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May 29, 2003

Not to be confused with its retarded cousin, the 2002 remake by Soderbergh. Actually, I've been told that Soderbergh's vision stands on its own, but without the philosophical richness. I may rent it eventually.

I had all the reasons to dread this movie. After all, *everyone* has already praised it, it is a movie of my favourite sub-genre (not just science-fiction, but "hard" science-fiction, of which 2001:ASO is the acknowledged flagship), it is routinely called "the Russian answer to 2001", it is made by a director who is acknowledged widely as a master (Andrei Tarkovski), and so I was afraid of getting dissapointed. It couldn't be as good as I imagined, right ?

Wrong. Very wrong. Solyaris *is* a masterpiece, although the resemblance to 2001:ASO fades away after a deeper appraisal. It definitively stands alone. I rate 2001:ASO (second on my top 20) higher than Solyaris (fourth on my top 20), but this should not be seen as downgrading Solyaris's mastery.

Solyaris is about many things : the limits of science and unrelentlessness, our tendancy to reduce everything in our own terms and being unable to open ourselves to the different, free will, guilt, and perhaps personal identity, and love, too. With such wonderful setting and material (notably in the form of the book "Solaris", by Stanislaw Lem), we would ask for nothing less. But when Tarkovsky does it, well, it's even better. But it's a movie made in his style : and if you don't have the attention span to watch a movie that lasts three hours, too bad. But you're missing out.

How, then, to describe the plot ? Because I have to try. The human race is now united and exploring space, but it falls upon an epinous problem : Solaris, a planet whose mysteries remain intact after dozens of years of study. Not only is it composed only of one all-encompassing Ocean, but this Ocean may be sentient. At any rate, the three remaining occupants of the Solaris station are going insane, and cold-hearted psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is dispatched on a mission upon which the fate of the station, the study of Solaris, and perhaps even Solaris itself, depend. But as Kelvin uncovers the true nature of the madness that strikes the stranded scientists, his mission takes second place to his own psychological turmoil.

I'm afraid that's as far as I will tell you, but that's already a half-hour. Solyaris is a three-hour visual fest. It has minimal special effects (with the notable exception of Solaris itself), and minimal music, in keeping with Tarkosky's style. They are not missed, of course. The acting is competent, when needed (as in 2001:ASO, there isn't a lot of it, but there is a lot more dialogue). The script, direction and visuals are sublime.

This movie has been praised as Christian, and Tarkovsky himself was a Christian mystic, although he was more of a mystic than a Christian. I have seen it twice already and I can testify there is not one trace of religion in Solyaris (not that his Communist masters would have allowed such anyway). There is a resurrection, however, but to associate it with Jesus would be hackeyned at best.

There is also not a lot of technology. In fact, we only see the station for a few seconds, and we don't even see Kelvin's capsule (except in the deleted scene). This is on purpose. Tarkovsky is not a science-fiction director, and only liked the story for its psychological aspects, not its technological aspects (indeed, according to biographies, viewing 2001:ASO cemented his idea of going away from a special effects fest and into the kind of movies he liked to make). He was forced by Lem to make a movie that stayed closer to the original story, and thus we got the best of both worlds.

This review could last for pages and pages, so I tried to do this as quick as possible. If you like science-fiction, especially hard science-fiction, you would be a dumb ass not to see this movie. A really dumb ass.

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