Combustible Celluloid
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With: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Juri Jarvet, Anatoli Solonitsin, Vladislav Dvorjetzki
Written by: Fridrikh Gorenshtein, Tarkovsky, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky
MPAA Rating: PG
Language: Russian with English subtitles
Running Time: 165
Date: 20/03/1972

Solaris (1972)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Deep Space

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Whether or not you like Steven Soderbergh's recent remake of Solaris, you have to give it credit. At the very least it may have turned on a new generation to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky (1932-86) was arguably Russia's most eminent filmmaker after silent pioneer Sergei Eisenstein. With the exception of a few student films and TV movies, he only directed seven feature films, and nearly all of them are still highly regarded today.

This week the Castro Theatre shows a print of Solaris, and next week it screens Tarkovsky's other works: Stalker Jan. 3, Andrei Rublev Jan. 4-5, a double-bill of The Mirror and Ivan's Childhood Jan. 6-7, and his final film, The Sacrifice, Jan. 8. (Nostalgia is the only of his films not screening in the series.) Solaris is also available on a superb new two-disc DVD from the Criterion Collection.

While Soderbergh's Solaris runs about 90 minutes, Tarkovsky's version runs just under three hours. I admire both films, but in Soderbergh's version the hero Kris Kelvin (George Clooney) makes too great a character leap in too short a time. Tarkovsky takes the time to make Kelvin's transition smoother.

The plot, taken from Stanislaw Lem's novel in both cases, has psychologist Kelvin (played by Glenn Ford look-alike Donatas Banionis in Tarkovsky's version) journeying to a distant space station orbiting the planet Solaris to discover what has happened to its crew. When Kelvin arrives, several of the crew members are already dead, including the friend who originally contacted Kelvin and asked him to come. The remaining crew does not wish to discuss what's going on, and only hints that Kelvin will find out himself.

Indeed, Kelvin soon wakes up to find his dead wife Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk) sitting with him in his room. Some mysterious force coming from the planet below has tapped into his mind and made portions of his memories or dreams physical. At first Kelvin resists the idea of his wife being alive, and he locks her in an escape pod and sends her off into space. But before long another arrives. This time Kelvin gives in.

Though Soderbergh gets Kelvin to the space station within the first 10 minutes of his version, he fills the main body of the film with flashbacks showing Kelvin's relationship with his wife, as well as her suicide. Tarkovsky takes a different tack. He keeps Kelvin on Earth for some 40 minutes and devises many memorable, poetic shots to describe his life -- and life in general -- there. The two most notable are the film's opening shot, with green algae waving around under a moving stream -- almost like a woman's hair -- and a shot of traffic moving through the city streets, appearing to go on forever.

These earthbound shots serve to highten the sense of uneasiness and remoteness aboard the space station, which is littered with broken panels and discarded papers, as if the scientists were too busy or too bored to clean up after themselves.

Tarkovsky made Solaris, his third film, partially as a reaction to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he hated. He thought Kubrick's idea of outer space was too sterile and his humans too wooden (failing to consider that Kubrick might have done this on purpose). But "Solaris" turns out to be not so much an opposite of 2001 as a distant cousin. Both films move very slowly and paint their images within a huge, expansive scope. And both have something interesting to say about the human condition as a whole and dehumanization in general.

Another reason Tarkovsky made Solaris was the strict censorship under which he worked in the Soviet Union; he deduced that behind the guise of a sci-fi genre film he could get away with more of what he wanted to say.

Perhaps the most important difference between the two versions of Solaris is that Soderbergh tries to trick us with a twist ending, which succeeds only in confusing us. Tarkovsky makes his ending absolutely clear, and makes no bones about its ultimate meaning. Tarkovsky's is a cinema of intellect more than emotion; his detractors most often criticize him for his cold, lifeless characters (and lack of women). He also can be inflexible and demanding. But if you can meet him halfway, the rewards can be great. Solaris is a masterpiece for those willing to work for it.

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