Classic Film Review: Solaris

Another Wednesday, another classic film review. This week, I’m reviewing the 1972 Soviet sci-fi film ‘Solaris’. Last week, I reviewed Sam Raimi’s ‘Army of Darkness’, so if you wish to read my thoughts on that cult classic, you can do so here. Now, strap in and get your thinking caps on for this one!

To make a compelling science fiction story, you must encourage the audience to contemplate on the questions the story poses. In ‘Blade Runner’ for example, the audience thinks about whether it is moral to persecute a ‘replicant’, a human-like android who wants to attain freedom from the clutches of human civilization. In ‘Dune’, as in the original book, not the 2021 film that only covers the first half of the first book, the audience questions whether a Messianic figure could truly be a force for good. ‘Solaris’ differentiates itself from the rest of its contemporaries by posing a more introspective question: what makes a person real? If your memories of someone you loved manifest into a physical representation of that person, are they real? If that physical representation is a fabrication, does that mean your memories are illegitimate?

While the sluggish pace coupled with the nearly three-hour runtime practically lulled me to sleep, ‘Solaris’ still left an indelible mark on my mind. Soviet cinema is often overlooked in international film, though not as ignored as cinema from the Global South. When people talk about international film, they usually discuss European and Asian cinema. While there are plenty of reasons to laud those films, it feels like the Soviets are somewhat underrated. Whenever I watch a Soviet film, there are some aspects of it that refuse to leave my mind. For ‘Solaris’, I was swept away by the underlying emotional narrative behind its complex philosophy. ‘Solaris’ is as much of a tragic romantic story as it is a philosophical sci-fi film. In fact, the planet of Solaris is never fully seen by the audience. We are only given glimpses of the radioactive ocean producing these hallucinations that haunt Kris Kelvin and the other cosmonauts.

The science fiction is somewhat subdued and the audience is largely left to their imagination to interpret what could be causing this phenomenon where hallucinations manifest into reality. The fantastical elements blended with the scientific phenomenon that eludes the characters are distinctly Soviet. The film cannot explain what is unexplainable, so we are left to assume that the human consciousness is being manipulated in such a way where the lines between reality and fantasy are erased. We eventually cannot trust everything that we see, which coincides with the mental deterioration of our main protagonist. The desires that Kelvin wants are immaterial and compels him to deviate from his fellow humans. Perhaps those desires are a mere fabrication as well because of the hallucinogenic effects of the oceans of Solaris?

The conflicts that arise from this narrative open the door to a myriad of interpretations and theories. This is the type of film you would watch in a collegiate film class that precedes a seven-page paper. The complexities and intricacies of the story elicits a conversation from those who watch it. That being said, I would not go so far as to say this is an accessible film. Due to the lack of entertainment value, I would not recommend ‘Solaris’ to people who simply watch films to turn their brains off for a couple hours. As I said previously, this will lull you to sleep. With the soft-spoken, monotonous dialogue and incredibly sedate pacing, many viewers would find ‘Solaris’ to be mind-numbingly boring. The cinematography is comprised of prolonged close-ups or long-takes that the film feels like it’s moving in slow motion.

Conversations are often humorless and discuss scientific concepts in great detail. I would argue the story becomes more engaging when Kelvin’s wife Hari appears, which occurs after an hour into the film. This appearance prompts Kelvin to question everything, including his own memories and existence. ‘Solaris’ goes from a speculative science-fiction fantasy to a philosophical and existential romantic film. Naturally, the story eventually becomes tragic, which is saying something because the film always had an underlying melancholia throughout. Despite the melancholy and overall dreariness, the film does conclude in a beautiful note. While not every question the audience may have is answered, the film does leave us with an important concept: the permanence and resilience of love.

‘Solaris’ is a sad, but beautiful film that confronts the notion of selfhood and the purpose of existence. Love, no matter how intangible, is what compels humanity to keep living, even if they decide to live in a world of falsehoods. ‘Solaris’ is one of those films that demands a lot from the audience, which is a tough pill to swallow for many people. If you like watching movies that make you ponder, ‘Solaris’ is one of the best films for that treatment.

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Peter Finaldi

Graduate at Rutgers University. Writes about movies, video games, and anything else that I find interesting. My twitter: @PeterJFinaldi