Solaris (1972)

aka Solyaris

2010 #113
Andrei Tarkovsky | 159 mins | TV | PG / PG

I don’t know if you’re aware of a website, dear reader, called It’s one of those (many, I believe) sites where you can tick off which movies you’ve seen — in this case, not just any movie (though that’s changing ‘soon’), but movies from certain well-known lists. Well, it used to be just well-known(-ish) lists, but it’s constantly broadening its horizons and… Anyway. My point is this: some movies only crop up on one list (lots of the Shorts, for instance), while others manage two or three or four, but (as you’d no doubt expect) some crop up on loads. It’s a handy way to see that, too.

Solaris, for instance, is on IMDb’s list of the best sci-fi films (#39) and films from the ’70s (#43); it’s on They Shoot Pictures…’s 1,000 Greatest Films (#227), Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies (#285), 10th on Total Sci-Fi’s 100 Greatest Sci-Fi Movies, 53rd on Arts and Faith’s 100 Spiritually Significant Films, and included in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies; not to mention half a dozen other general greatest/must-see lists featured on iCheckMovies.

What does all that matter? Not a great deal, I suppose — film appreciation is subjective ‘n’ all — but it does leave it with a weight of expectation. The fact that it’s the better part of three hours long, in Russian, and notoriously slow-paced, adds a different kind of weight. It’s quite easy to see how Soderbergh felt able to remake it into just 90 minutes (and he still made a slow-paced film).

And it’s true, parts are like an endurance test — Berton’s seemingly endless drive through a future cityscape (actually just ’70s Tokyo), for instance — but, though still glacially paced, most of the film has some discernibly relevant content. Provided you’re not expecting Star Wars, that is, but who in their right mind would be? Talking of things being discernibly relevant, the film occasionally switches into black & white for no reason I can readily discern. Explanations welcome in the comments.

Though ostensibly science fiction — it’s set on a space station orbiting a possibly sentient planet that’s doing Funny Things to the crew — Solaris isn’t concerned with the scientific implications of any of its concepts. While I’m going to come up short on providing detailed analysis, it seems to me Tarkovsky’s adaptation is more concerned with memory, loss, grief and what it means to be human/alive. The planet, which somehow creates tangible people — not mere shared hallucinations — from the memories of the crew, is used as a way in to these things Tarkovsky clearly wishes to consider. The sentient(?) planet is not an end in itself; the film spends no time considering what this different kind of consciousness (if it is a consciousness) means, how it might work, or any other scientifically-bent notions that other films or filmmakers might choose to focus on. It also doesn’t centre on the romantic side of events, the route Soderbergh chose to pursue; or, if it does, it does so coldly and clinically and doesn’t feel romantic in the slightest. Alternatively, that could be the point.

Solaris is one of those films I think we can safely say is Not For Everyone. There’s much to ponder for the so inclined, not least the intriguing ending. I feel certain I, much like the scientists in the film itself, have barely scratched the surface.

4 out of 5

Read my considerably more thoughtful (if I do say so myself) review of Steven Soderbergh’s remake here.

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