Solaris (February 16/03)
Solaris is one of those classics that virtually every critic will assure you is amazing, but when you get right down to it, the film's nothing but a pretentious mess.
Set in an unspecified future, the film opens on Earth - where psychiatrist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is preparing for a trip into deep space. He's to travel to an outpost that's hovering above a planet known as Solaris, where a group of scientists have stopped answering communications. But once he arrives, he finds more than he ever expected to.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris has often been called the anti-2001. As the story goes, director Andrei Tarkovsky wanted to make a sci-fi film that retained elements of science, but dealt with human emotions and issues. Ironically though, Kubrick's 2001 is far less cold and clinical than Solaris - Tarkovsky keeps all his characters at arms-length from the viewer, which prevents us from making any kind of emotional connection to them. The central character, Kelvin, is someone that should elicit sympathy - he did, after all, lose his wife several years ago - but Banionis' performance is almost infuriatingly reticent (putting it kindly), that it's virtually impossible to care what happens to him. And since he's the focus of the film, we're expected to follow him around for close to three hours (an interminable running time that's exacerbated by Tarkovsky's laid-back directorial style).
Like the majority of Ingmar Bergman's films, Solaris deals heavily with philosophical ideas dealing mostly with the nature of human existence - so much so, it's surprising that nobody has ever referred to the film as a Bergman flick set in space. But Tarkovsky doesn't bother with ensuring that such conversations are organic to the story, choosing instead to place them wherever he sees fit. One such sequence, featuring the birthday celebration of a crew member, features the characters going on and on about the meaning of life - but it's just not interesting. Mostly because we don't care about these people, but also because the dialogue is so stilted and theatrical, it sounds forced and unnatural.
And, of course, there's the storyline - featuring the mysterious Solaris and the supernatural effect is seems to have on people - which is undeniably quite intriguing, but rendered frustratingly obtuse by Tarkovsky's heavy-handed style. This isn't to say that MTV-style quick cuts and over-the-top visual pyrotechnics are necessarily preferable, but Tarkovsky winds up on the complete other end of the spectrum - with the end result being a film with some serious pacing issues. There's absolutely no flow here; the screenplay, written by Tarkovsky and Fridrikh Gorenshtein, lurches from one sequence to the next, with no concern for how it affects the whole. It's impossible to discern what Tarkovsky's aim was, especially in the way his camera lingers oppressively on things that mean absolutely nothing. Perhaps he wanted to viewer to experience the feeling of going slowly mad, in which case, he's succeeded brilliantly.
Steven Soderbergh's recent remake of Lem's novel is so much more effective in so many ways, it's a wonder that this version of Solaris still receives any acclaim at all.