My 25-Year Voyage to IKARIE XB-1

|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 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.

While this stylish film wasn’t widely seen in the west, it 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.

It’s very exciting for me personally that the film is coming to the Trylon as part of the summer space series. It’s screening July 14 – 16, and I want to thank Trylon programmer John Moret for booking it. Promotional support for the film is being provided by Marit Lee Kucera, Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic. Don’t miss it.

Ikarie XB-1 plays at the Trylon starting on Sunday, July 14. Visit Trylon’s website to purchase tickets or for more information.

SOLARIS in Twelve Images

|Matt Levine|

I.

Green seaweed floating in a rippling current. A green so lush only film could create it. The first shot of Solaris sets up its main tension: nature as mystical, unknowable, beyond the grasp of human control. A leaf floats across the water, fiery orange. Blades of grass shoot upward through the frame, violent and serene. Is this planet Earth?

II.

We’re at a secluded lake house, a place of memory and longing for psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), whose father owns the home. A birdcage is placed next to an open window, two yellow birds chirping stupidly inside. Throughout Solaris, humans will frequently resemble these oblivious canaries, trapped in a different kind of cage.

“I don’t like innovation,” says Kris’ father (Nikolai Grinko). His son is the antithesis, a cold and logical pragmatist who believes science has replaced morality.

A downpour rages suddenly, cascading down, though it’s still bright and sunny and the raindrops are radiant. Water reappears often throughout the movie, a force beyond human control, a reminder of our weakness.  

III.

A staggering still life. A table in the rainstorm: blue-and-white china, saucer overflowing with tepid tea and rainwater, a few cherries, a half-eaten apple overrun with ants. How and why is this so beautiful? The tableau resembles one of the baroque still lifes that Tarkovsky, an art student, loved so much, but this shot epitomizes his idea that cinema is “sculpting in time.”

IV.

A film within a film within a film: we watch government bureaucrats view footage that a cosmonaut named Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) had taken of the planet Solaris. The scene with the Soviet minions is in monochrome black-and-white, overplaying the depiction of politics as mind-numbing, soul-crushing tedium.

But then we cut to the ravishing, full-color footage that Burton had filmed of the mysterious planet, all roiling clouds, sun-drenched light, and radiant, dazzling hues. It resembles the experimental cinema of Jordan Belson.

Afterwards, we cut back to the colorless world of the bureaucrats.

“Is that it?” one of the men asks. “That’s all of your film?”

“But we don’t understand,” says another. “You filmed clouds.”

We find Tarkovsky in a rare, self-reflexive mode, brushing off the censors and critics who found his work inscrutable. Maybe they weren’t meant to understand it.

V.

We’re driving into the city, twisting highways, anonymous cars going nowhere. The footage was shot outside of Tokyo and Kyoto, and Tarkovsky probably included long chunks of it to justify the travel visas obtained for the filmmakers. The winding roads are beautiful but impersonal, dystopian; as in Godard’s Alphaville, it only took filming on contemporary streets to evoke a world of futuristic malaise.

VI.

The rocket has launched, hurtling toward Solaris. Kris is in the cockpit, a shard of light falling over his eyes; soon, the camera will swoon acrobatically, superimpositions conveying the visceral assault of space flight. We are firmly in the field of science fiction now. Inevitably, the comparison is the “Stargate” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, so often seen as Solaris’ counterpart, though they’re very different movies: one about the need for human connection, the other about God and self-destruction.

Then, the space station appears to us, glimpsed amid clouds through the cockpit window. It hovers over an endless sea. It’s beautiful and terrifying.

VII.

The interior of the space station is a wonder of Soviet psychedelic futurism, gleaming metallic surfaces, curving centrifugal halls, little blinking knobs and dials, a deep crimson darker than the Russian flag. Kris wears a black leather jacket, yellow mesh shirt, harness with heavy straps and buckles, looking like he’ll reappear in Fassbinder’s Querelle a decade later. Solaris is a fascinating time capsule of the U.S.S.R in 1972; it’s timely and modish without even trying.

VIII.

On the door of one of the living quarters, there is a childlike drawing, the stuff of nightmares. Scrawled in dark marker with globs of ink: “CHELOVEK.” Human being. A monstrous drawing of a stick figure in red, its torso bloated, its fingers elongating in scarecrow-like stalks, a furious scowl on its face beneath a shock of red hair like a mohawk of needles. Something blue is tied around its neck—a scarf or, more likely, a noose. Two yellow stains to the left on the paper, a nauseating shade of yellow, like urine or vomit. Add horror to the mix of genre inflections that Tarkovsky includes in Solaris.

IX.

She is viewed in close-up, the lower half of her face—the “guest” that has been conjured by the oceans of Solaris, the manifestation of Kris’ dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). The side lighting accentuates the brown-red glow of her hair, and brings out the slight down on her cheeks and above her lips. Coming after a long stretch of black-and-white imagery, this shot is as striking and wounded as the reappearance of something unattainable should be.

X.

“Part Two” opens with a shot that could be straight out of Barbarella: Kris and Hari in tight white suits, entering a cavernous room on the space station. It’s at moments like these where Tarkovsky’s lofty ambitions and the sci-fi trappings work against each other in tense (and highly enjoyable) ways. The tension is made clearer with a tracking shot that stares down into a black void—the abyss of human existence? These shots of rockets perched in the darkness and smoke being sucked into a cosmic expanse may have influenced the most jaw-dropping shot in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century

XI.

In the posh, green-walled library on the space station, where the four characters (three human, one something else) meet, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting “Hunters in the Snow” hangs. Tarkovsky uses this as an excuse to explore the images in its frame, zooming into it, panning across it, visiting the world it painstakingly evokes. The beauty and dedication of this art is presented as the film’s main conflict, between the greatness that humanity is capable of and the brutality it so often creates. It is yet another example of Tarkovsky’s indebtedness to painting, utterly transformed by the moving image—sculpting in time.

XII.

During 30 seconds of weightlessness, a candelabra with flaming candles soars toward the ceiling of the library. It passes behind a chandelier, its fiery light refracted through the glass and crystals. It’s a euphoric moment,  followed up by one of Tarkovsky’s few concessions to sentimentality: Kris and Hari floating in midair, holding hands, in love.

We cut to another abstract shot of Solaris, apparently responding to their pleasure; whirlpools and eddies flare in the bright purple ocean, a symbol for a shared, universal consciousness in which human love transforms the topography of the cosmos. 

And then the shattering aftereffect, not to be reproduced here—a devastating moment of violence and loss. Who is to blame?

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Solaris plays at the Trylon starting on Sunday, July 7. Visit Trylon’s website to purchase tickets or for more information.

Where Are We Now: MOON, 10 Years In Retrospect

|Benjamin Savard|

Art by Benjamin Savard

[ S P O I L E R S ]

The power of Moon is in its subtlety. Science fiction is best known for grandiose visions of the future: unfathomable leaps in technology, powerful alien beings, and conflicts beyond the confines of earth. But Duncan Jones’ 2009 film fits into the tradition of speculative stories told on a smaller scale. Moon limits the scientific progress to a few impressive but feasible jumps and keeps its focus almost entirely on one man in one location. The differences between the film’s reality and our own are minor compared to many others in the genre. What makes Moon’s future interesting aren’t the things that change, but the things that remain the same. Ten years ago Jones presented a vision of the future where technology has taken a plausible route toward immense progress but where corporations still attempt to exploit underclasses for profit. 

There was a time when “energy” was a dirty word. When turning on your lights was a hard choice. Cities in brownout, food shortages, cars burning fuel to run.

The minute-long promotional video that opens the film describes the global threats that come from the burning of fossil fuels. For audiences in 2009 and 2019 alike, this isn’t science fiction, it’s reality. The calm narration is accompanied by real footage of war, famine, and pollution. Through this, Jones signals that the world we are entering is firmly rooted in the one we know. The issues of this fictional world were once the same as ours: climate change, conflict over resources, and ecological crises. 

“But that was the past” says the Lunar Industries’ narrator of our problems. The answer is the company’s breakthrough in fusion power. With clean, ample energy provided by the moon’s stores of helium-3, the scarcity and environmental degradation of the early 21st century is no more. It would seem that we, as viewers, aren’t entering some dystopian future, we are getting out of our dystopian present.

The sequence fits the mold of many predecessors: speculative fiction films often borrow the credibility and assumed objectivity of newsreels to quickly establish settings. But unlike Citizen Kane’s “News on the March” or the riot montage in 28 Days Later, Jones begins the film with an advertisement. Moon’s introduction is told from a specific perspective: that of the company. The video’s authoritative voice mimics the tone of a news anchor, pushing the audience to believe the general truth of the future being shown. But the more we learn about the company later in the film, the more we question their authority. We felt like we were being informed in the introductory video, when we were really being sold something. Lunar Industries promised salvation from some of the world’s biggest problems, but they did not tell us the cost.

Jones expressed a desire to make a science fiction film for a sci-fi-literate audience — a film that would play with genre expectations and explore “fundamental human questions.” When writing and directing Moon, he achieved this by limiting the story’s scope. Locations are kept to only the moonbase and one rover. Technologies are either upgrades to existing tech or now ones based in sound theory. Most importantly, there are only three major characters: Sam I , Sam II, and Gerty. As a result, the setting feels plausible and intimate, the characters feel three-dimensional and realized. Thus the film provides Jones with a sandbox where he can play with tropes, subvert expectations, and ask the fundamental question: how much “humanity” does one need to deserve human rights?

Not one of the three major characters in Moon is conventionally human. Jones focuses the story on two clones and a robot who is intelligent but “not fully sentient.” Cloning and AI represent two very different ways of attempting to replicate humankind, and Jones uses our expectations of each to explore the characters’ humanity. Sam I and Gerty appear first. Upon introduction, we have no reason to doubt Sam I’s humanity and we have no reason to believe in Gerty’s. Sam I looks and acts like a conventional human and Gerty sounds and acts like a cross between Siri and HAL 9000. It is only as the story progresses that Jones flips these initial impressions. With the clone reveal, the film casts doubt on Sam’s authenticity. Through Gerty’s unexpected choices, we understand it is more human than it first appeared.

Despite the questions raised about who’s the “real” Sam, the film strongly affirms that the cloned Sams are just as human as the original. In fact, the emotional weight of the film is predicated on an acceptance that clones are beings worthy of full moral consideration, despite their artificial genesis. Jones helps to ensure this by keeping the perspective of the film with the Sams and depicting their human qualities beyond any doubt: moral reasoning, emotional pain, altruism, etc. These story choices urge the viewer to align themselves with the clones and understand that they don’t deserve the life that Lunar Industries has forced upon them. 

Gerty’s humanity is more ambiguous. Jones himself characterized Gerty’s actions as just part of its programming. However, the choices that Gerty makes in order to lead Sam II to the truth go beyond Jones’ characterization. Letting Sam II go outside and then giving him the password to the video system both explicitly go against its programming. When asked about Gerty’s inspiration, Jones pointed in part to the philosopher Daniel Dennet’s work on applying moral philosophy to machines. Dennet posits that any artificial being with self-awareness is functionally equivalent to a human, morally speaking. Gerty might not have human-level sentience, but its actions indicate that it has agency and a moral compass. This is what makes the decision to let Sam II wipe its memory so meaningful. Gerty downplays the effects, but in order to give Sam a chance at survival it is willing to lose its relationship with Sam and revert to a more primitive version of itself. It is only through the combined sacrifices of Sam I and Gerty that Sam II is able to escape: two artificial beings tapping into their humanity to help combat injustice. But what to make of that injustice?

The conflicts at the heart of Moon are undergirded by a quest, not for knowledge or human advancement, but profit. Internally the Sams struggle to understand their identity and externally they struggle to escape the moonbase. In both circumstances, Lunar Industries is the true enemy. The company created them, lied to them on an existential level, and forced them to work under false pretenses. The film’s introduction made Lunar Industries seem like the ideal capitalist solution to the world’s problems: The company has solved the energy crisis, helped avert global conflict, and counteracted climate change. And yet, they still engage in nakedly evil practices to pad their bottom line: Lunar Industries fabricated their own workforce in order to enslave them. 

A generous reading of the company’s actions might suggest that they genuinely believe that clones are not fully human and thus their exploitative practices are morally acceptable. However, the film provides explicit evidence that Lunar Industries knows better. They do not just clone Sam, they implant his memories into every subsequent copy. The false beliefs instilled in the clones — that each one is naturally human, he has a family to return to, and he will live a normal lifespan — are tools of control. Lunar Industries knowingly causes emotional distress to squeeze productivity out of their employees. The company must believe in Sam’s humanity because they use it as a weapon against him. What makes their treatment of the clones even more morally abhorrent is that it is clear that they would still be incalculably profitable without it. No company can hold 70% of the earth’s energy market and not have the funds to hire a reasonable number of workers for that moonbase. The company already has unfathomable profits and chooses to abuse human rights to add just a little bit more. Amongst all the fictional changes to reality in Moon, it is still a world where corporations exploit underclasses, even if they have to manufacture them. 

Moon had its wide release in the aftermath of the financial collapse. The film received much acclaim for its “scientific realism” even from aerospace engineers after a screening at NASA. However, in the midst of the great recession, the film felt just as sound in its social realism. The subprime mortgage crisis had demonstrated that there was no depth to which financial institutions wouldn’t stoop when defrauding working-class people. The unemployment rate hit its nadir while Moon was still in theaters. Sam traded three years with his family for a steady paycheck. The desperation that must have led him to that choice seemed all too real to audiences in 2009.

In the final sequence of the film, Sam II is able to make his escape. As he flies off, we hear scraps of news bulletins relating to the fallout from his arrival. The first of these states that Lunar Industries stocks are falling, hinting that the public might feel the same way as we do about the treatment of the clones. Jones himself described the film has having a “hopeful ending.” However, the last news snippet comes from a broadcast of another sort and muddies the waters about Sam II’s future:

You know what? He’s one of two things: He’s a wacko or an illegal immigrant. Either way, they need to lock him up!

The line is played for laughs. It was written to parody of a type of conservative media that was familiar to audiences in 2009. That year, The O’Reilly Factor was the #1 show on cable news. Rush Limbaugh was the highest rated voice in talk radio. Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity had both just started their own solo shows on Fox News. The line could have been lifted straight from the desk of Stephen Colbert, who had recently won an Emmy for a similar caricature. I laughed at that line the first time I saw the film. I distinctly remember telling my friends that Moon was great and citing the final scene as what clinched it for me. Ten years on, the line no longer feels like satire.

Conservative media, by definition, has a slant. But was in the years after President Obama took office that they shed even the vaguest attempts at fairness or veracity. This accelerating decline can been seen in such fabricated scandals as Michelle Obama’s “proud of my country” line, President Obama saluting troops while holding a cup, and Hillary Clinton coughing. It is even more evident when examining the baseless conspiracies that right-wing media have turned mainstream: birtherism, death panels, Benghazi, private email servers, migrant caravans, and others. Fox News and like-minded talk radio have spent the past ten years leaning fully into the grift and white nationalism at the heart of American conservatism. And they have managed to set the national news agenda while doing it. (Not one of the above citations is from conservative sources because nonpartisan outlets have allowed conservative media to dictate the definition of “newsworthy,” lending legitimacy to right-wing lies and Trump’s agitprop.) 

In the decade since Moon premiered, Fox News and conservative radio have slid from easy-to-parody to impossible-to-parody. The film’s final lines are meant to be funny, but in a literal sense, they are an attempt to dehumanize and otherize Sam II as a pretense for “locking him up.” Far from being science fiction, this is the central way that conservative powers have justified the incarceration of millions of black, brown, and economically vulnerable people. It is part of the method they have used in stoking white resentment into greater power and greater inequality. The notion that Fox News would argue against the humanity of an enslaved human clone to help boost the profit of a private corporation is as plausible as any part of the film. We have seen how conservative media treats people who deviate from the traditionally white, cishet, male norm they propagate; is there any doubt how they would treat someone who deviates from the notion of “traditionally human”?

In Moon, we see only the quickest glimpses of the world back on earth: two video calls and two pieces of broadcast media. The film’s limited scope is what allows Jones to “focus on what it is to be a human being” — exploring the moral questions raised by Sam’s cloning before affirming his humanity beyond any doubt. The messages we hear from earth are brief, but serve as vital context for Sam’s story. The opening video establishes the time and place he inhabits, the video calls reveal the ways he has been deceived, and the final broadcasts hint that his struggles will continue once the credits roll. Since the film was released, however, these messages resonate in new and significant ways. There have always been organizations willing to cause suffering for money and Moon is predicated on the idea that there always will be. This seemed plausible in 2009 and after another decade of corporate malfeasance, it feels just about inevitable. Most striking of all, Moon’s final lines subtly predicted the exact means by which conservative media would justify that suffering and sell it to audiences for a share of the profits. 

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Michelle Baroody

Moon begins playing at the Trylon on Sunday, June 30 thru Tuesday, July 2. To purchase tickets or for more information, please visit the website.