I have voiced my opinion on this matter before. I could not stand the tediously slow pacing of the 1972 Russian science fiction film Solaris, and in fact prefer the 2002 version with George Clooney. I still stand by that opinion, but it does leave me somewhat curious, especially in light of a conversation I have recently had with a friend regarding this movie. He still said that there was something he found interesting about Solaris, and it led me to wonder what it was that the film was saying to him but not to me.
My main criticism of the film. the needlessly slow pacing, was pulled off well in several other movies, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. This leads me to wonder what it is about the pacing that works for me in 2001 but not in Solaris, since it seems a lot of people see something in there that I don't.
So I guess a good place to start is by confronting the main issue: the pacing. Both films make use of slow pacing, but why is it that I find it tedious in Solaris yet beautiful in 2001. I complained that a lot of scenes in Solaris went on much longer than they needed to, but so does 2001. For instance we have the docking sequence that goes on for five whole minutes to "The Blue Danube". Theoretically speaking this could have been done in a much shorter time: they could have just showed the shuttle landing on the station and Floyd getting off, but they opted to show its complete journey, even though very little happens along the way.
I suppose it may have something to do with the content of these scenes and how they are being done. In 2001: A Space Odyssey we get a variety of beautiful sweeping shots of outer space as we follow the shuttle to the Space Station V. Of course, while this scene certainly goes on longer than would be necessary to get the point across, it is still showing us something interesting.
Taking this into account, it could be that part of the problem I have with the pacing of Solaris is there really isn't anything interesting to be done with the slow pacing of the first hour. My biggest problem with this was the violation of "show, don't tell". We spend a lot of time hearing a bunch of people talking about this mysterious planet of "Solaris" and how it affects people, but that's kind of it. This whole conversation could have been much shorter and to the point (which it was in the 2002 Clooney version). Whereas in 2001 we're seeing some interesting shots of space to keep us going, in Solaris we're mainly seeing men sitting around and talking.
The riveting early scenes of Solaris, an intriguing philosophical science fiction story of a group of bearded men in a room talking about an alien planet you'd rather actually be seeing.
Hang on, aren't we forgetting something?
Oh yeah, 2001 does take its time getting to the space scenes. In fact we start by spending a fair bit of time following a group of apes running around a desert and hitting stuff with bones. This part does take a little while to get going and could be frustrating to a first-time viewer. So it turns out that both films seem to take their time getting somewhere. In a movie called 2001: A Space Odyssey you have to sit through an extended series of sequences centered on a group of apes, while in Solaris we spend a fair bit of time with our protagonist on Earth.
So this raises the question of what makes 2001 different? Part of it may be that while it takes its time the "Dawn of Man" sequence of 2001 takes full advantage of the fact that it is being presented in a visual medium. Not a word is spoken, and while in both films we get some scenic views there is a bit more visually interesting material to be found in 2001.
As I've pointed out, a lot of the opening of Solaris is people talking, with scenes that don't really go anywhere. Special mention goes to the extended montage of POV tracking shots of various automobiles roughly 30-40 minutes in, where we simply have the camera looking through the front window of various cars as they drive along different roads. Really, the entire opening could have been done in a single scene with a short exchange:
"Hey Kris, I hear you're depressed about your wife dying and I thought maybe I could offer you a job to help keep you occupied."
"Okay, what's the job?"
"There's this space station around another planet and the crew have been acting weird. I'd like you to go evaluate them and see what's going on."
"Alright, I'll go."
DONE, then Kris goes to the space station and the plot gets started. Instead, we spend an hour watching automobiles drive along roads, Kris walking through fields, and listening to people lecture us about the alien planet.
By contrast, 2001's "Dawn of Man" sequence does offer a lot more than just people talking. While we spent a fair bit of time watching a bunch of apes running around and shouting, there is a sense of progression in the apes' intelligence as they gradually learn to find new ways to survive using the first tool: a bone turned into a weapon.
We also get some intriguing design elements. In particular is the monolith. The design is simple enough: a large black rectangle, but the way it clearly appears out of place in the natural world around it helps to arouse the curiosity of both use the viewers and the apes (our ancestors). The haunting music also helps to draw our attention to its incomprehensibility, something that makes us curious and builds up a sense of mystery for the rest of the film. It builds our intrigue when billions of years later, a group of scientists encounter an object whose shape we recognize from this early scene, and then of course there's the famous graphic match of the bone being thrown into the air and turning into a spaceship.
So it seems the problem stems largely not from the slow pacing itself, but what is done with it. It is clear that Solaris seems to speak to other people in ways it fails to do so to me. My friend mentioned that he liked the fact that the opening scenes gave off a meditative state, and though I did not feel it when watching the movie, on some level I can see how this might be the case (a lot of the shots of Kris being alone with nature, for instance). In 2001 many of the longer scenes are those which serve to show the technology of the future, while the character interactions are usually quite brief. In Solaris many of the long scenes are those which feature people talking, with less interest in the visuals.
I still stand by my opinion that the George Clooney version of Solaris is far better than the Tarkovsky version, and I won't pretend to like the latter film any more by analyzing it, but I thought it might be worthwhile to examine closely what I consider to be its main problem.
What do you think? Is there is there something about the Tarkovsky version that speaks to you, but evidently not to me? Perhaps you're in the same position as me, or perhaps you're in the reverse. Maybe there is something about 2001 that doesn't speak to you the same way it does to me yet something you find oddly endearing about Solaris.