In the immortal words of Boney M: “Oh, those Russians…” One can’t help but agree with the sentiment when watching Solaris, a three-hour Soviet sci-fi slog.
Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to an all but abandoned space station where he meets – or possibly hallucinates – his dead wife (Natalya Bondarchuk). In a cinematic Space Race, Andrei Tarkovsky responded to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with this painfully slow adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s novel. Although the two films are the same length, Solaris feels about 2001 times longer. It may be Russian, but it’s certainly not rushin’.
While Kubrick’s film was a special effects masterpiece, Tarkovsky opts instead for intimate psychological drama, without so much as an external shot of the space station. This level of abstraction, combined with impenetrable discussion of knowledge and morality, makes it difficult to understand – and even harder to care.
The characters are so miserable, so tragic, so resolutely Russian, that a few hours in their company would give anyone a serious case of space madness. They talk a lot about love, but there’s not a glimpse of affection or happiness. This is love Soviet style, and it’s bloody depressing.
That’s not to diminish the influence of this 1972 classic, which is evident in all manner of modern space movies – from the cerebral sci-fi of Moon to the insane horror of Event Horizon. There are visuals resembling the cover of Pink Floyd’s Meddle, with a haunting atmosphere that’s quite mesmerising – up to a point. After a couple of hours, we get the idea – as much as one can – and wish his dead wife would just stay dead already.
With its spacewalking pace and alienating dialogue, Solaris is so miserable it makes Misery look like Disney. In 2002, Steven Soderbergh put George Clooney in his Hollywood remake, but this is an arthouse epic that could only have come from Russia – a country with a gloomy past, and by the looks of it, a depressing future.