Solaris, and a few more movies

#195  [archive]

Solaris (1972)

Once upon a long time ago, I had a Republican friend, and we both liked movies, so when Solaris played at Seattle's Neptune Theater, we went together. He said nothing during the movie (a prerequisite for being my friend, of course) but as we waited for the bus afterward, he said, "That's why America has to win the Cold War — to make sure nothing like Solaris ever comes from American moviemaking."

My friend liked the movie, though. In his Republican way, he was saying that it's certainly Russian, and moves at the speed of Russkie drama, which is very very slowly. When a character has something to say, it might start with a five-second close-up of his mouth, then a five-second pull-back revealing his whole face, then a few seconds' pause, and then the actor will heavily inhale and finally deliver his lines.

The film starts with a long opening shot of riverweed waving in water, followed by more riverweed waving in water.

Later there's a guy driving across town while pondering a conversation he's just had. He's thinking deep thoughts, which the movie shows by having the camera ride along as the guy thinks. For maybe five minutes, we're driving on freeways and bridges and through tunnels, followed by more freeways and bridges and tunnels full of thinking. 

Solaris is a movie full of thinking, and this is a good review if you're wondering. But jeez, it's Russian. If an American moviemaker turned this in to the studio, he'd get hollered at and told to trim an hour.

Based on a novel I haven't read by Polish sci-fi master Stanislaw Lem, and brought to the screen by Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker), it's about a space station where something's gone awry, orbiting a remote all-water planet called... Solaris.

A guy who was at the space station came back out of whack mentally, saying he'd seen a little kid out there, which isn't possible. No kids allowed in outer space. (Shut up, Wesley). Also, confusing messages have been received from the three cosmonauts currently on the station, so the High Command sends space psychologist Kris Kelvin to investigate.

When Doc Kelvin gets to the space station, stuff happens, but it's stuff better watched than written about. (Typing that line, I hear the book's author, Stanislaw Lem, shouting at me, "Hey, I wrote about it. Why can't you?" Well, because you're Stanislaw Lem and I'm not.)

Solaris is about love and death, grief and regret, the unbearable lifelong agony and occasional joy of being human, and also invisible brain probes. Watching this movie is spending 2½ hours with smart people telling you a smart story, but at a pace slow enough that you can keep up.

I almost kept up, but some of the movie I don't understand, same as real life. Still I'd say, no film better captures and triggers the melancholy thrill of thinking deep thoughts. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Space Monster Wangmagwi (1967) 

A big space monster comes to earth, where our atmosphere somehow makes it bigger. It stomps through Seoul, which lacks the magic of monsters stomping through Tokyo. 

South Korea has encroached on Japan's giant monster genre, but the monster is rather obviously a man in a rubber suit, and the rubber suit's feet have enormous hangnails. Also, the Koreans have forgotten that these things are supposed to be fun.

The camerawork is well-focused, and some of the acting is oddly excellent, with thespians taking the proceedings very seriously. Seems they're trying out for Hamlet, while the hangnailed monster stomps behind them.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Tank Girl (1995)

A comet has smashed into Earth, ruining the planet. San Francisco is now in a desert, it hasn't rained in eleven years, and everyone wears dust masks.

This is imitation riot grrrl apocalyptic action, with Lori Petty wisecracking like Bruce Willis in the title role. Ice-T plays a kangaroo-man, and Naomi Watts plays a Hollywoodized survivor — meaning, she's gorgeous but with a smudge here and there. Malcolm McDowell runs the world's water supply, and he's a rat bastard so you'd think you're going to be thirsty. 

The great drought is just a passing MacGuffin, though. Nobody in the film lacks for a drink of water, and it's all rehashed Road Warrior bits with an indie rock soundtrack.

There's not much story, so to hold your attention director Rachel Talalay (several Doctor Who episodes, some good, some disappointing) presents endless odd visuals. It's all very kinetic, but not in a vomit-inducing way. My favorite nuttiness was the whorehouse workers doing a choreographed performance of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love."

Your eyes will be entertained, but you can leave your brain out to dry. Solaris this ain't, but it's sure strange.

Verdict: MAYBE.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Fog Over Frisco (1934)

God Bless America (2011) 

Hobo (1992)

Invader (1991)

John Wick (2014)

The Last Case of August T Harrison (2015) 

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1941)

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

The Naked City (1948)

The Night Strangler (1973)

Nightmare Alley (1947)

9 to 5 (1980)

Risky Business (1983)

The Rockford Files (debut episode; 1974)

Smothered (2002)

Special Bulletin (1983) 

Squirm (1976) 

Stephen Fry in America (2008)

Taoism Drunkard (1981) 

The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

... plus occasional schlock and surprises 

    • • • And then • • •

A Better Tomorrow (1996)

A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990)

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

The Bat People (1974) 

The Beatles: Get Back (2021) 

Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)

Brainwaves (1983) 

The Card Counter (2021) 

Cellular (2004)  

The Celluloid Closet (1996)

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)

Dark Star (1974)

The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009) 

The Decline of Western Civilization (1980) 

Downsizing (2017)

Frankenhooker (1990) 

The General (1926) 

Get Shorty (1995)

The Gorilla (1939)

The Green Girl (2014)

Hiroshima (1953)

Hugo (2011) 

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

The Internet's Own Boy (2014)

Kids in the Hall (debut episode; 1988)  

Kids in the Hall (reunion debut episode; 2022) 

The Killing of America (1981) 

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)  

Line of Duty (debut episode; 2012)

Love Happy (1950)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Man Who Thought Life (1969)

The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

The Manhattan Project (1996) 

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

Not Wanted (1949)

Nothing But a Man (1964) 

Phone Booth (2002)

PickAxe (1999)

Poison (1990)

Popeye (1980)

Reflections of Evil (2002)

Revelations (1993)

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Romper Stomper (1992)

Room Service (1938) 

Same Kind of Different as Me (2017) 

Saved! (2004)

Scared to Death (1947) 

Secret Weapons (1985) 

The Shooting (1966)

The Soloist (2009) 

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Street of Crocodiles (1986)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Taken for a Ride (1996)

The Train (1964)

Truck Turner (1974)

Welcome to New Orleans (2006)

Who Farted? (2019) 

Who's That Girl? (1987) 

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

 Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. > Still I'd say, no film better captures and triggers the melancholy thrill of thinking deep thoughts.

    You need to see Mannequin 2: On the Move before making such a brash statement.

  2. My wife and I tried watching Solaris years ago, and made it as far as the freeway scene you describe. She fell asleep and I was bored too so I gave up on it. Couple years later she divorced me and your review makes me want to give it a second chance.

    1. Congrats or condolences on the divorce.

      For some movies you gotta be in the right headspace, and it probably helps to know in advance as you do, that it's not quick cuts and wisecracks. Plz let me know whether you enjoy it.


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