Thursday, April 15, 2010

REVIEW: Solaris (1972) vs. Solaris (2002)

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Year 1972

Solaris is a hypnotic Russian science fiction film brought to us by the legendary director Andrei Tarkovsky. This amazing masterpiece weaves a story about a man named Kris Kelvin, played by a haunted Donatas Banionis, who is assigned to replace a scientist onboard a space station that is orbiting and monitoring the oceans of a strange and mysterious planet. The planet seems to be emitting some form of intelligence that is able to manifest physical objects by prodding the minds of the men onboard the space station, making for some interesting and terrifying outcomes in a secluded place where your mind can play tricks with you. This film is beautifully shot and it revels in its surreal imagery.

Kelvin, lost in a sea of memories.

There are some interesting choices that the director applies to the overall presentation of the film. At random times, specified specifically by the director's well crafted hands, the color images switch over to a crisp black and white stock, bringing about an entirely different feel for the scene that it is applied to. These moments are usually reserved to better highlight a certain situation and bring our attention to a particular mood that the character is going through. It is an interesting choice and one that makes Solaris that much more strange and unique among its Sci-Fi brethren.

A hauntingly peaceful image that thrives in black and white.

Unlike other science fiction tales, Solaris focuses on a more personal story, staying close inside the mind of its main character and delving into his private relationships and secret fears. It's entrancing to follow, and through this mind set, a part of us is now with Kelvin as he journeys into unknown territories. We learn about Kelvin's past love named Hari, played by the most saddest women in the world Natalya Bondarchuk, who died 7 years ago in the film and these memories of her still haunt him to this day.

Cheer up Hari, you're gonna find the golden
ticket and earn a seat on the space station.

The images of space and the space station are all done in a practical style and they look amazing. I've always loved the way model work was used so much in these early science fiction films. There's just something concrete and real about them that computer graphics still haven't found a way to master yet. The view of the space station as Kelvin slowly makes his approach and docks his spaceship, is beautifully paced and sets the mood up perfectly as we enter into a world not like our own. This entire scene has a magical touch that conditions us for what's to come.

A great practical model of the space station.

Inside the space station, there's an abundant array of 70's style design that floods the eyes with its simplicity and sterile form. The sets are so plain, yet they have so much character in them, that it's really a great display at what the art department was able to do with this film. The locations inside the station are all diverse with the living quarters feeling completely different from the hallways and laboratories. I would say that the station itself is a character all of its own, providing great exposition for the camera to take in.

What a wonderfully weird room.

I enjoyed the incorporation of futuristic tech that the director subtly applied throughout the film. Nothing was in your face, but rather tucked into the background to serve as a functioning object of this world. The best science fiction films are the ones that treat the technology of the world as a practical tool that can be used and appear to exist as it is. Many of these future techs seem functional and born from the world that the film is set in, like the large screen where Kelvin views his predecessors diaries. This video screen not only seems functional and real, but it also provides an amazing visual that the director can use to promote his stunningly visual style. Tarkovsky does a wonderful job of melding all of these things together, making a living breathing world full of functionality and believability.

After viewing the scientists log, Kelvin
popped in a movie and vegged out.

Not only are the sets, model work, and technology done to perfection, but the story is quite entrancing and mentally intriguing. The idea of a planet being aware of its surroundings, almost suggesting that it is in fact an alien life form able to manifest ones darkest and most personal thoughts, is such an outstanding concept. This idea is never squandered by the filmmakers as they delve deep into a humanistic view of how we would deal with an encounter of such unusual measure. Kelvin is rocked by his manifestation, who comes in the image of his long dead wife. He struggles with comprehending how this is even possible and at first he is greeted by fear, even trying to send his wife's false image out into space only to have her reappear only moments later in his living quarters.

The first appearance of Hari arrives in a beautiful fashion.

After spending some time with his manifestation of Hari, he begins to grow accustom to it. He's been without his wife for 7 years and having her back now is like a dream come to life. Kelvin slowly starts to prefer this alternate reality to the real world, seeing that in the real world he doesn't have the companionship that he had with Hari when she was alive. He falls under the spell of the manifestation and denies the fact that she is not real and just something that sprung from inside his mind. This concept is surrealistically tackled by Tarkovsky and the way he handles the initial meetings of Kelvin to his manifestation are quite remarkable. The idea of meeting someone that you've loved for the first time is rather perplexing and the director knowingly brings this feeling to the film and uses it for all it's worth. You almost feel as if you are lost in a dream, as nothing ever feels truly real, but for Kelvin's character it's real enough. 

Kelvin struggles to come to terms with what he is seeing.

As the film progresses and the communication with the ocean planet continues, we are shown shots of the planet's surface and notice that each time we are given one, that the planet is changing and moving. Each visual we get of the liquid surface is more turbulent then the next, begging the question, is this constantly rising tension in the surface structure safe and are there any ill effects from extended contact with this alien like being? The severity of the situation is apparent as our director projects those fears into our characters as they struggle to coexist with their apparitions and find some kind of peace.

The expansive oceans of the mysterious planet.

Of course, peace is hard to come by when two separate life forms begin meeting for the first time. There is a great many cases of trial and error, as Kelvin begins to understand the limitations of his manifestation and the slow learning curve that it has. At first it can't stand to be out of his sight, resorting to bashing through doors in order to be near him. Then realizing that the manifestation is just that, a manifestation, it decides that it will end its existence, giving over to many questions of if this is in fact an alien life form that Kelvin is communicating with or if it is a creation of this life form, meant to make peace between the two cultures. These questions are smart and deep and that's just what you get from this film. It's a great platform for ideas to be passed around and theories to be quantified.

Is this manifestation alive or not? You be the judge.

As Kelvin slips into nightmare scenarios and then wakes to be comforted by a sweet dream like apparition, we are thrown with him into this wild ride, not knowing if reality has ever been present in this film. He's confronted by so many things that he had once kept locked up in his mind and are now running rampant in physical form, that it's amazing that he hasn't snapped long before the credits begin to role. The journey he is on is a spiritual one and possibly a test by this unseen alien force that proceeds to conjure these manifestations to pry into our knowledge and test our integrity.

The disorientation of this film is felt by all of the characters.

If there's one thing that this film excels in it's creating a story that is so ambiguous in nature yet so specific in its intentions that it literally boggles the mind. We are meant to question the existence of the manifestation and wonder on the validity of the planet's intelligence. Nothing is spelled out in this film and I for one think that it's better for it. This film thrives in a spiritual sense and it should be different for each viewer to determine what is real and what is of the mind. I think this is a very special way to handle such a strong concept and frankly its the only way to go for this film. Even in the beginning of the film, we are placed into a world that never fully felt tangible, always lost in a cloudy like dream. The pacing is so patient and the visuals so vivid that we're disconnected from any kind of reality right off the bat, so I think that it's perfect for the film to leave you in a constant state of questions without concrete answers. This very idea is what makes Solaris so intriguing and captivating.

Tarkovsky can make some breathtaking images.

Solaris is a film that is more of an experience then a linear narrative. It probes deep into the human psyche and asks the question if we can handle all that we truly desire. Can we accept the unfamiliar and embrace the indefinite proof that we do not know all that is out there in the universe. After trudging through the long and pain staking journey to find ourselves, will we still be intact both mentally and physically, or will the strains of bending our mind around something we just can't quite understand be the result of our ultimate demise.

This is what makes Solaris great. This is what makes it a masterpiece of science fiction and of cinema in general. It brings these concepts to the table and allows us to pry into the idea of finding ourselves through the films mirroring journey of understanding. We can only get from the movie, what we're willing to put into it and that is an amazing thing to provide to an audience that thirsts for new ideas and innovative concepts. This film is recommended to anyone that enjoys abstract cinema of the science fiction variety.

Solaris (2002)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Year 2002

Solaris, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is an immensely captivating film that borrows heavily from the original Solaris' plot, but streamlines it for a more cohesive narrative that moves along at a brisk pace while keeping true to the nature of Tarkovsky's masterpiece.

The title role goes to George Clooney, as he brings the same grim and silent internal struggle that Donatas brought to his role of Kris Kelvin in the 1972 film. In this version, Chris Kelvin the psychologist, receives a strange message from a friend that is on board the Solaris. He tells him to join him on the space station after strange events begin to occur resulting in the death of their commander.

George Clooney as Chris Kelvin aka Sad Bastard.

One of the benefits of updating a film from the 70's is infusing it with the latest and greatest in computer special effects. Luckily, Soderbergh doesn't let this idea alone drive him in making this film, and he applies these new effects with great love and care, only applying them in the subtlest ways. The effects work is breathtaking to say the least and it works perfectly for this new updated and slick looking version of an original and amazing film. These effects really bring the space exploration to life and the space station and pivotal planet look just gorgeous. I still prefer the original and its practical use of models, but this is a beautiful rendition of an already astounding scene.

The station and surrounding space look great in this update.

Along with the update on effects, we are given a modern day look with a slightly futuristic accent for the technology. Like the original though, none of these future technological marvels are plastered all over the screen taking your attention away from the story at hand. Everything is infused into the world that we are being shown and it all seems natural and in place, giving it all a lived in feel. Soderbergh did an excellent job of staying true to the concepts that made the original such an enthralling film. It may be sleek and glossy as all hell, but its got the true nature of the original and that's good enough for me.

George wearing his thunder dome helmet in style.

I also love the casting of Jeremy Davies as Snow, one of the scientists on board the Solaris. He's such an amazingly estranged actor and can play such a curiously weird character, that this film so desperately thrives on displaying. I've immensely enjoyed his parts on LOST and Ravenous and his disturbingly accurate portrayal of Charles Manson in the film Helter Skelter. In Solaris, he gets to thrive doing what he does best, portraying an off kilter scientists that makes you wonder, what's this guy on? I think the addition of his character in the film, breathes new life into the overall feel of the movie, and it made me care a little bit more for the other existing members of the Solaris crew.

You kooky bastard you.

We are also given another manifestation for Kelvin to interact with in the character of Rheya, played by the doe eyed Natascha McElhone. She was Kelvin's mentally strained wife who killed herself years ago, but is now freaking him out and making him question his sanity. We are given some great moments from the original, when Kelvin tricks his wife to get into an escape pod, jettisoning her into space only to reappear moments later. Natascha's portrayal of a women convinced that she is real and not a manifestation of some planet, is quite compelling and unsettlingly sincere. She does such an amazing job just acting with her expressive eyes. The woman is an outstanding actress and she really shines in this emotional and personal piece.

Here's looking at you kid.

Soderbergh captures some beautiful moments and exquisitely framed shots in this film. The look is so artistically sound and expertly delivered, that you can't help but think that this is one of the best looking remakes to come out in a long while. Even though he doesn't keep the same pace as the original, with its long graceful takes, he still manages to slow the flow of the film to a standard that still melds well with the current generation of fast paced films. The narrative is always pushed forward and we always feel like we are making new ground and headed to a definite conclusion.

This film is chock full of fantastic imagery.

A choice that the director makes that differs from the original film, is the decision to incorporate flashbacks to better flesh out the relationships between Kelvin and his long dead wife. We get to see the happy years along with the steady decline of Rheya's mental stability. I rather enjoyed this little addition to the fabulous formula, and I felt myself caring personally for the characters more then I did in the original story. This is a welcomed addition and one that I think really works in bringing the characters into a more sympathetic light.

The manifestation of Rheya insists that she is the real thing.

Concepts and differences aside, the cast really does do an astonishing job with their parts and they bring a sense of urgency to their roles that give a pulse to their perspectives and ground the film in reality. Tarkovsky's 1972 film always felt like the characters were in a dreamlike state, giving heavy doses of the surreal, while Soderbergh's seems set in the real world with real consequences all driven by moral dilemmas that feel relatable. I really don't know which I prefer over the other, but each film accurately accomplishes what they set out to do and both work perfectly in there respective categories.

A shot of the planet surface as it changes.

Much like Kelvin in the original, George Clooney's character has to come to terms with his manifestation. He resists at first, but eventually comes to care for the apparition of his dead wife, feeling that he has a chance now to make up for all of that lost time since her death. Clooney does a great job with his character and you sympathize with his plight of reliving past memories and the opening of past wounds. You can see the excruciating emotions that he's going through as he has to relive the thoughts of losing her all over again. I haven't really been impressed with any of Clooney's movies post his explosive portrayal of Seth Gecko in From Dusk Till Dawn, but here he shows me why he is a top actor in his profession. He delivers a performance with such heart and honesty, that you really have to stand up and commend his efforts.

Clooney takes a moment to think things over.

The mystery of the manifestations and the overall plot of the film is not as mystically portrayed as it is in the original, but that doesn't mean that it isn't intriguing. It just isn't focused upon as much as the characters interactions with each other are in this film. I guess you could say the superb acting in this version distracts you away from the bigger picture of things and allows you to be pulled in to the drama that occurs between the characters and their personal lives. I was far more interested by Clooney's portrayal of Kelvin and his interactions with his wife, then I was with the original Kelvin and his.

That doesn't mean that Donatas didn't do an amazing job with his character because he did, but in my opinion the 2002 version is more character driven and Soderbergh allows his characters to express themselves more giving us a more personal portrayal of their lives. I also think the flashbacks help, because we are offered a window into their past lives before they were secluded from society aboard the Solaris. I do enjoy knowing a bit more about Kelvin and seeing him interact with people outside of the space station. It's a welcomed addition to the remake, that doesn't take anything away from the original concept. It only adds a new flavor and gives us a side of Kelvin that we weren't privileged to before.

Ok Clooney, I think you've had enough
time to think things over. Get back to work.

The 2002 version of Solaris is an enjoyable film that lays out the same concepts of the original, but scales it down a bit for an Americanized version of a beloved Russian classic. I love both movies and I think what both Soderbergh and Tarkovsky have done with their films is amazing. Tarkovsky gives us a surreal look into a science fiction film that presents itself in a poetic and ambiguously metaphorical vision, while Soderbergh goes the more straight forward route, giving us a sleek and beautiful updated science fiction film, that stays true to the integrity of the original while pushing the narrative along by the help of its dramatic and humanized cast.

Solaris (1972)
5 out of 5 stars     A Classic Mind-Trip of a Film That Can Never Be Matched.

Solaris (2002)
4 out of 5 stars     A Beautifully Character Focused Remake.


  1. I was unaware of the 2004 Helter Skelter movie. I've just recently seen the one starring Steve Railsback and really enjoyed it. I'm curious what your overall opinion is on the newer version of Helter Skelter.

  2. Considering Tarkovsky's film is an absolute masterpiece, Soderbergh did a solid job with Solaris. The use of flashbacks worked well to get the audience to sympathize with Kelvin's pain. It was definitely a more straight forward take on the story. I even felt skeptical when Clooney was casted as Kelvin, but was pleasantly surprised by his performance.
    Solaris (1972) is a cinematic treasure.

  3. Pat, the 2004 Helter Skelter is awesome and you should really check it out. I haven't watched the Steve Railsback one in a long time, but I remember that it was pretty good. Both films are pretty different from each other and I love Jeremy Davies' portrayal of Charles Manson in Helter Skelter. You believe he's the real thing.

    DreamFiction, yeah Tarkovsky's film is a masterpiece. It's a film that has a strange life of its own, and the remake was a pleasant surprise. I went into it thinking that it wouldn't be very good because of all the negative reviews I read on it, but I'm glad I went ahead and checked it out or myself. Clooney hit it out of the park and gained a lot of respect from me.

  4. I actually preferred the 2002 version, as Tarkovsky sometimes overdid some of the sequences (e.g. the freeway drive). Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies were excellent as the self-consiously neurotic crew. And the score was superb.

  5. Adam.... Yeah the 2002 version is definitely easier to sit through and the freeway drive sequence does tend to drag on. I think what the 2002 version did so well, was to streamline the entire concept and keep the narrative compact enough that it conveyed the same emotions as the original film without sacrificing too much of the story. Either way they're both great films, just executed differently. Thanks for checking out the blog.

  6. Adam C. Sieracki: The freeway scene was overdone. However, that was not Tarkovsky's fault. International travel for Soviets at that time was not easily approved. He apparently felt the need to use a large amount of the footage he and his crew filmed in Osaka and Tokyo in order to justify their having taken the trip.

    1. I'm curious to know where you found out what Tarkovsky's motives were for using this footage. Or are you making assumptions?

  7. I love that scene. Just watched 2002. Absolutely terrible, possibly the worst thing I've ever seen. Most probably because it's impossible not to compare it to Tarkovsky's. Pretty much summed up Americanized consumer ideology for me.

  8. Yeah, the original is definitely better then the remake, but I still found some things to appreciate in there, even if it was unneeded and unnecessarily to revisit. At least it might get a few people to search out the original and stumble upon this wonderful film.

  9. hell yes, the remake is such a fraud - and where is the novel in all of this? ah well.

    you might be interested to look at the 1968 tv version - you can find it on youtube:

  10. I love the "freeway scene," and remember being amazed by that scene the first time I took in this film. Also "easier to sit through" strikes me as a weak approach to watching a film. Solaris is one of the greatest masterpieces of film, as is Stalker. This is a question of education and cultural understanding. It is so disappointing that people are into "streamlining" films to make them easier for you to watch. You are confined by your attention spans. Soderbergh either bit off more than he can chew, or he is such an egotist that he believed he could improve on a masterpiece. Much like the Mannerists who followed Michelangelo, da Vinci and Rafael. Soderbergh is no Tarkovsky, and these films are proof.

  11. Stanislaw Lem (the novel's Polish author) said that he never intended 'Solaris' to be interpreted as a love story, but as a meditation on the nature of human quest to understand the unknowable. This could be in the spiritual or religious sense, or simply in a personal sense of understanding one's own motivations and desires. His novel reads better than the 3-hour long film by Tarkovsky, but then it really has a life of its own as a film (even if it does not depart from the plot). In contrast, Lem admitted in a 2002 interview that he was a bit embarrassed by the Soderbergh's take on the novel, but did not disown it either.

  12. Cliff Martinez's score for the 2002 remake is simply brilliant. Those docking sequence spacescapes are long and lush, the perfect marriage of music and visual imagery.

  13. Exactly Astrozon! It's an under-appreciated gem that doesn't really get the love it deserves. Love the score!

  14. I thought Soderbergh completely changed the ending from either the 1972 movie or the novel, and in a way that was completely inconsistent with both the characters' limited understanding of the nature of the visitors and the powers/effects of solaris itself. The 2002 version is beautiful to look at, but IMHO, it is a dumbed-down shadow of Tarkovsky's classic aimed at an audience which prefers to watch movies which do not require much mental exercise.