(On Cable TV, January 2019) Despite my best intentions, I remain unmoved by Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography. Stalker is often mentioned in “best science fiction movies” lists, but I have to wonder how much of this reputation is due to contrarianism or historical desire to annoy the USSR. (Or, within the written SF community, the excellent standing of its source novel by the Strugatsky brothers.) It’s still true that Stalker is quite unlike most Science Fiction movies even today. At nearly two hours and 45 minutes, it’s a long sit made even longer by the glacial pace of the film—and most of it only features three characters walking around industrial ruins. (Considering this and the sorry state of the set decorations on Solyaris, I have to wonder how much of Tarkovsky’s SF filmography was based on the availability of disaffected Soviet factories.) Tarkvsky, of course, isn’t some kind of rapid-fire auteur—his entire oeuvre is slow paced and you know from the second film what you’re getting into. Still, I didn’t dislike Stalker as much as I wanted to: There are a few good ideas buried under the lengthy shots, and some very clever filmmaking ideas as well—the picture shifts from sepia to colour as the characters enter the mysterious alien “zone” in which the story takes place, and Tarkovsky’s knack for striking images is not to be dismissed easily. Still, it takes an effort of will to avoid fast-forwarding through the entire thing. Tarkovsky could be ten times as interesting if he was twice as concise.
(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?