Welcome to Where Everyone Has Gone Before, the column where I continue my film education before your very eyes. I will seek out and watch all of the movies I know I should have seen by now. I will first "review" the movie before I've watched it, based entirely on its reputation. Then I will give the movie a fair chance and actually watch it. You will laugh at me, you may condemn me, but you will never say I didn't try.
The Film: 'Solaris' (1972), Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring: Natalya Bondachuk, Donatas Baniounis, Juri Jarvet and other Russian people with names I don't have the ability to pronounce.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: Because its reputation as an infamously difficult film precedes it. I'm thoroughly intimidated at the prospect of sitting down to watch it. And because it sounds really, really boring.
It's the future and there's this planet called Solaris and there's a bunch of weirdness happening and an astronaut goes to investigate and finds a deserted space station inhabited only by his wife, whom he is pretty, pretty sure is kinda' sorta' dead because he saw it happen. With alien shenanigans afoot, he begins to investigate. How much is real? How much is an illusion? How much is in Russian? How much of it is three hours long? How much of that three hours involves our hero silently contemplating whether or not he should remain on the station with his alien-manifested ghost wife?
'Solaris' walks a fine line between hypnotic and tedious, intriguing and boring-as-all-oh-God-when-will-this-movie-end. Anyone who ever said Tarkovsky was "difficult" was understating the matter. 'Solaris' requires the patience of a saint and the endurance of a starving artist. There is nothing in here that is exciting and there is nothing in here that is funny, but there is plenty that is thought provoking, beautiful, sad and even a little disturbing. It's just something of a slog to get there.
By the time our grief-stricken astronaut makes his final decision and puts the space station in his rear view mirror, the audience feels like it's been on a journey. A journey that visited every aspect of the emotional spectrum while feeling like it went nowhere at all. Saying something is "easy to admire but hard to love" is the coward's way out when it comes to film criticism, but that truly is the best way to put it.
The only thing more difficult than watching 'Solaris' is writing about it. The reputation that precedes it is accurate and it truly is as long and hard to watch as you've heard. Tarkovsky has little interest in entertaining you and he has absolutely no interest in babying you: this is art and like like real art, it's challenging and thoughtful and powerful and fascinating and yeah, it's kind of boring, but I'll take boring yet fascinating over fluffy and forgettable any day of the week.
A plot summary seems almost useless here since the film is far more interested in tone and theme than the actions of its characters, but it's pretty close to what I'd thought: an astronaut (actually a cosmonaut, but whatever) investigates a space station orbiting a planet called Solaris. It seems that properties in the planet's ocean are causing the dreams of the station's inhabitants to manifest themselves and in the case of our protagonist, it's his dead wife, whom he is still very much grieving over.
To give you an idea of the pacing, this is a science fiction space film where they don't even get into space until the 45 minute mark, so brew some coffee and put on your thinking cap and patience pants...it's going to be awhile.
The first act of the film is tough, a seemingly endless briefing about the situation on Solaris followed by a seemingly endless driving montage followed by seemingly endless thoughts of despondent characters remembering things that may or not be important. I'm as pretentious as you can get, but the first chunk of the film nearly bored me to tears. Here's my advice, guys: stick it out. Trust me. Tarkovsky may not be economical with his storytelling, but the man is setting a mood and putting a lot of pieces into place. Don't turn it off. Don't browse the internet. Give the film a shot, settle into your couch and let it wash over you. Solaris will not beg for your attention. It doesn't scream for you to watch; you've got to engage it. It can't just be another movie; you've got to let it be an experience.
Because if you open yourself to the film, if you manage to find yourself on the same wavelength as Tarkovsky, you will find an unforgettable, captivating film that is not so much science fiction as a tragic drama that uses science fiction as a tool to create an impossible situation. I'm reminded very much of another film I've seen recently, Mark Romanek's 'Never Let Me Go.' Although that is a much shorter, much easier and far more mainstream watch, it attempts to explore a facet of humanity, an emotional circumstance, that has no way of truly existing in a normal sense. Both 'Never Let Me Go' and 'Solaris' are the rarest kinds of science fiction, not a story about a science fiction world but stories about people living in a science fiction world.
By being a science fiction film, 'Solaris' allows for a movie where a man meets the woman he loves after her death. She remembers him. She looks like her, sounds like her...she IS her. But she's not. She's an alien manifestation and if he left the station, she'd vanish into the ether. How does a man deal with this? The combination of emotions are extraordinary: joy at being able to be with her again but pain in knowing that she's not really the woman he loved for all of that time. It's beautiful and sad and strange and just plain fascinating.
Of course, the sci-fi setting also allows Tarkovksy to indulge in some pretty awesome visuals, namely an extended sequence set in zero gravity that may rank up there as one of the most lovely things I've ever seen in a film, but anyone expecting hard science fiction out of 'Solaris' will be disappointed and possibly angry. Take this as it is. Give yourself over to it. You'll never forget it.
[Big changes are ahead for this series. Now that it's living at Moviefone (it originated at Sci-Fi Squad), genre restrictions no longer apply, meaning that Where Everyone Has Gone Before's time as a genre-specific column have come to an end. After next week's entry, which will act as a companion to this one, the column will be free to veer off into any and all directions. From here on out, I'll be filling those pesky holes in my film knowledge from all genres. You can send your jeers and your praise to the comments below.]
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A Boy and His Dog
The Thing From Another World