Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky
My Rating: 10/10
In Short: A sublime journey through the human mind
This film is part one of my six part Andrei Tarkovsky marathon. For more info on that, read this.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) is a careful, exacting, slow-paced thriller that toys with the idea of recreating a lost memory, invoking serious thought into the nature of human wants, beliefs and desires. It defies being classified as a “science-fiction” film. Sure, that’s what it is, but not in the sense that we are used to. Solaris stands alone in its own subgenre, a welcome counterpart to other 70s films of its type but also a distinctly different cinematic artwork that attempts and succeeds to perfect its own place in its own world, as a standalone work that some will appreciate and some will scoff at.
The main criticism people have of this film is something I feel is an ignorant statement of impatient filmgoers unwilling to let themselves be carried away into the director’s universe. That is, that it is too long, and far too slow. Bullshit. While I respect the opinions of others, I found the pace of the film to be nothing short of perfect, carefully executed to allow the tiniest of details to take their rightful place on screen and be noticed, rather than just being; colours, objects and landscapes are all refined, visible, and glowing on Tarkovsky’s widescreen moving portrait. This is one of many ways in which the film can be (and certainly has been) compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick’s film also delights in letting not a “plot” unfold, but simply letting itself unfold, like crumpled paper in a wastebasket.
The film opens with a long monologue delivered by a cosmonaut, Burton, who many years ago was the only survivor of a horrific but mysterious accident that occurred on the strange planet Solaris, which consists of nothing but a large ocean that spreads across its surface. This monologue is recalled by an aged Berton at the estate of a psychologist Kris Kelvin, and the scene itself is a perfect example of Tarkovsky’s willingness to let things unfold slowly and allow the smallest of words, of images, to stir a thought-provoking reaction from the audience, provided they are patient with the picture. The scene lasts thirty minutes, and afterwards cuts rather abruptly to Kelvin’s arrival onboard a space station orbiting Solaris. He then discusses with researchers the awesome power of the planet, which is nothing but baffling to most of them. But it becomes clear that the ocean planet has a stirring and disturbing intelligence, when the next morning Kelvin wakes up in bed with his dead wife Hari. It seems that the planet has channelled into Kelvin’s subconscious to discover a deeply buried memory, and has brought it to life.
From this point on, the film manages to lose what might be considered traditional form, and simply becomes a magical, enthralling series of scenes in which Kelvin and his associates at first attempt to kill Hari, but are dumbfounded by the planet’s insistence of her presence; killing her does not get rid of her, and eventually Kelvin shares memories of their life together with her, and they draw the same connection together that they once shared back in the real world where things seemed simpler. Though she is not human, he loves her. And though she is nothing but a product of his own mind, little more than a living photograph, she loves him. It is at this point and with these realisations that the film heads toward its ending, but in the final moments of the final shot, Tarkovsky frightens us with a cynical question to ponder; a few simple seconds that makes us reconsider the entire film in a new light.
I first saw Solaris nearly two years ago. It was my first encounter with Tarkovsky, and thus it was the first film I chose to rewatch for my marathon. I was surprised at how little of the plot I remembered, and how much of the film’s acidic, uneasy tone I recalled. Even when the mood of the film is light and upbeat, Tarkovsky manages to make our skin crawl in a way that’s difficult to describe. I don’t know how he does it. Andrei Tarkovsky is a cinematic genius, who understands the way our emotions like to be captured and carried by cinema, and adversely does his best to manipulate and strangle them, to leave us shocked, stunned and gasping for air, as if floating in space without a suit.