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Solaris
1972 - NR - 165 Mins.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Producer: Viacheslov Tarasov
Written By: Fridrikh Gorenshtein, Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Juri Jarvet, Vadislav Dzorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko
Review by: Jake Cremins
   

Kelvin begins to suspect that he will someday appear in an American remake.
'Solaris' is one of the most hypnotic, beautiful, fascinating and terrifying of all science fiction films. In a genre where so many movies are content just to mark time until the next display of special effects, here is one that's almost heroic in the way it refuses to dumb down its story, and in the way it's more interested in its characters than the spaceships they inhabit.

The movie concerns a planet named (of course) Solaris. The planet is a mystery--an uninhabited mass of ocean which seems to cause hallucinations in those who go too near it. A space station now orbits it for study, and it did its business for a while, but now the three-man crew has stopped sending communications to Earth. The story begins as Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to the station to investigate.

What he finds when he arrives is sinister: one of the crew members has killed himself, and another is constantly locked in his laboratory. Only Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) seems friendly and willing to talk, and it's soon clear that he's become a bit unhinged himself. And what's with the child's ball that bounces down the hallway, and the shadow behind the door? Who else could possibly be on the space station? At Sartorius' advice, Kelvin barricades the door to his room before going to sleep, hoping for more answers in the morning. And when he wakes up he finds his dead wife sitting next to him, very much alive.

Something is very wrong here. Hari, Kelvin's wife, is the woman he fell in love with and she isn't--she remembers him and clings to him tenderly, but other parts of her mind are unnervingly blank (confronted with an unfamiliar metal door, she tries to walk through it). She does not seem to remember at all that back on Earth, she committed suicide. Kelvin is terrified of her and launches her into an escape pod, but when he tries to tell Sartorius about it he is greeted only with a sad smile: "So you had guests? Well, I see you took good care of them."

I will not be spoiling much if I say that it turns out that the planet Solaris is producing these spectres, maybe as a fluke, maybe because it is alive and trying to communicate. Sartorius explains that these people are not people, but physical manifestations of memories; Hari is not Hari, but a collection of what Kelvin remembers of her. When another Hari arrives to take the place of the first, Kelvin has gotten over his panic and switched to the opposite extreme, perhaps equally dangerous: he refuses to believe that she isn't "real," and refuses to either leave her behind or destroy her.

In a movie full of rich performances, that of Natalya Bondarchuk as Hari is particularly fascinating. She begins to realize that she is not even who *she* thinks she is, and is afraid of the blank patches in her mind. No matter how emotional, she is not human and seems impervious to injury, and there is a truly horrifying scene late in the film when she tries to kill herself but discovers painfully that she cannot. It's with a kind of deep sadness that we realize that Kelvin remembers her as suicidal, and that this memory too must be assimilated.

I'm just scratching the surface here. 'Solaris' contains so many ideas and questions that a real review of it would have to be the length of the average novel. Just to sample, though: is there really a difference between people we really know and these odd constructions? How can we really *know* someone, if they always have a part of themselves outside of what we know of them? What is it that we fall in love with, then? Speaking more specifically of the story, what is meant by these ghosts dredged up from the mind, if they're a form of communication? Is it a greeting or a merciless attack? The film is brilliant, in the way it takes elements and feelings familiar to us and forces us to see them from the other side.

All of this and more is brought up in a film which is slow and deliberate from beginning to end; by the time Hari arrives, nearly an hour and a half has passed and you've either gotten into the movie's rhythm or become bored beyond belief. Andrei Tarkovsky was a slow, deliberate filmmaker, and 'Solaris' is no exception (and at 165 minutes, it's not even his longest film--'Andrei Rublev,' a history of medieval Russia, clocks in at nearly four hours). The plot summary above skips over the opening scenes on Earth, which go on for quite a while and include a long scene in which Kelvin stands in a rainstorm and an even longer one in which a car drives down a highway into a city, for minute after minute. (Only a scene where Kelvin watches a taped interview about Solaris, which also goes on for quite a while, could be said to directly serve the plot.) Once the movie enters outer space, it continues to take its time in setting up the central story, with several portentious conversations and hints about what is about to happen.

And yet these long, slow scenes are not empty or self-indulgent, but a way of setting the tone. 'Solaris' is a quiet, introspective movie, made not to be dazzling but to make you really think over what happens and why. For that purpose it's willing to provide the time, right up to a shocking final shot that pulls out and out until we've been able to consider all of its implications. It is also gorgeous to look at, and has no problem deliberately building its atmosphere and environment until the story takes place in a setting as fully realized as any in the movies. I'm not saying you won't have to concentrate and deliberately try to adjust to it at first, but if you manage to get into it you'll be rewarded not with impatience but real fascination.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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