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.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Stanislaw Lem (novel), Fridrikh Gorenshtein (screenplay), Andrei Tarkovsky (screenplay)
Country: Soviet Union
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.
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.
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).