Solyaris [Solaris] (1972)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Solyaris</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Solaris</strong>] (1972)

(On Cable TV, April 2018) It doesn’t often happen that watching “the original” makes me appreciate “the remake” even more, but Solyaris is not a typical film. It took me a surprisingly long time to get to it, considering that I have written for Solaris-the-magazine since 1997 (yes, the name comes from the Stanislaw Lem novel, which I read back in the nineties), and my page on Solaris (2002) Explained has achieved a surprising level of popularity. But Solyaris-the-original is a product of the Soviet film industry. It’s maddeningly opaque, slow, philosophical and emotionally flat to a degree that appears excessive even to an ultra-mild-mannered person such as myself. It’s more than two-and-a-half-hours long and feels considerably longer, not helped along by credulity-straining sequences in which we follow a car driving through Tokyo for a few minutes. (You think I’m making this up, but I’m not.)  The set design of the film is straight from the garbage bin of Soviet industry, with a few striking images but little consistency from room to room. I could go on and on, but let’s admit a few things: I’m not watching the film as if it was 1972. Back then, I would have been almost de rigueur to praise Solyaris for its intellectual take on Science Fiction tropes, refreshingly devoid of special effects and heavy on human psychological exploration. The alien nature of the Soviet film production would have been fascinating and writer/director Andrei Tarkovsky’s quirky choices would have been like no other in recent history (well, other than 2001: A Space Odyssey). But this is 2018 and we’ve seen quite a number of good-to-great SF movies in the decades since then, all able to balance well-paced ideas with outright entertainment. In fact, the key piece of evidence is Solaris-the-remake, which manages to cover the ideas of the original (and add a few more) while chopping more than an hour from the running time. The remake actors are significantly better, the set design is coherent, the SF elements are used intelligently and the pacing is incomparably faster. Plus there’s Steven Soderberg at the helm of the remake, meaning that the result does approach cinema-as-art. Watching the remake was challenging, but watching the original is just a chore. Is it unfair that a remake would improve upon all aspects of the original?

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