Tarkovsky Marathon #1: Solaris (1972) [10/10]

Solaris (1972)

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.

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Posted on January 9, 2012, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. So is this the original film that Steven Soderbergh remade w/ George Clooney?? I’ve been meaning to check that one out, but I didn’t know it’s a remake. I might check out this one also. Thanks Tyler.

    • I warn you, this one has a very slow pace and it is 160 minutes long. If those two things don’t bother you, then I can promise you will like this movie.

  2. Christian Hallbeck

    A very well written review, Tyler! It’s been so long since I last watched this film, that I don’t dare to comment on particulars. However, I do remember it as a beautiful celebration of life on earth.

    • I don’t disagree with your comment, but I do think the film had more of a cynical attitude than you suggest. I see it as one of Tarkovsky’s darkest movies.

      • Christian Hallbeck

        Having recollected my memory of “Solaris” for a while, I find the thought that you’re suggesting terrifying only if you’re a religious person. But since I understand that you lean more towards atheism, you have nothing to worry about, Tyler! But I agree: your allusion is most unpleasant, to say the least!

      • I am not religious at all, and I stand by my statement that I find Solaris a brilliant but very bleak film. I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts on it, though.

  3. Christian Hallbeck

    By the way: you can watch “The Sacrifice” on Youtube. Just write “tarkovsky offret” and it’s there. It’s a beautiful film. The photography by Sven Nyqvist is exquisit! And it’s in Swedish!

  4. Christian Hallbeck

  5. Christian Hallbeck

    On Youtube’s own site you get the full picture, and the ability to activate an english translation.

  6. I’m very intrigued by this movie because I actually just saw “Another Earth” which seems to be compared to this film a lot. I really liked Another Earth so this is next!

  7. Christian Hallbeck

    Or press “CC” under the screen after you’ve pressed “play”…

  8. Solaris is one of the first truly challenging artistic films I saw, so I don’t trust my initial impressions of it, which was that I thought it was too esoteric. Not sure if I’d feel the same way today, I hope I don’t as I plan to revisit the film.

    • I don’t think it’s esoteric. I think it’s one of Tarkovsky’s more accessible films, suitable for mainstream audiences so long as they have an open mind. It is true, though, that most people would find the film baffling and overlong, but I think if you approach it with an open mind and think about it for a while, it will grow on you. A second viewing always helps, though.

  9. Still have to see this one and looking at those screenshot makes me want to see it more. It looks amazing!

  10. Christian Hallbeck

    But isn’t it beautiful, that the planet Solaris finally accepts a human visitor in Kalvin, after having been broadcasted with his brainwaves; and that Kalvin on the ocean of Solaris reunites with hos now dead father, in the same earthly environment that he left behind when he embarked for the space station!? That Kalvin’s dearest memory of Earth becomes a “reality” on Solaris thanks to the pureness and honesty of his soul! Kalvin doesn’t return to Earth at the end of the film. He knows that his father is dead by now, and that he will not meet him there. Instead he visits one of the islands that has suddenly grown up through the ocean of Solaris after the contact with his own brainwaves; hoping that the planet will understand his earnest and innermost wish to meet his father, and grant him this meeting; which it does. Kalvin thus puts trust to the true motives of his soul, without being sure that these really are the true motives of his soul (only Solaris recognises these motives). Therefore, isn’t it beautiful that Kalvin, after he has landed on the ocean of Solaris, finds himself walking through his home environments on Earth, finds his fathers dog running towards him, and finally sees his father through the window of his house?…

  11. Well as you know already know i wasn’t a huge fan of 2001, but i might check this out. I am kind of afraid i would end up being one of those people finding it too long tho

  12. I didn’t love this as much as I thought I would. The driving sequence mauled me. Is it a sin to say I liked the pacing of the remake more?

    • The driving sequence is one of my favorite parts of the film. Hahaha. If you prefer the remake (which I haven’t seen but it supposed to be good) then that’s fine. Admittedly this film isn’t for every taste.

  13. I remember watching Solaris during a film appreciation course ages back and to be really really honest found it a bit slow for my taste back then… today i might appreciate it more. I also remember watching Festen during that course and loved it.

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