark star," and the crumbling mental states of certain unstable personalities on board.
The mesmerizing Ikarie XB-1 is crammed with numerous thought-provoking concepts that will satiate any hardcore fan of the category.
Besides an incredible trans-galactic odyssey to Alpha Centauri, its frames showcase intriguing examples of time-alteration, far-out fashions, artificial intelligence, robotics, trippy tunes with weird futuristic go-go dancing, extended longevity, and the etiquette and protocol of first contact with alien beings.
The script is based loosely on the novels of Stanislaw Lem, especially 1955's, "The Magellanic Cloud." As you absorb the imagery of Ikarie XB-1, you may detect a note of uncanny familiarity with Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott's Alien, and even Paul W.S. Anderson's Event Horizon. That's because this Czech classic is one of the most influential (and ripped off) Eastern bloc sci-fi features of all time. Kubrick was even known to have screened the film in England several times while researching his 2001 project with Arthur C. Clarke.
Shot in high-contrast black-and-white and displaying an exemplary knowledge of dramatic light and shadow effects, its cinematography by Jan Kalis is striking and memorable. Zdenek Liska supplied the moody electronic score that plays so heavily in the film's hypnotic pacing and emphasizes the feelings of isolation, mystery, and dread.
The Americanized version is a shallow iteration of the original and slashes ten minutes off the Czech release, then dumbs-down the ending to show the final destination through the viewports as stock footage of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. Polak's superior cut avoids the twist, and shows clouds parting through the porthole to reveal an alien planet's thriving, industrialized metropolis.
Ikarie XB-1 remains one of the best examples of impressive Russian-style science fiction of the era, yet the cult film is difficult to find. However, it can often be seen at film festivals or art society museum screenings.
The Czechoslovak National Film Archive released a sparkling, 2:35 widescreen, 4K Blu-ray restoration in March of 2017, but must be imported for purchase. If you ever get a chance to witness this majestic and moving film, one of the absolute cornerstones of sci-fi cinema, it's well worth the effort.