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Solaris: Which Cold War Sci-fi epic stands the test of time?

I’m not the first person to compare Andrei Tarkovisky’s 1972 classic Solaris to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey,Criterion Collection cover released just four years earlier. But don’t let that stop you from hearing what I have to say. In many ways, and I hate to admit this, I enjoy the Soviet era Russian film more than Kubrick’s sometimes cryptic and often tedious tale about a short hop to Jupiter and, supposedly, places beyond.

The two films are said to be an essay on the mindset of each of the opposing cultures in the original space race with regards to space exploration. The argument for this view is a strong one. In 2001 the Americans are focusing on a journey. In Solaris the Russians are focused on a longterm space station orbiting an alien planet. Long term survival in space has always been a higher priority than actual distance traveled for the Russians. A tradition that continues today to the exclusion of the Americans. Don’t worry. When it comes time to actually flying to Mars they will come to us to build a ship capable of such a distance. I shouldn’t think anyone would want to fly more than 54 million km in a ship designed by the same people who built MIR. But enough good-natured jabbing.

American science fiction traditionally produces very sterile and tidy space ships whether it’s on the Discovery One, the U.S.S. Enterprise, or really even the Millenium Falcon, which was a rather tidy ship. Even American longterm structures like the Sarang moon base and the Valley Forge were relatively clean. But the Solaris base is another story. Though the movie is never specific, I think it’s a fair estimate to say the base has been in operation for at least 20 years judging by the age of some of the characters. It was designed to house a crew of 85 and so has a very lived-in look about it. Though you can’t blame the current crew of three for falling behind on their cleaning schedule. They had more important matters on their minds. Like making contact with the cerebral mass they seem to be orbiting. Mainly to tell it to stop doing…things. That’s another parallel. Submission to a uncontrollable entity. In one case, HAL. In another, Solaris.

The contrast of this sterility versus humanity carries over into the plot as well. 2001 focuses on one man arguing with a machine in the empty void between Earth and Jupiter. In Solaris a man is confronted with the strain of the death of his wife 10 years prior to the mission while his fellow cosmonauts give him contradictory advice and discuss humanity as whole. That’s not to say Solaris drones on with endless conversation. Tarkovisky tells his tale with a peculiar subtlety that makes his underlying point and confuses the details of the current circumstances in tandem.

There is a much higher dose of action and confrontation in Solaris than in Kubrick’s sprawling epic with its five-minute shots of a passing space ship. Kubrick’s special effects are far superior to those created by Tarkovisky I must admit. But special effects do not stand the test of time. Eventually they become common place and therefore no longer special. When Mel Brooks can match your technological prowess you are officially outdated. An engaging and well paced story with a balanced reliance on the audience’s intelligence to decipher bizarre events will, on the other hand, endure.

While Kubrick may have utilized shot after shot of nothing but a passing space ship, Tarkovisky’s needlessly long scene is just that. One scene. Unfortunately for him, it does nothing but emphasize the lack of special effects. The scene is simply a trip through early 1970’s urban Japan synced up with futuristic sounds, like whirring engines. I kid you not. There are a few theories as to why this scene was included and why it was as long as it was, and some argue that the engineering marvel of a Tokyo highway may have seemed very futuristic to a Soviet audience. I suppose if you never made it off your tractor-less farm in the black-earth belt it might be impressive, but I have a hard time believing your average Muscovite would find the scene futuristic.  The movie side-skirts this issue during the remainder of the Earth sequences with a simple “I hate innovation” line from the home owner. But Tarkovisky does make an effort to bring a futuristic Earth to light. Something Kubrick completely avoids.

Of course if special effects were the crux of the issue would not James Cameron be the best director of all time?

No, for me it comes back to the plot. 2001’s intended plot is a contemplation on man’s drive towards progress  and the great unknown. But with no dialogue to this effect the entire movie is overshadowed by an Eando Binder-esque struggle between man and robot. Solaris instead takes a stark look at the very definition of humanity and the conflicts that arise when there is a difference of opinion on the subject. This plays out in a classic struggle between a man’s deepest desires and the hard truth of reality. Solaris does not dwell on its genre but instead uses it as a backdrop for a broader discussion.

It is this discussion that builds on the visually striking sci-fi context to develop a film that ultimately outshines 2001. It is also the reason it is superior to 2001’s sequel 2010. 2010 brings a stronger plot and updated special effects but doesn’t quite reach the heights it could because, once again, the movie is overshadowed by the ever intrusive HAL.

Both movies end on a somewhat cryptic note, though Solaris will require less explanation than its western counterpart. The lack of a series of sequential images that would make any acid junky have a complete and total freak out goes a long way in bringing clarity to the ending, though Solaris is not without its confusing contradictions.

While both space race classics should be on every sci-fi fans’ “must watch” list, in the end Solaris will be the more enjoyable experience.

Come back when you’ve seen it (the masterfully done Criterion Collection version is available for streaming on Netflix), and I would love to discuss your reaction to Dr. Kris’s arrival on the space station. Specifically the first time he meets  Dr. Sartorius.

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One Response

  1. […] implicitly. Of course, reviews really only work for movies that lead towards the brainy side. Solaris is a good example, or maybe Inception. For your basic low brow comedies and action flicks reviews […]

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