Movie Project #46: Solaris [1972]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Solaris [1972]

Solaris [1972]
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Stanislaw Lem (novel), Fridrikh Gorenshtein (screenplay), Andrei Tarkovsky (screenplay)
Country: Soviet Union
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi
Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet
Running Time: 167 minutes

Solaris is a Russian sci-fi epic that requires a great deal of patience. Actually, that might be putting it mildly. Tarkovsky’s film feels every bit of its 167-minute running time (and then some). It has extensive, long takes of seemingly nothing of importance. One early scene shows a character driving in traffic for a good five minutes — that’s it. I’m not ashamed to admit that my first attempt at viewing the film months ago resulted in me falling asleep an hour into it. This time I started back over from the beginning and watched it all in one take.

Solaris is a notorious slow starter. The first hour or so focuses on a psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), who is spending his last day on Earth at his elderly father’s home. Tomorrow, Kelvin will be flying out to the space station orbiting a distant oceanic planet called Solaris. While attempting to relax, he is visited by Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), a former space pilot. Berton warns Kelvin about his past experience near Solaris in which he claimed to have seen a four-meter-tall child on the surface of the planet. His superiors dismissed this claim as hallucinations, but Berton is adamant about what he saw. While Kevin and his father seem to agree with the hallucination theory, this meeting does plant some seeds of doubt in his head.

This, the film’s first act, moves at an especially methodical pace. There are long shots of the scenery surrounding the father’s home, particularly that of a small pond. This act is also where the extended traffic scene occurs; it is meant to portray a city of the future (fun fact: it’s actually Tokyo), but it seems so trivial in the scheme of things.

Solaris [1972]

When Kelvin arrives on the space station, the film grows more interesting. It turns out that of the three men stationed there, only two are still alive. The third, Kelvin’s friend, Dr. Gabarian (Sos Sargsyan), has committed suicide for reasons unknown. The two remaining scientists are uncooperative and have clearly struggled to come to terms with what has happened onboard.

Kelvin gets a glimpse into their mindset when he begins hallucinating himself — shortly after he gets on board, his dead wife appears in his room. Despite his best efforts to get rid of her, knowing she is truly dead, she just keeps reappearing. The theory is that the ocean on Solaris is causing these “visitors” to appear on the space station, there for all of them to see. What follows is less of an external conflict than it is a meditation on introspection. I can’t even begin to attempt to answer some of the questions this film asks, but there are some truly fascinating ideas in place regarding our place in the universe, sentient beings and the human psyche. At the same time, it’s awfully challenging to get to the point where these thoughts intrigue.

Solaris [1972]

This is a beautiful film, and Tarkovsky makes damn sure we know it with his intense focus on the surrounding environments (the comparison of the vast, open Earth to the claustrophobic space stations is especially noteworthy). There is a lot of eye candy, but that can only do so much to maintain interest.

I’m curious as to how the original 115-minute cut unfolds; the 167-minute version is just too much. I truly believe there is a great film within Solaris; it just needs a substantial amount of editing. (And this is coming from someone who ranks 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of his all-time favorite films).


18 thoughts on “Movie Project #46: Solaris [1972]

  1. vultural says:

    Completely agree with you on this one. I read the book before watching the film(s), and it (the book) has all of the interesting plotting minus the overt philosophising. I don’t know whether you’ve seen the Soderbergh version? If your curious about how a shorter Solaris would look then I’d suggest you watch that.

  2. Dan Heaton says:

    Interesting take. Call me crazy, but I actually liked the traffic scene. I’ll admit that I did watch Solaris over multiple sittings, so that may have helped. I’ll admit that it’s slow-going and could be cut without much loss, but it’s still mesmerizing at times.

  3. Chris says:

    The slow pacing of the film is indeed a bit sleep-inducing 🙂
    Still, there’s lots to like, the visuals, and the story I found interesting.
    Funny you should mention 2001: A Space Odyssey, I read it was inspired by Kubrick’s film.

  4. SDG says:

    Completely with you on this one! there were two things I kept on saying to myself while watching this – “Will you get going now? You are putting me to sleep” and “What the hell is happening here?”. I have seen a couple more Tarkovskiy films by now and though they were slow paced and lengthy as well, I was much more invested in them than Solaris.

    Controversial Statement to follow: I love your last statement because well, that’s pretty much what I think of 2001 as well. 😛

    P.S.: Hurry up, Eric! Just 4 days to go and you have 4 more movies for this year. 🙂

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hahaha. I will make sure this project is done by the end of the year, come hell or high water. 😀

      Glad to hear you enjoyed Tarkovsky’s other films. I would like to see more of his work, even though I wasn’t a big fan of this one.

  5. Morgan R. Lewis says:

    You and I are right in agreement on this film’s issues. There’s a good solid concept in there, and even a decent film underneath it all. It’s just that the decent film is about 75 minutes long, but the actual film is 167.

  6. ckckred says:

    Nice review. This is a slow-burner, but I love the mood and imagery. This is actually the only Tarkovsky movie I’ve seen, I need to watch some of his other films.

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