When I decided to watch Solaris, I knew only a handful of things about it. I knew that it was from 1972, and had been remade in 2002, as an American film starring George Clooney. I knew that it was science fiction and fairly well regarded. I knew that it was in Russian. And I knew that it was nearly three hours long. Those last two combined to give me some pause for concern, as a three-hour foreign film is not something to be entered into lightly. But I’d already missed an opportunity to see it once before, and I felt that in the interest of being well-informed on classic science fiction films, I could not justify overlooking it a second time.
After watching it, my feelings are still somewhat mixed. There is certainly a lot that is praise-worthy about the film, but there is also a lot that made me feel every one of its 167 minutes.
Out-of-context subtitles can wreak havoc with choosing screen captures.
Other than the first hour, the film takes place in a space station in orbit around the planet Solaris. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) has been sent to the station in order to evaluate its small crew and determine whether the mission to investigate the planet’s strange ocean can continue. There have been indications of irregularity and even insanity among its three person crew. Kelvin arrives to find that one of the crew, Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has recently committed suicide. The other scientists, Drs. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) seem disinclined to discuss any of it with Kelvin, insisting he will have to see for himself. Sartorius is particularly cold and aloof. But Kelvin doesn’t have long to focus on their problems, as he soon starts having his own issues, dealing with his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). The issues are three-fold: the usual relationship troubles, the fact that she didn’t make the trip with him and yet is there, and most particularly, the fact that she’s been dead for over ten years. Kelvin has to figure out why and how she’s returned, and evaluate his fellow scientists, and decide just what to do about Solaris.
It’s an interesting premise, based on a story by Stanislaw Lem, and it’s easy to see how it could make for a great science fiction film. And Solaris has some good, if merely functional, set design aboard the space station. The film is shot well, with skillfully framed scenes and sequences… the problem is that perhaps nobody is more aware of how good the cinematography is than director Andrey Tarkovskiy, who vastly over-indulges himself in making use of it. There are scenes where he zooms in on someone’s ear or another body part, apparently for effect. The film frequently has abrupt shifts between color to black and white to tinted monochrome; there may be a reason for this, but I never figured it out while watching the film. There are extended sequences where Tarkovskiy films a still scene for several minutes, or a simple walk or drive for a great length of time with nothing to move the plot or characterization along, and without even any dialogue to evoke interest. On a technical level all of this is done very well, but none of it serves the movie itself; it is all very tedious and tiresome. I am not exaggerating when I say that there were times when I had to check to make sure I hadn’t accidentally paused the film.
“Should we be doing something?”
“No, just stare into the mirror for a while.”
Adding to the tedium is a plot that frankly drags in several places. The entire first hour could be abridged to about two minutes without losing anything, and several other sequences could be shortened or omitted as well. I can’t help but notice the 2002 remake is only 99 minutes — shorter by a little more than an hour. Throw in the severe under-emoting of the actors for most of the film, and it’s all just rather dull. The concept in this film is very intriguing, but it’s the only thing in the film to catch the audience’s interest at all. The characters are dull and flat. The plot moves slowly when it moves at all. The relationship between Kelvin and the resurrected Hari progresses glacially — both in pace and in temperature — until it takes a sudden hard turn near the end. And vast segments of the film are simply wasted on showing off cinematography that, while good, doesn’t do anything to help the film.
I am aware the film is highly praised in some circles; I can only presume people are remembering how thought-provoking it is and forgetting how long it takes to do anything to provoke those thoughts. This is a film badly in need of an editor. Because even with the somewhat flat acting, this film could be saved if it were severely pared down and some of the sequences were tightened up. It has an interesting premise, it’s shot well, the story is salvageable. But the way the film is, I can’t recommend it. There are better ways to spend three hours than a film that wastes more than an hour.