The cerebral sci-fi classic Solaris is for adventurous viewers only

The cerebral sci-fi classic Solaris is for adventurous viewers only

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The origins of the Tom Cruise movie Oblivion have us thinking about offbeat ’70s science fiction.

Solaris (1972)
Blurring the line between science fiction and psychosis, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (adapted from the 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem) recognizes that alien life forms aren’t likely to be the modified humanoids found in most other movies. Instead, the film has a team of astronauts encountering what appears to be a sentient planet, which communicates with them via manifestations plucked from memories and dreams. In particular, Kris (Donatas Banionis), arriving at the orbiting space station to find its crew members either dead or just plain weird, soon encounters a perfect replica of his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who’d committed suicide years previously. When initial attempts to kill (or “destroy”) her prove fruitless—she just keeps regenerating—both parties are forced to reckon with what it means to be or not to be human, especially once Hari comes to understand her true nature. To the extent that it’s even comprehensible, that is.

When Steven Soderbergh remade Solaris in 2002 with George Clooney as Kris (now Chris), Cinemascore responders famously gave it an F, reflecting their anger at having been tricked by a sexy marketing campaign into seeing a solemn, philosophical art film. Tarkovsky’s even chillier and more leisurely version, though superior, would probably get an F-minus. For those with the requisite patience, however, it’s a truly harrowing experience, in part because the inexplicable is made so unemphatic. Solaris ’72 was a major influence on Lars von Trier’s Melancholia—both make explicit visual reference to Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Hunters In The Snow”—and while it’s possible to formulate a religious interpretation of the film’s enigmatic ending, one would be hard-pressed to find any comfort in that vision. At Solaris’ heart is the age-old question of whether a happy illusion is preferable to grim reality, but the subject is explored in a way that makes both options seem equally unendurable. 

Availability: Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray, both packed with special features; digital rental or purchase from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes and VUDU; streaming on HuluPlus; and available for rental from Netflix.