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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Voyage to the End of the Universe

American International Pictures bought the rights the 1963 Czech film Ikarie XB-1. They edited it in some minor ways, dubbed into english and changed the ending to significantly alter the macro-story. Given a new (and somewhat over-lofty) new title, Voyage to the End of the Universe (VEU) was second-feature material and fodder for late night television for decades.

Quick Plot Synopsis
(This is a review of AIP's dubbed version) The movie opens with a deranged crewman of an interstellar space ship. The rest of the crew are trying to reason with him. The story flashes back to before Michael contracted radiation sickness. The Ikarie and its crew have been traveling for months. Their mission is to explore a "green planet" thought to harbor life. Several sub-plots paint the crew as human, for better or worse. A formal dinner & dance party is interrupted by alarms. The Ikarie has encountered a derelict ship. Two men fly over in one of the saucers to investigate. Aboard the derelict, everyone is dead. Scenes of money, gambling and weapons suggest western decadence and belligerence. One of the Ikarie's men accidently triggers a nuclear bomb aboard. They try to escape but do not. The ship blows up. The two deaths exacerbate stresses among the crew. Two other men, Michael and Svensen work outside the Ikarie to install the spare saucer. A mysterious black nebula appears ahead of the Ikaria. The crew develop a sleepy sickness. Some fear doom in going to sleep, but cannot resist. Everyone eventually falls asleep. After a prolonged sleep, they awaken safe. Anthony theorizes that some vague intelligence protected them from radiation of the dark star/nebula. Michael and Svensen, who were outside, show signs of radiation exposure. Michael, delusional about mission failure, barricades himself in a vital part of the ship. (this is where the movie began, so now we're up to real-time) MacDonald gets around the sealed corridors via air shafts. He coaxes Michael to surrender peacefully. The Ikarie approaches the Green Planet. Stephie's baby is born. Everyone is happy. Everyone looks in eager anticipation as they descend on the Green Planet. The clouds part to reveal New York City! (I kid you not) The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The production values and set design have a clear 60s look. VEU has the feel of the original Star Trek series, with diverse (and co-ed) crew of small city-like interstellar ship, exploring new worlds, etc.

Cold War Angle
Downplayed somewhat in AIP's edit, but still evident, is the subtly-delivered dig at The West, aboard the derelict Tornado. The dead are dressed in formal wear (symbolic of capitalist largesse). They died around a gambling table (symbolic of western decadence). The crew apparently shot each other (symbolic of western belligerence). The Tornado was full of nukes (a "western" obsession). The original version was more blatant about the corrupt West.

The New Ending -- AIP cut many minutes of the original, mostly character development, to shorten run time. They inserted several seconds of stock footage of New York City -- most notably the Statue of Liberty -- at the very end. This completely remade the whole story. In the original, the Ikarie flew from earth to a "White Planet" in the Alpha Centauri system. There, at the end, they see an expansive hyper-modern alien city. We are not alone! In AIP's revision, the crew of the Ikarie turn out to be the aliens. All mention of "earth" is scrupulously avoided. They came to the Green Planet, which turns out to be earth. Given the fragmented script (cuts and dubs), one could be forgiven for thinking that maybe the Ikarie had come from earth only to find themselves back at earth, or maybe at a different time. This doesn't seem to be what AIP intended, however.

From Sub to City -- The space ship Ikarie is a radical departure from the 50s way of imagining space travel. It was not the usual claustrophobic tubular transport that resembled a submarine -- full of pipes and valves, tiny hatches and little ladders. The Ikarie, with its multiple spacious decks, lounge, sick-bay, exercise gym, cafeteria, etc., was really a small city among the stars. It's crew were not confined to mechanized pressure-suits and helmets, strapped into padded chairs. They wore shirts & pants (or frilly dresses), danced to avant gard "music", etc. The Ikaria, with it's near-light engines, was capable of more than solar-system travel. In this sense, the Ikarie was the first modern (60s and later) star ships. Yes, the star cruiser N-57D was similar in range, back in 1956. It was a military craft that still had that submarine feel -- more of a small naval frigate than a cruise ship.

Pre-2001 -- Stanley Kubrick is said to have had "Voyage to the End of the Universe" as a working title for his space epic, later titled, 2001: A Space Odyssey. VEU was out soon enough to have been an influence. There are a few affinities between VEU and 2001, but just as many divergences.

Kumbyah -- A subtle message that still survived AIP's dub, is that if we all just play nice and get along, mankind could really go places. Viewers will note the lack of fist fights or treachery. Disagreements might get voices raised a bit, but in the end, authority is respected. Even the deranged Michael is dealt with gently and humanely as his friend coaxes him into surrendering. Their reward for all this trust and civility, is getting to visit our space neighbors (quietly assumed to be equally benevolent). This alien-optimism was common in Soviet-block sci-fi. Recall the aliens in A Dream Come True or Planeta Bur.

Deadly Century -- Less clear in the AIP version, but more clear in the original, is the traditional cautionary moral wrapped up in the derelict ship Tornado. In the original, it is from earth, in the year 1987. In AIP's edit, it is from "their" world about 300 years earlier. In the original film, there were canisters of a deadly gas nicknamed "Tigger Fun". It was "the so-called clean weapon from the end of the 20th century." When the Tornado was running low on air, the military men in command used Tigger Fun to kill the others so as to save the remaining air for themselves. When that ran low, they then fought each other. "Vultures," mutters Erik. These clear anti-western bits were edited out via the english dub.

Little John -- The robot in VEU seems like an attempt to include a high-tech element. Where the robot "John" was a major player in Planeta Bur, or "Omega" in Der Schweigende Stern (First Space Ship on Venus). They were the Eastern Block's answer to Robby in Forbidden Planet, Anthony's robot "Patrick" is neither more intelligent nor strong. In fact, Anthony has to control him with a remote control. Patrick comes off as a large toy, not a modern techno-wonder.

Midlin' Models -- There is extensive use of models in Ikarie. They aren't too bad for detail and have a "modern" 60s look to them. No big-fin cigar shaped rockets. The action with the models is clearly not as skilled as Toho Studios. The look obviously suspended by wires.

Loose End Ending -- In the original Ikarie, the mysterious force that protected the crew is inferred to have come from the advanced civilization on the "White Planet." AIP's re-edit has the Ikarie come from some other planet, to earth -- the "Green Planet." All well and good, but where did this protective force come from? The New York City shown in the aerial clips is clearly a vintage 1950s or 60s city. Were the AIP editors inferring that there is some vague benevolent (and powerful) intelligence floating near Earth? Perhaps something divine, as Anthony suggests in the original?

Bottom line? AIP's edits make VEU a bit disjointed at times, but it is still a watchable movie with a decidedly Star Trek feel to it. The re-release of the original Czech version (with subtitles) is a higher quality print. Though longer, and a bit dialogue-heavy, has a smoother story line.


Anonymous said...

Confusing. At least now I know why the Tigger Fun went missing 2nd time I saw it.

Randall Landers said...

Found the original on YouTube, and watched it *CC on* and was very impressed. Top notch story!