We've reached yet another film that's lurked on my watch list for many years. Back when I had Netflix, Solaris held a permanent place in the top 10 but never reached my house. The 1972 adaptation of the novel from Polish writer Stanislav Lem has appeared in numerous critics' lists of the greatest films of all time. It also won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake maintains a similar feeling but diverts significantly from the original. It chops the running time to 99 minutes and creates a new experience. In the original, Andrey Tarkovsky delivers a personal epic that explores sci-fi territory but in a much different way. It might not have the same legacy as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, but its characters are a lot more interesting.
What's this story about?
Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) journeys to the space station hovering over the planet of Solaris to assess the progress of the scientific expedition. After learning some troubling details from pilot Henri Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), he arrives to find a messy station. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Sartorious (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) are distant and mysterious, and this is just the beginning. When he receives a visit from a copy of his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), Kris begins to question his sanity. She looks like his wife but retains none of her memories. It's clear that Solaris is more than just a water planet, and the personal connection makes it even more difficult to find a clear solution to this mystery.
Why has it taken me so long to see this movie?
Science fiction is one of my favorite genres, but the prospect of watching a slow-moving 165-minute film seemed troublesome. It's one of those classics that I knew should be seen, yet setting aside the time was more problematic. This is the key reason why I put this film on the List of Shame series. I recognize that my thinking was idiotic, but that doesn't change the personal obstacle. It's a sad fact, but I had to force myself to sit down and watch this critically acclaimed Tarkovsky movie. It was also my first experience with the famous Russian director, so his work is an additional blind spot for me.
Does the story hold up well today?
This response varies depending on which present-day films are set up for comparison. If you enjoy more thoughtful sci-fi films like Duncan Jones' Moon, the slower pace shouldn't be a problem. On the other hand, anyone expecting more thrills will be disappointed. Tarkovsky delves into serious intellectual concepts about what it means to be truly human. Kris is still trying to recover from his wife's suicide, and he walks like he's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Meeting the alternate version of Hari raises his spirits, but it also introduces new questions about this entity's identity. He freaks out and gets rid of her, but another version appears. The otherworldly elements remain stunning today, and Kris' confusion over how to treat this vision of his dead wife is understandable. It's an intriguing story that remains powerful if you stick with the deliberate approach.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
One benefit of the longer running time is the chance to get to know the characters very well. We follow Kris throughout the journey and share his experiences, and that connection enhances the story's power. Tarkovsky also keeps Snaut and Sartorious mysterious, which increases our interest in those grumpy characters. Their sadness presents a possible destination for Kris as he's drawn further into the environment. An interesting early figure is Burton, a once-promising astronaut who's been permanently scarred by his experiences on Solaris. Before he departs from Earth, Kris watches a video of Burton describing an unexplained moment from his expedition. Looking much older and haggard, he reveals the negative effects for humans who venture into the mind-numbing atmosphere.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
Solaris has a modest budget yet still provides remarkable visual moments. One highlight shows Kris and Hari floating inside the station during a brief moment of weightlessness. It's a quiet and beautiful scene that contrasts sharply with the clinical feeling of much of the story. Vadim Yusov's gorgeous cinematography includes clever shifts between color and black and white that match the emotions of each scene. Even the straightforward footage of traffic flowing down the highways on Earth is stunning and creates the right mood for the early scenes. I should also mention the ending, which is wide open to interpretation. I won't give away the particulars but will say that the ambiguity really worked for me. It's a fitting emotional conclusion for Kris even if we're not entirely sure of what we're seeing.
How does this beloved film live up to the hype?
I have seen the remake but still wasn't sure what to expect from the original. I'm happy to report that it exceeded my expectations. I watched this film on my personal DVD player while commuting to work and actually boarded the wrong train. This rarely happens and shows how engaged I was with Solaris. Tarkovsky's languid approach is just right and draws you completely into that world. It's sci-fi on the most intimate level that's so different from the standard genre fare. We only scratch the surface of what can happen on this planet, which opens up the possibilities for our minds to fill in the missing details.