It's a strange experience coming to Solaris
for the first time, years after initially viewing the Soderbergh re-model. That de'ja' vu one traditionally experiences with any sort of remake was there, but weirdly inverted. I remember coming out of the cinema after first watching the remake (2003-ish) and feeling guarded against my emotions. I had been moved by the film, but I remember reasoning to myself that Tarkovsky's original - which I had not yet seen and was only acquainted with the film-maker's first feature, Ivan's Chilhood
- must surely be superior in every way to this Hollywood remake, auteur-director or not? My reasoning behind this was nothing more than youthful snobbishness - I was twenty at the time and, well, Tarkovsky was carved up there on the Mount Rushmore of World Cinema, along with Bergman, Kurosawa and Renoir, right? I kept this in mind when I recently watched the Tarkovsky film solemnly play out for the first time. In the years since I'd seen the remake, I had been exposed to a few more of Tarkovsky's films (Andrei Rublev and The Sacrifice) and had atuned myself to the director's abstract symbolism and oh-so deliberate pacing. Yet, my god, I struggled to find Solaris to be anything more than a slog!
I know Tarkovsky's concerns are weighty and his style able to effortlessly flit between the languorous (that
car-journey through the bypass of Tokyo(?) in Act one) and the elliptical (the abrupt cut to Hari's lifeless body after taking the liquid oxygen), yet is there anyone here that finds the film less than the sum of it's (occasionally unique) parts? Pauline Kael once wrote (of The Searchers
) that "you can read a lot into it, but it isn't very enjoyable". I think she was wrong about The Searchers
, but that quote is one that I would attribute to Tarkovsky's interminable film. The eerie, zonked-out atmosphere on board the station is nicely evoked, with an initial sense of ambiguity and mystery (what the hell has gone on here?), punctuated by the odd eruption of surrealism (where did that dwarf come from? - a moment that shattered the stately seriousness and made me laugh out loud!), but Kris Kelvin is such a cold-fish that when Hari eventually start to materialise, the film has an uphill struggle to emotionally engage the viewer. From this point on,Tarkovsky is content to allow the characters to debate a myriad of themes, existential and metaphysical, while the film begins to tread-water when it should be yielding to the strange currents.
In regard to the Soderbergh version - I feel Kelvin's despatching of the first Hari works a lot better in the remake, where, if I recall, the capsule had some kind of transparent exterior in which we are better able to view the confusion and terror in Natascha McElhone's face as the capsule falls away into orbit. Please correct me if I'm wrong on that front, it's been close to fifteen years since I last saw the remake, but the version of that sequence in the Tarkovsky (where he shuts the panel-door and we don't see her reaction) I found underwhelming in contrast. In fact, if I got anything out of Tarkovsky's film, it's more a desire to reacquaint myself with the Soderbergh version once again!
I've been more than aware how much has been made over the years of Solaris as a Soviet riposte to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey*. There are some excellent digressions on this very board in regard to their thematic similarities, but although the central conceit of human consciousness being 'manipulated' by an external force is something they both share (along with a slow, cerebral pace), I feel that the Tarkovsky film gets too bogged-down in it's own intellectual pretensions, while Kubrick manages to dramatise such musings to a more satisfying, cinematic degree. There are those who will fiercely argue the opposite (and of course this is all subjective as any such personal criticism will be), but what does it ultimately say that I found Kris Kelvin - played by Donatas Banionis, who, with his squashed features and white streak through his hair, resembles Pepe' Le Pew gone to seed - and his third act emotional breakdown to be less convincing or emotionally involving than the single-scene deprogramming of HAL in the Kubrick picture. Maybe it just needed a bit of humour or a song and dance number ('Daisy, Daisy' maybe
*If anything, Solaris
should be more aptly contrasted to Kubrick's The Shining
; both are very much 'inner-space' movies, exploring the consequences when the 'ghosts' of personal-memory and conscience are stoked by external (mystical?) forces!