‘Twitting a little girl that is what you’re into.’
Approaching the orbit of Jupiter, spaceship Ikarus receives some strange signals, apparently originating from the gas giant and possibly indicating intelligent life. Moments later, the ship is hit by a swarm of meteorites, and contact with Earth is lost. A mission to investigate their fate is mounted and reaches the region almost a year later…
East German/Polish co-production directed by Gottfried Kolditz that was at least partially inspired by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic milestone didn’t spawn all that many imitators, simply because recreating its amazing visuals took a serious budget. Still, the Eastern Bloc had a long-running love affair with cerebral science-fiction, and the model work and SFX realised here are certainly acceptable for the era when the film was made, if not in the league of Kubrick’s masterpiece.
Starship Ikarus is an exploratory vessel, reaching the orbit of Jupiter on a mission of scientific discovery. The crew start picking up strange radio signals that seem to indicate an intelligent origin, but joy is short-lived as disaster strikes. The ship is attacked by that scourge of 1950s fictional astronauts: the deadly shower of meteorites. We see the damaged ship start to break apart, and, back on Earth, the vessel is presumed lost with all hands.
Senior astronaut Commander Veikko (Piotr Pawlowski) puts together a followup mission with the spaceship Laika. This seems to be a controversial enterprise for some reason, although we never really find out just why. The only obvious problem would seem to be his choice of crew. There’s veteran Gaston (Helmut Schreiber) who is approaching his 25th year in the space program (too old), and Pawel (Evgeniy Zharikov) who may be too emotionally involved because his irlfriend Krystina (Karin Ugowski) was on the Ikarus. Also along for the ride are genius radio man Konrad (Alfred Müller), new girl Juana (Irena Karel) and medical doctor Samira (Soheir El-Morshidy) among others.
The film’s major problem is that none of these characters are remotely interesting. Sure, Schrieber is a little bit of a prankster who has a built a trashcan robot, Müller is a genius but vaguely unpopular, and Karel is the new girl, but that’s about it. The only mildly interesting character beat is when hotshot Terry (Gojko Mitic) fakes hesitation during an EVA to boost Zharijkov’s faltering confidence.
This lack of engaging characters becomes a serious problem because they only reach the scene of the Ikarus disaster with about a quarter of an hour of the film remaining, and director Kolditz has little offer in the way of philosophical insights along the way. As might be expected, there are also problems with director’s vision of our space-going future. The interior of both spaceships is massive, with apparently enough room for every member of the crew to have a cabin bigger than my current living space! The predicted technology on display also looks very dated when viewed from almost half a century later. Control panels favour large knobs rather than push buttons or keyboards, paper readouts are consulted, and the crew make notes in logbooks with what look suspiciously like ballpoint pens. Obviously, that can be forgiven to some extent, and Kolditz does have a good stab and recreating some of the zero-gravity shots from Kubrick’s masterpiece, but that’s not nearly enough to keep the audience engaged.
There’s also a rather strange sequence where the crew celebrate the anniversary of Schrieber’s quarter-century in space by showing him a short animated film that they’ve created about him. This wouldn’t be so odd if it weren’t happening with barely half an hour of the film remaining! Shouldn’t we be working our way towards some sort of a climax by now?
When we do reach the remains of the Ikarus, it appears that the meteorites have fused with the metal of the ship, rather than passing right through it. This might be scientifically possible for all I know, but it would have been nice to have some kind of explanation, even a spurious one. Again, some of the plot points in the later stages lack clarity, but that could have been down to the English subtitles on the print that I viewed.
Serious-minded 1970s science-fiction from the Eastern Bloc was always a cinema about ideas, rather than action, and it’s an approach to be applauded. Unfortunately, there’s a distinct lack of them here, and that makes for a seriously dull experience.
The Laika takes 300 days to reach its destination and, by the time the credits rolled, I felt like I’d lived through every one.