Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Space, No One Can Hear You Yawn

Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solyaris
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library (2001), DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan (Solyaris), both on big ol’ television.

There are films that give film critics a bad name. Had I a dollar for every time somebody complained about the fact that the movies that film critics like are all foreign titles with a lot of talking and not much action, or movies that are completely incomprehensible to all but the most erudite, well, I’d be able to write this blog full time and live off the interest. Just as there are bands who are known and beloved by music critics without having much of a general fan base, there are films that critics adore and gush over while the rank and file movie watcher is left cold.

2001: A Space Odyssey is sort of like that, I think. When it was released, it was thought of as a great movie to watch zoned out on a variety of chemicals, and I can see that, particularly the ending sequence as our lone astronaut pal goes barreling down a corridor of shifting lights and landscapes for what seems like an eternity. These days, though, I’m not so sure. I have a sense, I think, of what a lot of people will sit through willingly and what they will throw their hands up at, and today, 40 years or more after the release of this film, I don’t know how much of 2001 a typical audience can take.

It’s not that the film is incomprehensible, although very little is actually explained here. It’s that the film is incredibly, ploddingly slow. Nothing happens for vast stretches of time. We get long moments on screen of no dialogue, and even no sound—just images. Some of the most well-known sequences, ones that have been repeatedly referenced in other films and television shows stretch and stretch and stretch for minutes on end. The docking sequence, set to the Blue Danube waltz, goes on for what seems like forever, just a ship floating toward a space station and eventually touching down.

The plot, as best it can be comprehended, is as follows. We start in the distant prehistoric past. A tribe of proto-humans is visited by a gigantic black monolith that, evidently, gives them the power of rudimentary thought. At least shortly after touching the monolith, one of the proto-humans figures out how to use a discarded animal bone as a tool, and uses it to both procure food for the tribe and to slay one of the tribe’s enemies. The proto-human (called Moon-Watcher and played by Daniel Richter) tosses the bone into the air, where a jump cut turns it into the ship of the docking sequence.

Now we’re in the near future. Mankind has colonized the moon, and it’s evident that, unlike 1968 when the film was made, we’ve made friends with the Soviets. The space station appears to be of the international variety. A scientist named Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is taken to the moon because something has been discovered. There is another one of those monoliths that has been buried under the moon’s surface. While investigating the black slab, the moon’s rotation brings the slab into the sunlight, which causes it to emit an ear-piercing shriek.

We jump forward again. Now we are on the first manned mission to Jupiter. The crew consists of three men in cryogenic sleep, two awake and running the ship, and the ship’s computer, HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). The two astronauts, Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea) do not really know the reason for their mission. Things seem to be fine until HAL notices something wrong with one of the sensors on the ship. The sensor is removed and tested, and proves to be fine, leading the two men to think that something might be wrong with HAL. Not wanting to be doubted or disconnected, HAL then acts to keep control of the ship by any means necessary. Eventually, this leads to the long trip over the psychedelic landscape, a hotel room at the end of the universe, and a final meeting with the black monolith.

2001 is still a marvel, even today. It is still a beautiful film to watch and pore over and study because of its startling imagery and intense beauty. But it is slow. Really slow. Go and make a sandwich between lines of dialogue slow. For many, this is a considerable problem because modern audiences don’t have the same sort of patience as tripped-out potheads did in the late 1960s.

This is the first time I’ve watched 2001 since I was quite young, and I remembered it far differently from its reality. I remembered the opening sequence of the proto-humans, for instance, as taking ages to get through, even though it’s less than 20 minutes. I remembered the ending light show as going on forever as well, and it is long, but not oppressively so.

Kubrick was a master of film, and it was never more evident than here. The long, still shots allow the viewer to concentrate not on the moving camera but on what is happening on the screen. Particularly disturbing are the shots of HAL’s camera lens, impassively watching and plotting while action takes place elsewhere. HAL is one of the screen’s great villains, and would not hold this distinction without Kubrick including so many shots of his red camera eye simply glaring.

The film that is most commonly compared with 2001 is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris. On the surface, the comparison is a good one. Both films are epic in length, deal with Humanity’s place in the cosmos, and are painfully slow at times. Solyaris is often thought as the Soviet answer to Kubrick’s film. The movie is based on a novel by the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, who disowned it upon seeing it. It’s worth noting that when he made the film, Tarkovsky had not seen 2001.

Ostensibly, the movie is concerned with a station on the planet Solaris. This world is home to a vast ocean that is currently being studied by a small contingent of men living there. This ocean is actually a sentient organism that attempts to communicate with the men on the Solaris station by creating physical manifestations of their thoughts, dreams, and hopes. These manifestations came as a reaction to the ocean being bombarded with heavy radiation—essentially, the ocean is attempting to communicate with the humans on the station in the only way it knows how, but since it is completely alien (a common theme for Lem), it is doomed to failure.

The protagonist of the film is Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), who is sent to the Solaris station to determine whether or not it should be kept open. The station is designed for more than 100 researchers, but currently, there are only three onboard: Snaut (Juri Jarvet), Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn, who looks vaguely like Robert DuVall), and Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan). However, once Kelvin arrives, he discovers that Gibarian has committed suicide, and has left a cryptic message behind.

Kelvin is almost immediately plagued by a visitation that arrives thanks to the sentient ocean: his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). What might have been a comfort is something very much the opposite, since Hari committed suicide 10 years previously because Kelvin was transferred for his job and she refused to go with him. Essentially, the ocean is plaguing him by continually visiting his dead wife on him, a physical manifestation of the world’s most intense guilt trip.

The genius of Solyaris is evident in the set design. Where 2001 is pristine precision on the ship—even the astronauts who are killed in their cryogenic sleep are perfectly contained and sedate in death—the station on Solaris is in complete disarray. Machinery lies abandoned in the hallways, wires are exposed throughout every room. The lack of people on the station and the increasing mental and emotional demands placed on the men have turned the station into an outward manifestation of its inhabitants’ inner turmoil. These scenes of disarray are frequently contrasted with scenes of clean, orderly, pristine beauty of places on Earth. Solaris is a technological purgatory at best, a place where disorder and entropy constantly increase.

While beautiful and existentially powerful, Solyaris is perhaps even slower than 2001. Like 2001, this tranquil pace is punctuated by significant events. Here, though, the events are far more horrific than the coldly logical crimes of HAL. Hari continually relives her separation from Kelvin and his rejection of her, and kills herself again, this time with liquid nitrogen. In a truly horrifying scene, the body revives, forced back into consciousness by the alien ocean. It is equally terrible for Kelvin, who must constantly relive the loss of his wife. It takes a fascinating toll on Kelvin himself. It is almost impossible to pinpoint his age based on physical appearance. At times, he looks to be in his late 30s or early 40s while at other times, he seems to have aged terribly.

Ultimately, the two films are remarkably different for all of their surface similarity. Kubrick seems to be saying that human ingenuity, drive, and power will eventually take us to the edge of the universe. We may not remain human, we may become something alien or much greater than ourselves. The culminating moments of the film are obscure, but hopeful. It is the machine that will take us there, even if it attempts to betray us in the end—it is the machine that we must trust in, our own invention and inventiveness that will allow us to conquer the vast reaches of space.

Solyaris on the other hand seems to be far more concerned with our souls. It doesn’t doubt that the conquest of other planets and solar systems is almost inevitable, but asks instead what the cost of such conquest will be. Rather than growing from our humanity as Kubrick envisions, Tarkovsky would have us think that we will be diminished by such exploration in the end. We will not become something more than human, but something different entirely, something separated from that which truly makes us human. The cost will not be giving up our humanity for something greater, but losing the essence of our beings entirely. Isn’t it funny that from God-fearing America comes the film that pushes an ideology of conquering science while it is the godless communist Soviets who search space for Humanity’s soul?

Both films are masterpieces of the cinema, but for those not willing to give over to them entirely and experience them as they are meant to be, both films are also potentially incredibly boring. I am no less guilty than anyone else of this. I admire both films, but a year ago when I first tried to watch Solyaris, I fell asleep the first two times. I just couldn’t get past the endless scenes where nothing happens. This is why these films give critics a bad name with the rank and file. Critics see the style, the grandeur, the majesty of these films in their slow pace and gorgeous scenes (Kelvin and Hari floating in weightlessness, the docking sequence) while someone expecting an explosion every 30 seconds wanders off mentally or drifts into sleep. Since those unwilling to spend time studying what is on the screen or investing the mental energy into it don't get it, the feeling becomes one of finding critics stuffy, needlessly academic, and full of their own pomp.

Why to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey: Kubrick may have been this good, but he was never better.
Why not to watch: It…is…reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally…slow.

Why to watch Solyaris: A quest for the soul of Mankind and existential angst to end all angsts.
Why not to watch: It’s not just slow, it’s frequently inert.


  1. I think that with 2001: A Space Odyssey the experience all depend on what you expect to see. If you come prepared for a slow moving aesthetic experience you will not be disappointed. I do not think I was ever as happy watching it as this time round.

    1. I get that. It's slow, and if you're in a mood for that, it's hard to top. That said, I can't say it's one I choose that often.

  2. I am so eager to get to some understanding of Solaris and I swallow every word you write, yet I do not seem to get any closer to understanding it. To follow your analysis humankind risks its soul in exploring the universe. I got something similar from the movie, something about that "man needs man" and that humankind is afraid of what it is trying so hard to find. But I do not understand why that is so. Why does Tarkovsky think that exploring the universe is such a bad thing? Why can that exploration not instead help us understanding who we are? what exactly is it he is so afraid of? And what exactly is that that choice Kris makes in the end?
    Sorry for bombarding you like this, but my lack of understanding here is really bothering me.

    1. One of Stansilaw Lem's biggest themes was that communication is impossible between humans and an alien species--that the very concept of communication might well be different between species. So I don't know if it's that this exploration is bad more than that it's simply futile and destined for a particular type of failure.

      But I don't really know. Solaris is dense as hell, which is true of all Tarkovsky.