#196 Solaris

(1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)

“We seek contact and will never achieve it”

SPACE! Many movies have talked about, many have visited it for extensive periods of time, but very rarely do we have movies pondering the very nature of space itself. But in 1972, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky made Solaris, a movie that looked into space and then asked “what the hell is going on?” Which is the very same question that much of the audience will be asking while watching the movie.

Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is a psychologist about to embark on a mission to a remote space station orbiting the distant ocean planet of Solaris. The crew has apparently lost their minds and it’s up to Kelvin to head up there and use his psychology powers to save them. Before he leaves, he’s visited by an astronaut from a previous mission, Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who brings tapes of his report on his time on the station, where he reported seeing a 12-foot child emerging from the oceans of Solaris, and was dismissed as a lunatic (surely not?).

However, when Kelvin gets to Solaris, he discovers that things really are pretty weird up there. He begins to really freak out, however, when his dead ex-wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) turns up on the station and starts being all spooky.

Solaris is an odd movie, as if that description hadn’t made this clear. Its running time approaches three hours, and this is because it likes to draw out absolutely everything it possibly can. In fact, the movie takes a good 45 minutes to even get to the titular planet, largely because everything is stretched out with excessive navel gazing and arbitrary weirdness. Essentially, this movie is the Russian 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The key thing I picked up was just how hard the movie was trying to be deep and philosophical at the expense of everything else. In fact, much of the time it’s like Tarkovsky stuck far too well to the “show don’t tell” rule of screenwriting and directing, by showing us a whole lot of things, but successfully not telling us anything. Ever.

We spend a lot of time around Kelvin on Earth early on, as he reflects on how he’ll probably not see any of the people he knows ever again due to the long space journey. However, the movie neglects to tell us who Kelvin actually is, and expecting us to read his mind somehow, and so we’re just staring at a strange man burning his possessions for seemingly no reason after another strange man showed him a video about 12-foot alien children. In fact, we don’t even learn that he’s a psychologist until he’s actually on the station. Remember, that was 45 minutes in, a long time to establish a pretty big key point about who the hell this guy is.

We learn other important things at really odd times. Not just Kelvin’s job and key reason he’s going to the station in the first place, but also who the mysterious woman in his quarters is, which we don’t learn until after he’s attempted to blast her into space, which isn’t really a logical reaction to seeing a strange woman in your bedroom, let’s be honest. If we’d known who she was before this, I wouldn’t have been so confused about why he immediately shot her into space. Let me reiterate: a strange woman appears and our “hero” immediately chucks her into space. Let that really sink in.

Think the movie’s done with its unnecessary weirdness? Oh my dear reader, we’ve only just begun. One of the station’s residents is trying to hide that there’s some weird midget hanging out in his room. Why? We never find out!

That guy from a previous mission who talks about the 12-foot alien children? After visiting Kelvin, he drives home and the soundtrack swells into tuneless bass-heavy distortion and a bunch of filters are hung over shots of traffic. It felt like a PSA about the importance of good road management as edited by a hippy on extremely strong LSD. Why was it in the movie? I don’t know! Art, I guess!

But apparently it all means something, because in case you didn’t realise Solaris was super-ultra-philosophical, it likes to quote philosophers. All the time. Characters practically converse in philosophy quotes, and it’s all very silly.

It doesn’t help that there’s barely any chemistry between Kelvin and Hari, despite being a man reunited with an extraterrestrial facsimile of his ex-wife. His emotional reaction to her is either utterly bored by her presence, or trying to shoot her into space (did I mention that this was his first reaction to seeing her? Oh, I did? Well, I told you again). There’s supposed to be emotional conflict here, judging from the dialogue and the way the fellow station residents react to him, but it doesn’t show up that well.

All of this plus an incredibly obtuse ending make for a movie that tries too hard to be something big and important and thought-provoking, but the only thought Solaris provoked in me was “why doesn’t this just end?”

Starring Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko & Anatoly Solonitsyn
Written by Stanislaw Lem (novel) and Fridrikh Gorenshtein & Andrei Tarkovsky
Produced by Viacheslav Tarasov
Music by Eduard Artemyev
Cinematography by Vadim Yusov
Edited by Lyudmila Feiginova

Favourite Scene: To be fair, the story about the 12-foot alien child was pretty intriguing

Watch it if: You liked 2001
Avoid it if: You like it when movies refuse to tell you anything important


Posted on June 25, 2013, in 1970s, Russia / Soviet Union, Sci Fi and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Have you seen the 2002 version of this movie per chance? I’ve never seen this movie, though I quite enjoyed the newer version, and would like to know how they compare (preferably without watching this movie given your unfavourable review).

    • I haven’t seen the 2002 George Clooney version, but I haven’t heard favourable things about it. Would be interesting to see for myself though.

  1. Pingback: #279 Stalker | Sven vs. The Movies

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