My interest never flagged, and as I grew older, I expanded my spaceflight horizons. Over the years, I've collected quite a library. I'm looking at the space travel section of my bookcase right now. I've got the official NASA history of the Mercury manned program, This New Ocean. To the left is an illustrated history of The Soviet Manned Space Program, to the right is Heppenheimer's Countdown: A History of Space Flight. Also crammed in there are histories of the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs; astronaut and cosmonaut memoirs; and speculations about manned Mars missions, space colonies, interstellar flight, and more.
With all that interest you'd think I would have again been glued to the coverage of the final space shuttle flight. Well, not so much-- it was just too depressing. Atlantis' final flight feels more like the end of U.S. piloted space flight, period, than just the end of an era. Plans to return to the moon were effectively nixed even before the downturn in the economy and the resulting budget squabbles. I've read about the vague proposals for sending astronauts to check out an asteroid as preparation for an eventual Mars mission, but like the return-to-the-Moon plans, they seem like a halfhearted, half-baked attempt to find a reason for NASA to exist.
Beyond all those practical issues is something that's a lot more philosophical. It's the notion that a truly healthy society needs to constantly wonder about what's out there beyond this blue cradle we call Earth, and explore those new realms with all the tools at our command, including ourselves. Otherwise, we continue to sink into the cheesy, self-obsessed depths, where the most important matters of the day become who's been voted off American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. If we're to continue as an ambitious, inquisitive and exploring species with an eye toward the stars, we'll have to pool our resources and brainpower on an global scale, and involve governments, private industry, universities, and non-profit research centers. Which leads me (finally!) to the main subject of this post.
Ikarie XB-1 is a remarkable vision of just such a future. It bypasses many of the standard, gimmicky sci-fi conventions to tell a very straightforward, yet dramatic, tale of life in space. In contrast to many similarly-themed American sci-fi movies of the period, Ikarie is aimed at a literate, intelligent adult audience. There are no bug-eyed monsters, evil alien plots, or killer robots to liven things up. The drama arises out of the inherent challenges and conflicts of an extended deep space mission, with a large crew living in close quarters. And, considering that the film was produced by a Soviet satellite country at the height of the cold war, it's remarkably propaganda-free (with one exception, which I'll get to later).
The year is 2163, and a united humanity has launched its first interstellar mission to explore the nearby Alpha Centauri system. Through some fairly subtle exposition, we learn that at near light speed, the crew's loved ones on Earth will have aged 15 years during the course of the ship's 28 month mission. This sets up the first bit of pathos, when, in the early stages of the mission, Commander MacDonald (Radovan Lukavsky) talks to his pregnant wife back on Earth through a fading communications linkup. His wife teases him that when he returns, she'll be 15 years older, and he, only having aged a couple of years, won't find her desirable anymore. More to the point, MacDonald sadly observes, is that his child, now in the womb, will be 15 by the time he gets back.
|Anthony the mathematician introduces the captain|
to his "antiquated" robot companion.
While Ikarie is full of such human touches, it also provides high drama without resorting to monsters or ray-gun fights. Midway through the flight, the Ikarie comes upon a mystery spacecraft that's either been abandoned, or is occupied by someone or something that doesn't want to communicate. The captain (Zdenek Stepanek) throws caution to the wind and orders two of his crew to investigate. The ensuing sequence is masterfully done and very believable (see the clip below). The solving of the mystery, which I won't reveal here, is the film's one and only concession to Cold War era "anti-capitalist, anti-warmongering" propaganda.
The climax of the movie involves a mystery illness, a kind of sleeping sickness, that infects the whole crew as the ship draws nearer to the Alpha Centauri system. Most of the crew members recover, but one is so badly affected that he goes mad and endangers the whole mission. We learn in the last few minutes that radiation from a mysterious dark star is to blame, and that some intelligent agency has stepped in to shield the Ikarie from its fatal effects.
|Commanding a starship is lonely work.|
One unfortunate result of the cold war is that Americans never got the opportunity to see some very good films that just happened to be made behind the Iron Curtain, or at best, saw heavily edited and crudely dubbed versions that managed to lose most of the wonder and charm of the originals. American International Pictures (AIP) released a chop-job of Ikarie XB-1 retitled Voyage to the End of the Universe. It shaved 10 minutes from the running time and changed the ending. Avoid this version. I purchased a two-disc set from Sinister Cinema that has both the original Czechoslovakian cut and the AIP U.S.-release version. The original Czech version is a glorious, clean, widescreen print. The less said about AIP's version, the better. Get it, watch it… you won't be disappointed.
Intrepid explorers from the starship Ikarie investigate a mysterious derelict spaceship: