Solaris (1972)recommended viewing

Punched in the gut
Andrei Tarkovsky
Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Juri Jarvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky
The Setup: 
Sentient planet creates people from the memories of the astronauts exploring it. The astronauts find this difficult to deal with.

I had seen this quite a few years ago in a theater—where there is no pausing or fast-forwarding—and found the entire experience akin to torture. This film is three hours long, and to say it’s ‘leisurely paced’ would be an understatement. It is SLOW. It consists of little but people talking or staring at things. There’s a full ten minutes of just some guy driving round. I didn’t just dislike this movie—I actively HATED it. I even write a hateful comment for IMDb, which I’ll post at the end of this review. Anyway, after seeing it the first time, I thought about it a bit, and decided I didn’t actually HATE it, although I thought it was maybe on the level of a good Star Trek episode. Then I watched it again a few years later, when I liked it a little better and admired the photography a bit more. A few years go by, and as part of the huge sci-fi kick I’m on right now, I kind of start itching to see it again. So I do—over three nights, this time [all at once is a lot to take]—and I LOVE it. I think this is one of those movies that, as a friend of mine heard said about the Joseph Conrad novel Nostromo: “You have to see it once in order to see it again.” For on the second time, you KNOW it’s going to be slow, you know what to expect, and you can just lay back and let it wash over you, which is really the best approach. But if you’ve never seen it, know that most people find it STUPEFYINGLY BORING on first viewing. Like, even more than L’Avventura. But keep in mind that, for those who are enjoying something, taking time with it and really luxuriating in what it’s all about can be wonderfully enjoyable.

We open with green rushes undulating in the current of a stream. I find this image really beautiful. Kris Kelvin is wandering around outside his parents home, and we are treated to a great amount of footage of plants and trees and broken leaves around the pond outside. He stands meditatively in the rain, at a certain point gazing on a table with a teacup filling with rain, and half a decomposing peach with fly [a flashing label and yellow arrow labels this “Decay/Mortality”]. He is leaving the next morning to go to Solaris, the first life found elsewhere in the universe, but which humans have been studying for 78 years, and still gotten nowhere. Although they “know now” that the entire, ocean-covered planet is a giant “cerebral system,” i.e. it’s a huge brain. He is to find out what’s going on and report back on whether they should just give up. But listen—even that description makes it sound a lot more exciting than it is.

Kris’ father is inside, and he says that they need to talk. Kris wonders aloud why his father had to invite his friend Berton “today, of all days.” From the amount of time Kris spends just wandering around outside his father’s house, apparently deep in melancholy thought, as well as from that sharp little comment, we can intuit that his relationship to his parents, specifically his father, is not an easy one. His father’s friend Berton arrives. Berton has been to Solaris, and has brought a film of his testimony after his return. He says that he was flying through the atmosphere above the ocean that covers the entire planet, when he saw it forming into solid shapes, and it made a garden. He then flew further, and saw a human. It was a child, only it was about 30 feet tall. His testimony is dismissed as hallucinations. In here we also see Kris’ mother, this rather incredible-looking woman with black hair and bright blue eyes. Berton comes to talk to Kris alone, outside, and Kris soon reveals that he believes Berton was hallucinating as well. Berton, hugely offended, storms off, saying his friendship with the father is over as well. Kris’ father then comes over and harshly scolds him, saying it’s amazing the earth has survived people like him. Harsh words! It is implied that they never have that talk. That night Kris’ parents are up talking and they reveal something Berton said that he didn’t tell Kris—the child he saw was unmistakably the child of one of the other astronauts, although this child is on Earth. Kris is awake, and overhears.

We now have ten full minutes of Berton driving through various tunnels and city freeways, mostly in POV shots looking forward as the cityscapes unfold. I had a reader write to me and tell me this was among his favorite parts of the movie, and I figured he must be insane, as this is obviously boring and stupid, but again I must recant. These scenes were shot in Osaka and Tokyo, and while we may look at them like “WHAT is the big deal?” you have to imagine how they must have looked to a Russian audience in 1972. The city would come off as amazingly futuristic, sprawling and developed. Now, when you know you’re in for ten minutes of driving and can just relax, these shots are quite beautiful and hypnotic. Just let them unfold. Or—skip past them. But don’t get bogged down here.

Now, 45 minutes in, we finally get to space! One of the funny things about the Steven Soderbergh remake is that these first 45 minutes are compressed into 5 minutes in his film—and still people were walking out when I first saw it. Don’t expect a lot of—or ANY—special effects here. We see a bubble fall through space, then Kris is on the space station. The place is a mess, and he can’t find anyone. He finally locates this guy Snaut, who seems quite surprised to see him, despite knowing he was coming, and more than a little suspicious. He is not exactly forthcoming about what’s happening on the station. Kris finds out that the other person on the station, Sartorius, has locked himself in the lab and won’t come out, and the third person he expected to find, Gibarian, killed himself that morning. Snaut tells Kris to go find a bedroom, and come back in an hour, or even better, the next morning. He tells him if he sees anyone other than he or Sartorius, not to lose his head. Kris goes to see Sartorius, who also barely speaks to him, and stands defensively barricading his room. When he lets go for a moment, we briefly see a dwarf run out, and have to be carried back in.

Kris, completely bewildered, finds an unoccupied room to stay in, then goes and pokes around in Gibarian’s room, where he finds a videotape message prepared for him. He watches the first half of it. Gibarian looks like he hasn’t slept in days, and says “What’s happening here is not madness. It has something to do with conscience.”

Kris goes to bed. When he wakes, there is a woman in the room with him. It is his ex-wife, Hari—who killed herself ten years before. She comes over and he instinctively kisses her before asking where she came from. She is wearing the same outfit that she is in the picture of her Kris brought with him—but when she picks up the picture she asks who it is, before seeing herself in the mirror and realizing it’s her. Her dress has buttons, but no split beneath them. Hari says she feels as though she’s forgetting something.

Kris doesn’t know what she is, but he knows she isn’t his wife. And her presence is incredibly emotionally taxing to him, given all the emotional trauma left over from her suicide. So he says he’s going to show her the inside of a space capsule… then locks her in and ejects her into space. You won’t be able to ignore the fact that this is the slowest rocket launch in recorded history. Going to visit Snaut, he finds him a little more forthcoming about what’s happening, since Kris has experienced it himself now and will have some idea what he’s talking about. What he saw was “that materialization of your conception of her.” They have all met with physical manifestations of people from their pasts or imaginations. But a key thing is that these figures are created based on THEIR MEMORIES of the person—they are not the actual person. Therefore Hari cannot stand to be away from Kris, because his memory of her is as clinging and suicidal. This also explains things like the missing opening beneath the buttons… he simply didn’t think about it. Apparently Solaris scans them while they are asleep and sends them a manifestation of their thoughts when they wake up. No one can explain why. Snaut told him he should feel lucky it was someone pleasant, and not a horrible figure from a nightmare. By the way, periodically in here we have shots of fascinating, undulating liquids meant to represent the planet’s surface. Like the just vaguely futuristic production design of the space station, these planet surface-scapes are both very low-tech, yet remarkably effective.

The next night, Hari appears again. She remembers nothing of being there before. She now has draped two identical shawls over the back of the chair. With this second appearance, Kris’ will to resist is broken down, and he takes her to Snaut and Sartorius, introducing her as “my wife.” The other two scientists are uncomfortable with Kris seeming to accept her as his literal wife, and Sartorius tells her that she killed herself ten years prior. Kris confirms that this is true, and when she asks why, he says “She probably sensed that I didn’t love her.” After a pause he adds “But now I do.”

However, Hari now knows that she is not a real person, but some kind of creation. She asks Kris if she disgusts him. She tries to kill herself… but heals and comes back to life in what looks like an extremely painful process. “I never get used to these resurrections,” Sartorius says. By this time, Kris’ mind is really starting to fracture. He starts having visions of his mother in her younger years—also wearing macramé dresses, like Hari, alluding to an Oedipal connection. He sees his parents’ dog, and finally starts seeing multiple Hari’s. He wakes and finds out that his new Hari has vaporized herself. Snaut tells him that he thinks Kris should return to Earth.

Kris stares at the sprouts of a plant, and this transitions to a return to the rushes in the water by his father’s home. By the way, here’s where we tell the very ending of the film, so even if you’ve read up until now, you might want to skip this part if you’re going to watch the film. Kris is back where he was at the beginning. We can only assume he has returned to Earth. He approaches the house, looks in the window, and his face registers that he has been utterly emotionally defeated by what he sees: his father working in his living room. The frame above, when Kris looks in the window, is, in the context of the film, one of the most emotionally devastating shots I know of. Just the way his face falls in defeat, as though he knows that there’s no way he could face all that needs to be resolved between him and his father. His father goes to the door, where Kris meets him, and falls to his knees embracing him—in an explicit reference to Rembrandt’s painting of The Prodigal Son [see below]. The camera pulls back, pulls back [you have to love the best-they-could-do broken nature of the pull-back] to reveal that… this version of his father’s house is on an island on the surface of Solaris. Kris has not returned to Earth, and never will return.

Devastating! This movie stands out from the majority of science-fiction for its intense focus on emotion, whereas most other sci-fi revolves around action, intellectual problems, or moral problems. In this film the characters have to face emotional situations they are in no way prepared for, and also face that there is no way, let alone a right way, to handle the situation. No explanation is ever given for why the planet is doing this to them—or if it even knows what it’s doing. Is it testing them? And similar to the state of disorientation the astronauts find themselves in, the film acts similarly on the audience. The very slowness of the film works to force you to slow down into a state where you’ll just lay back and accept what the movie presents, or, like me upon first viewing—to resist that and work into a state of agitation. In either case, it disarms you. It also works in that, again, due to the unusual nature of this within the field of “sci-fi,” one is taken off-guard by how very emotional it is. The “monster” the men have to deal with is neither a physical menace or a problem to be solved, but their own psychologies and pasts. It’s one of the few films I can think of that uses its form to shake one out of one’s lazy viewing perspective and get one to really engage with what’s happening here. Although I have heard that all of Tarkovshy’s films are three hours long and extremely slow, so it could be I’m just talking out of my ass.

This time around, I really loved how slow it was. This film is “evocative” in the true sense of the word, as it merely hints at psychologies or situations, and lets you fill in the rest with your own thoughts and memories—which is likely why so many who love this movie feel a very deep PERSONAL connection to it. For example, we know very little of the relationship between Kris and his father—we get a few slight hints of a troubled relationship, but we never find out specifically what the issue is—yet by the end we have been able to fill in enough to make Kris’ facing the situation later absolutely devastating. I don’t know if you recall the original issue of Blade Runner, which had a noir-like voice-over, and then what a revelation it was to see the Director’s Cut, and how surprising the film could be rendered wholly different simply by removing the narration. The big difference, in my view, is that removing the voice-over allowed the audience to have that time free to THINK about what they’re seeing, which a film like Blade Runner obviously benefits from. I think the slowness of this film also works in that way—it is very necessary for viewers to have time to process what we’re seeing here, and think about what is happening.

Since re-watching this film I have had a little bout of Solaris obsession, and am 2/3rds through the original novel and have re-watched the 2002 Steven Soderbergh remake. The novel is good, but not necessarily better than the film, and does not focus on Kris’ marriage the way the film does. Apparently Stanislaw Lem, writer of the novel, was not overly thrilled with the film for this reason, saying he did not write the book about people’s “erotic problems in space.” Apparently Lem’s work often casts alien life forms as completely incomprehensible to man. While reading, one often comes upon little pieces of dialogue or a descriptive line here or there and can see how it was brought into the film. The novel begins with Kris’ arrival on the station, however and there is nothing about the father or his family, making that material in the film entirely Tarkovsky’s creation... and achievement.

The Soderbergh Solaris is different thing altogether. For one, he is in the unfortunate position of making a film that requires a lot of careful attention for an audience that is unable to pay that kind of attention. He cut the length of the film in half, and concentrated it entirely on the relationship with the wife, leaving out the family stuff entirely. What he adds are some very nice special effects and hypnotic music go to along with them, and a lot of flashbacks to detail Kris’ relationship to his wife. It has its own charms, and is reasonably respectable, but for me it comes off as shallower than this film. Also, having read the novel, I can see that the Soderbergh version is not a new adaptation of the novel, but a re-working of the Tarkovsky film. This it can be interesting to follow a element that appears in the novel, see how it was changed in the Tarkovsky version, then see how it changed from there for the Soderbergh version. For more detail, read the full review of the Soderbergh film.

Anyway, if you’re a lover of science-fiction in general, and serious, philosophical science-fiction especially, you sort of have to watch Solaris at least once in your life. Just face it. You might hate it, but it’s something you need to see, and it might, as in my case, lead to your eventually coming to love it. I would advise you to go in knowing it’s going to be slow, and to just lay back and let it wash over you without getting impatient for it to start moving along. Also consider watching it in parts. But watch it. You need that in your brain.

Now, for your amusement, my scorn-filled IMDb comment on this film from back in 2002:

Giant Turd, 22 October 2002

I blame Steven Soderbergh. It's because he's remaking this film that it is showing for a week here, and I was suckered into seeing it. He's also responsible for Nogawakawakasquatsi being finished as well,so that's two giant cinematic turds the man had hurled at the public in the past two weeks, and we haven't even had HIS version of this movie yet.

Okay folks, 2001 this is not. Try more like your average original series Star Trek episode stretched over 3 hours. Deep philosophical truths? I mean, not to say that what this movie has to say isn't valid, it's just BANAL. "Oh, the stunning final image that contains so much meaning!!!" If you think that, I can only imagine how the "stunning final images" of the two Men In Black movies must have rocked your sockets. I also notice that no one mentions the visual reference to Rembrandt's "The Prodigal Son" in the "stunning final image."

Sometimes those who say that a film is stupid and boring are not idiot philistines. This film is banal and boring, and if you've watched the adventures of Kirk and Co., you've been there plenty of times before. Take heed. You have better things to do with your life.

I cannot imagine how Steven Soderbergh thinks anyone is going to sit through another verson of this, unless he amps up the suspense and creeps a lot. At least we'll have George Clooney to look at.

I often wish someone on here would just write out a analysis of not just what they think is so great about a film, but how they think it works and what they think it means. If anyone wants to email me and tell me what I'm missing about this film, my ears are open.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! Especially if you like serious, philosophical science fiction.

SOLARIS [2002] is Steven Soderbergh’s remake of this film, which is shorter and shallower, but has its own charms, especially to fans of this film.