Alpha Centauri is the final destination in Jindřich Polák’s Ikarie XB-1 —but good luck wanting to leave the spaceship. In this retelling of Lem’s The Magellanic Cloud, which has never been translated into English, we first meet the Ikarie’s crew while they’re en route to look for life in our closest star system. But “close” is relative when you’re in space, and especially when you’re traveling 4.37 light-years away. Fortunately, the Ikarie comes across as a futuristic resort, complete with a gym and a party space, all rendered in a chic ’60s geometric minimalism that almost feels like it was dreamed by Don Draper—the crew even loves swaying to some collision of contemporary classical and Juan Garcia Esquivel-style lounge music.
Polák encourages us to luxuriate in Jan Zázvorka’s production design during the first chunk of the movie, which sets aside plot to focus on the crew’s day-to-day activities and cultivate their headspaces as they travel further away from home. Time dilation plays a role in their homesickness, all too aware that when they return, they’ll only have aged 28 weeks while 15 years will have passed on Earth. Polák finds creative ways to talk about the crew’s memories of home—in a particularly cool production design touch, the crew pass around scented cigarettes whose aromas remind them of seasons on Earth—but he never exhausts these emotions, knowing when to pivot from meditation back to action. Before getting to Alpha Centauri, the Ikarie—named for Icarus, depending on how much you want to read into subtext—must contend with another unidentified spaceship, and later, mysterious radiation from a dark star.
The design of Ikarie’s hallways and spacesuits might tip you off to the fact that Stanley Kubrick watched this movie over and over while preparing for 2001. Both films feature crucial video call scenes, and though they might look similar on the surface, the tenderness of Polák’s close-ups sets them in totally different emotional registers. While Kubrick puts his characters in a photo booth–sized vestibule, Polák gives his ship a wall-to-wall video feed, blowing his crew members’ loved ones up to a larger-than-life scale. Kubrick’s better than anyone at crafting an existentially harrowing trip into the unknown, but Ikarie sees the journey outwards from Earth as equally rattling.