Andrei Tarkovsky

Is Solaris the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Akira Kurosawa watched the movie Solaris with the man who directed it and wrote about it. His remarks are included in the official release through Criterion and they are worth reading whether you’ve seen the film or not. He said that people find the movie slow, but he doesn’t. He said that people find Andrei Tarkovsky’s films difficult, but he doesn’t. He says these things matter-of-factly, but it’s also interesting that he brings the criticisms to the table in the first place. No one said “say some negative things and refute them,” this is ostensibly a pure piece of praise.

Tarkovsky has three films on the Sight & Sound list of best movies of all time. None of them are Solaris, but I decided to start with it anyway after my friends Mike and Eliza suggested it as a movie that you could nap to. That was a joke, but I get what they mean. It’s often called the Russian “answer” to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s lengthy, difficult masterpiece. I love 2001 and love it a little more every time I see it, but Tarkovsky hated it. He said it felt obsessed with technology and that it was lifeless. A lot of what Tarkovsky hated about 2001 is what I love about it. It’s a challenge, but a worthy challenge. Everything isn’t on the screen. That’s frustrating and there’s a valid discussion worth having about if an ending needs to be objective. Kubrick famously didn’t want to explain what happens in his movie and he wanted you to find the meaning that worked for you. The technology piece is a confusing criticism to me, but it makes a lot of sense after you see how the Russian director responded with Solaris.

All apologies to Kurosawa, but Solaris is a trying experience. There’s a reason he felt he had to, unprompted, respond to criticisms of Tarkovsky’s films as long. Solaris includes a five minute scene with no dialogue between characters we will never see again as they drive through a tunnel. It would be impossible to discuss Solaris without talking about the multiple extended periods of silent meandering shots of characters looking into the distance. It’s boring, often, and there’s really not an argument against that statement that I think a person could make.

That’s the point, really, and why I think Kubrick and Tarkovsky found different ways to explore similar space. 2001 includes a long shot where we see a spaceship dock for what feels like ten minutes. It’s long and drawn out and it’s not necessary, which has led to multiple defenses of it as part of the experience. Solaris similarly wants you to simmer in the mundane. When the main character shows up on a space station after a solo flight, he has a leather jacket on and seems almost bored by the experience. We’re supposed to infer that this happens all the time. This is not our world. People go to space here, that part isn’t supposed to be impressive.

There are four versions of this story. The original is a novel, which was made into a TV movie, which was then followed by Tarkovsky’s version in 1972, which was finally followed by Steven Soderbergh’s version in 2002. I watched the last two and I’m really glad I did, because Soderbergh’s version is fairly divisive. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s a really weird version of this story. I haven’t read the novel, but just comparing the two film versions, you come away from the modern one with a bad taste in your mouth.

Solaris is an ocean planet that has some supernatural powers, allowing it to manifest certain things on the space station that our characters observe the planet from. The scientists have been there a long time and they’re starting to lose it. Our main character in both versions is a psychologist sent to figure everything out. Tarkovsky spends half an hour showing us life on Earth, with particular focus on a pilot who has had previous experience with Solaris. The pilot tells the psychologist he should hear his story and think about it, but not for too long. In the remake, George Clooney plays the psychologist and we see a montage of his experience on Earth in a lonely world, consumed by the death of his wife.

In both versions of the story the same things are true. Space is a part of life. Solaris is an ocean planet with magical powers. The doctor is haunted by his wife’s death. The thing that’s different is how they’re presented. It may sound like a small thing, but the leather jacket is a good example. In the 1972 version, the doctor wanders around and slowly discovers what is amiss. In the 2002 version, he shows up and is immediately told everything. The film’s big line, “we don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,” is the payoff of almost three hours of rising tension in the 1972 version. In 2002 it happens fifteen minutes in, to no fanfare.

Soderbergh was making a different movie. Clooney looks worried about going to space and a side character tells him that the flight is automated and he’ll be asleep for all of it. We don’t really get that in Tarkovsky’s version, even at double the length. When we see him walk into the space station we can infer he flew there. We don’t need you to say he’ll safely fly there, don’t worry. The modern version has dozens of examples of this in the dialogue, with a constant need to explain what’s happening and how it’s happening to the audience. Clooney at one point uses a specific term for an unexplainable phenomena immediately upon learning about it. In the 1972 version this is a long scene with the character confused and frightened by their new reality, which is how anyone would experience it. It’s a very weird choice to make him ultra capable and immediately familiar with something humanity could not even imagine.

There’s nothing all that interesting in the remake, but the original is a fascinating, strange piece of art. I can’t spoil the ending, but it really surprised me, maybe even “scared” me is the right term. The remake ends similarly but without any of the visual flare or unsettling sensation of Tarkovsky’s film. Soderbergh was making an action movie and he made one, Tarkovsky was making several things at the same time. It’s a rumination on what we mean to each other and what we’re willing to do to preserve our memories.

It’s probably not a very bold take to say the long, weird Russian version is better than the Hollywood remake, but I think Solaris is a way into a more interesting discussion. If a movie is boring, is it bad? When I last saw 2001 in a theater, the crowd seemed anxious and people struggled with some of the longer shots. There’s a lot of filler in Solaris, with two long scenes about philosophical discussion of the meaning of life. Characters offhandedly drop references to great works of literature and smirk at each other in hallways over and over. Really only a few things happen over three solid hours. The tunnel I mentioned earlier is supposed to signify that they live in a futuristic society, but we’re taking quick trips into space to look at the alien world. Don’t we already know this is the future?

It’s only through Soderbergh’s attempt that Tarkovsky’s makes sense to me. It’s too long, inarguably, and it’s messy, but cut down and simplified it becomes a story no longer worth hearing. Is there a sweet spot? Probably, maybe, but you watch the spaceship dock for ten minutes because it lets you digest. You need to spend some time with this one and Tarkovsky isn’t necessarily interested with what you’re going to see while you spend that time. You bring yourself to Solaris, which means it has to hook you for it to be worth seeing. I wasn’t able to connect with all of it, but the final experience really worked for me, especially the final shot, which will haunt me for some time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I would love to hear Tarkovsky’s take on The Royal Tenenbaums. There’s an interesting comparison to make between the two male leads in these films. Both men want to improve on a past that they cannot change. Both recognize that it’s probably too late, but want the experience of trying to fix it. Both change course once they find the experience unexpectedly changes them. The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favorite modern films and Solaris is a tremendously trying experience. I recommend everyone see Solaris but I cannot say it’s better.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it’s way better than the remake. I was really shocked by Soderbergh’s version, especially because I love most of his work. I think Logan Lucky is one of the most remarkable comedies of the last twenty years. I mentioned small details, but I really think what makes the modern version so weird is that it doesn’t trust the viewer. Almost all of the movie is spent in explanation or backstory. None of this is very interesting and it creates a sensation that the story you’re actually seeing is very small. Tarkovsky’s version wanders around slowly, letting you fill in gaps with what you have to conclude for yourself. Audiences really hated Soderbergh’s version and while I’m sure they probably wouldn’t want to watch a three-hour Russian version of the same story, they would probably feel like it is a more human experience.

You can watch Solaris on HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.