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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Living Planet
by Donald Levit

Overcoming a limp Soderbergh remake with George Clooney and Viola Davis twenty years afterwards, 1972 Solaris is Andrei Tarkovsky’s most widely known film here. It was made not long after, and is often compared with 2001 A Space Odyssey -- some cite, rather, A Clockwork Orange -- but actually finished before the Russian saw Kubrick’s Arthur C. Clarke, which the legendary snob thought “sterile” technology fixation, anyway. This metaphysics-masquerading-as-science-fiction kicks off the Museum of Arts and Design/MAD’s “Sculpting in Time,” all seven of the features he did before dying at 54, rounded out by Michal Leszczylowski’s documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, in refreshing 35mm and all also included in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 2009 “Revisiting Tarkovsky.”

Celebrated more in Europe, particularly embraced at Cannes, the Soviet defector’s non-linear or –chronological, long-take, landscape-caressing aesthetic, his dreamy or dream focus, open-ended or absent plots, moral or moralizing philosophical ambiguity, world culture references, religious aura, poetic fuzziness and color/b&w shifts have drawn praise for their vision and influence but equal condemnation for lengthy pretentiousness that had David Shipman “flee from Solaris after an hour and Mirror even earlier.”

The leisurely hundred sixty-seven minutes is dotted with longueurs and unnecessary visual or verbal asides to Quixote, Breughel the Elder, Martin Luther, Apollinaire, Homer, Andrei Rublev (the title-subject of Tarkovsky’s previous, second work), Praxiteles, surrealism. There are inconsistencies, troubling not moments but minutes of silence, recurrence of moving waters (and their noise) and roiling surfaces, a disquieting obsession with curves and roundness at the expense of straights and angles, and within sparse dialogue some platitudinizing nonsense about love, memory, meaning and reality. Tarkovsky himself is reputed to have thought this the least of his films, and Stanislaw Lem, Polish author of the homologous source novel here co-adapted by the director, hated it.

Yet for all this, those with patience will find Solaris mesmerizing, visual and emotional food for thought even if such thought is open to a rainbow of interpretations, or to none. Indeed, cannily conceived final seconds posit the thought that we and our thoughts are no more than dreams of memories conjured up by some inconceivable Being, Other or Guest, “a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma.” If so, it matters little, for all is so if you think it is so. The director-writer spoke of “relating emotionally to art, these images which we create mean nothing more than the images which they are.” Paradoxically, he also insisted on “seeing truth on the screen.’

Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is rocketed far to a non-responsive space station above distant liquid-surfaced Solaris in which it is believed that only three crew remain of an original eighty-five. Briefed by pilot Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetshy) about unnerving experiences there in the past, his findings are to determine whether to shut down or continue the Solaristics project. A widower of ten years with an awkward marriage past revealed later, he stays at his parents’ country house, is taciturn, emotionless, a saver of documents from his past, and not physically heroic.

The protean planet below may be a sort of giant consciousness or entity with which the twenty-plus-years cosmonauts have been unable to establish Contact. It turns out only two are alive, Doctor Snaut and astrobiologist Sartorius (Jüri Järvet and Anatoly Solonitsyn), playing good-cop-bad-cop scientists to the naïve new arrival, while the third, former colleague and friend Doctor Gibarian (Sos Sargsian), has left him an audio tape detailing his emotions, fears and suicide, which latter is to be the first of several.

Human and a “mechanical construct,” at once loving and cold, Kris’s dead wife Hari (Natalia Bondarchuk) materializes in his space bedroom, reawakening emotion in the heart-dead widow who had left her. This space wife is soon tricked into a death in space, only to reappear again and commit suicide again, and reappear and commit suicide and . . .

(Released by Kino International and rated "PG" by MPAA.)

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