Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Jindrich Polák’s IKARIE XB 1 (1963) is one of the most significant Science fiction films ever made yet it is also relatively unknown even though its fingerprints can be found on numerous Sci-fi works such as Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK series (1966), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and even INTERSTELLAR (2014). In many ways, IKARIE XB 1 laid the template for future sci-fi works, especially regarding the interior spaceship design and multi-national crew, elements that are associated with STAR TREK. Michael Brooke has noted in his IKARIE XB 1 essay that both Gene Roddenberry and Stanley Kubrick had viewed Polák’s film while researching for their works. However, there appears to be more than simple set design that is borrowed from IKARIE XB 1. The camera movements and shots in IKARIE XB 1 around the spaceship command centre/bridge, corridors/hallways and outside the ship have been used in many other films over the decades. In addition, the depiction of crew dynamics and psychology of some crew members is another memorable aspect of IKARIE XB 1, although credit for that can be attributed in part to Stanislaw Lem. 

The names of Pavel Jurácek, Jindrich Polák are listed in the screenplay credits of IKARIE XB 1 but the movie is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem as noted by Allan Fish in his memorable 2015 essay. Lem’s novel ‘Solaris’ is his more famous film adaptation but ‘The Magellan Nebula’ adapted into IKARIE XB 1 deserves worthy praise for exploring the dynamics of a multi-racial/multi-national crew consisting of both sexes and different age groups. Stanislaw Lem is known for his Science fiction writing but he also wrote non-fiction which brimmed with ideas about technology, artificial intelligence (although Lem called it “Intellectronics”), virtual reality (Lem called it “Phantomology”) and man’s place in the universe. Therefore, it is not a surprise that his work helped lay the groundwork for future Sci-fi films which showed machines/computers taking control and humans ultimately losing their mind on board a spaceship. The latter is something shown in IKARIE XB-1, although it takes place long after the music and dancing has stopped, long after all communication has ceased.

IKARIE XB 1 takes place in 2163, two centuries after the film was released in 1963. A multi-national crew is en route to find life in the Alpha Centauri solar system. We meet a captain whose thoughts and concerns are conveyed to us via a voice-over narration (if you listen carefully, you can see the birth of a future Captain Kirk here). The camera moves around the command centre depicting each crew member on their panel, a shot repeated many times in STAR TREK. Initially, we see the crew enjoying themselves, working out in a large gym with enough space for the members to practise gymnastics and even shower together (shown without the nudity of STARSHIP TROOPERS). One character (MacDonald, played by Radovan Lukavský) is shown talking with his wife back home on earth via a giant screen about what it will be like to be reunited with her and their unborn daughter who will be 15 years old when the ship returns to Earth (the father-daughter age gap dynamic is explored further in INTERSTELLAR).

The celebration and crew discussions are suddenly halted when a deserted alien ship is discovered, a story arc explored by numerous films over the years. Although, in the case of IKARIE XB 1, the alien ship turns out to be an old human exploration vessel from 1987. All the crew of the 1987 ship are found dead but their bodies are frozen in the last action they were doing before they met their end. The discovery of the old crew ship sets in motion events which cause confusion and some anxiety in the lives of the Ikarie crew members. In addition, radiation from a nearby dark star threatens their lives leading to one crew member, Michal (Otto Lackovic), losing his wits and demanding to go back to earth. The mental breakdown of a character is now a common element found in many Sci-fi films, an element that leads to either horror or plenty of blood. But in the case of IKARIE XB 1, there isn’t any horror or gory finale related to Michal’s breakdown. Instead, the film ends on a hugely positive note and indicates a new dawn lies in store for the crew.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a Czech film like IKARIE XB 1 laid the foundations for many Sci-fi films set in outer space. After all, it was Karel Čapek’s 1920 Czech play that coined the word ‘robot’, a term that is now forever part and parcel of the Sci-fi genre and even our real world. In a similar manner, Jindrich Polák’s IKARIE XB 1 is a film that is a huge part of the existing Sci-fi genre and contains elements that have been used in many variations in a huge number of memorable Sci-fi films.

Note: cross-published on Wonders in the Dark as part of the Sci-fi countdown.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Calgary International Film Festival 2016

The Calgary International Film Festival’s World Cinema Series provides a snapshot of some of the best contemporary international directors working today in a diverse range of genres. The 26 films in this series cover an entire spectrum of genres – action, adventure, comedy, coming-of-age, crime, drama, fantasy, historical fiction, horror, magic realism, mystery, neo-noir, political, romance, road journey, thriller and science fiction.  There is no Western genre but one of the films pays a delicious tribute to it with a soulful finale (sorry, no spoilers). This series covers six continents, leaving only Antarctica out in the cold, and offers a unique chance to travel the world without leaving the comfort of Calgary! 

Works from many nations are returning to CIFF with two nations making their CIFF debut. MOTHER (Estonia) and BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH (Saudi Arabia) are the first films from their respective nations to ever feature at CIFF. In addition, IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY marks a welcome return for Egypt as it has been more than a decade since an Egyptian film played at CIFF. In addition, there are special returns for two directors, Maren Ade and Park Chan-wook. Maren Ade came to Calgary back in 2009 when her powerful film EVERYONE ELSE competed in the Mavericks category. Now, CIFF is proud to feature her film TONI ERDMANN, which was a critical favourite at Cannes this year, and a front-runner for the Palme D’Or. Park Chan-wook’s SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE showed at the Globe during a midnight slot as part of CIFF 2003. That year, the Korean New Wave of Cinema was just about to take off and Park Chan-wook’s SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and subsequent feature OLDBOY played an integral part in helping put Korean cinema back on the international map in the coming decade. This year, he returns with THE HANDMAIDEN, a film that shows him at the top of his directorial powers. Each film in the World Cinema Series stands on its own in offering a different perspective of cinematic techniques and styles but there are some common elements which bind the works within each region.

Latin American Cinema is lovingly covered by five films at CIFF 2016: BLEAK STREET (Mexico), KILL ME PLEASE (Brazil/Argentina), NERUDA (Chile), ROAD TO LA PAZ (Argentina) and ROSA CHUMBE (Peru). With the exception of NERUDA, the remaining four films give the viewer a multi-layered perspective of contemporary Latin American life and range from a realistic view of street life to middle-class households and a peek at residents living in high-rises. BLEAK STREET is based on a true story, and allows the viewer to see a gritty side of Mexico by depicting events through the intersection of two mini-luchadores and two prostitutes. KILL ME PLEASE is a fascinating mesh of coming-of-age and horror but is also a smart commentary on the new spaces being developed in Brazil. The entire film is set in Barra da Tijuca, a neighbourhood in the West zone of Rio de Janeiro, where new developments were completed in time for the Rio Olympics. Even though the film is set in Rio, there isn’t a beach in sight as the film explores how the new spaces impact the younger generation whose lives are shaped more online. ROAD TO LA PAZ  and ROSA CHUMBE are two completely different films, but are linked together by the soulful journey their main characters undergo. Finally, NERUDA takes us back to the late 1940’s when Pablo Neruda had to leave Chile due to his political affiliations. The film is a blend of fiction and history but it also illustrates the role politics has played in shaping Latin America.

European Cinema is comprehensively covered with a dozen films representing directors hailing from the northern, eastern, western and southern parts of Europe: ADULT LIFE SKILLS (UK), ALOYS (Switzerland/France), AMERICAN HONEY (UK/USA), ETERNAL SUMMER (Sweden), THE MIRACLE OF TEKIR (Romania/Switzerland), MOTHER (Estonia), THE OPEN (France/Belgium/UK), PERSONAL SHOPPER (France), THE STUDENT (Russia), SUNTAN (Greece), TONI ERDMANN (Germany/Austria) and TRESPASS AGAINST US (UK). All of these films are fully developed character-driven stories that are richly shaped by their surroundings. The films may be rooted in a specific country or a location but their messages are universal. This is illustrated perfectly by THE STUDENT (pictured above), a film which shows how differing ideologies can shatter an established system. The film is set in Russia but the messages in the film perfectly explain the current divisive political sentiments in Europe, USA and the rest of the world. AMERICAN HONEY is set in USA but directed by award-winning British filmmaker Andrea Arnold and exhibits how a European cinematic sensibility can be transported to another continent altogether.

Asia is covered from the Middle East to Japan with seven exciting features: BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH (Saudi Arabia), THE HANDMAIDEN (South Korea), HARMONIUM (Japan), ISLAND CITY (India), OLD STONE (Canada/China), ONE WEEK AND A DAY (Israel), and A VERY ORDINARY CITIZEN (Iran). Six of these Asian films are rooted in contemporary times while Park Chan-wook’s stylish thriller THE HANDMAIDEN (pictured above) is set in the 1930s. Park Chan-wook has gone on an opposite path to Andrea Arnold. With AMERICAN HONEY, Arnold transported her British style to America. On the other hand, Park Chan-wook has adopted a Welsh novel (Sarah Walter’s Fingersmith) to 1930s Korea. The remaining six Asian films explore the rules, codes, rituals and family life dynamics found in many Asian countries with treatments ranging from humour to jaw-dropping and nail-biting scenarios. In A VERY ORDINARY CITIZEN, director Majid Barzegar and co-writer Jafar Panahi have creatively shown how romance causes an 80-year-old man’s routine to be altered. Romance also leads to the breaking of protocol in BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH and ISLAND CITY but these films use humour to show their characters journey. The Canadian/Chinese co-production OLD STONE uses a potent mix of neo-noir and cinéma vérité to show how one character’s disobeying bureaucratic rules throws his life into chaos and alienates him from his family. This concept of alienation in a family is also brilliantly covered by ISLAND CITY, ONE WEEK AND A DAY and HARMONIUM; these films show that underneath the surface, a family consists of individuals who lead lives unknown to the other members.

Finally, the multi-award-winning films GIRL ASLEEP (Australia) and IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY (Egypt) powerfully stand-in for their respective continents. The diverse style of films in CIFF’s World Cinema Series has something for everyone, including multiple tantalizing itineraries for a cinematic journey around the world. One proposed itinerary could allow one to start off the morning with freshly baked Sangak/bread in Tehran (A VERY ORDINARY CITIZEN), then join a religious procession in Lima (ROSA CHUMBE), go investigating in the Swiss countryside (ALOYS), head out on a road trip (AMERICAN HONEY, ETERNAL SUMMER, ROAD TO LA PAZ), stop for some shopping in Mumbai (ISLAND CITY), relax on a Greek beach (SUNTAN), rejuvenate with some sacred mud from the Danube (THE MIRACLE OF TEKIR), enjoy a nice Japanese family dinner (HARMONIUM) and stay out all night with close friends watching the sun come up in Cairo (IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY). 

In modern times, technology may have brought the world closer, but understanding the world and other cultures is still an elusive concept. This is where International Cinema plays a crucial role as it gives a peek into other cultures and ways of life. In this regard, Calgary International Film Festival’s World Cinema Series allows the audience to explore the world without having to buy an expensive plane ticket.