“When man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal themes rarely interest him. These questions should be asked at the end of one’s life.”
It was with great joy that I unwrapped Solaris, a recent pickup from the Criterion summer sale. The only other Tarkovsky I’ve seen is Stalker, a film that challenged me cinematically and one that I think about often. I was more prepared this time for Tarkovsky’s slower, creeping scene construction and his varied use of color. I seem to recall a similar feeling while watching Stalker as I did this time with Solaris where the first hour seemed far too slow but the payoff made me eat my words. I feel the need to proselytize everyone to this wonderful director, and particularly to this clever, beautiful work of science fiction.
Kris Kelvin (Donatos Banionis) is a dismal but otherwise fairly normal psychologist when he is tasked with visiting a space station hovering over the mysterious planet of Solaris from which little knowledge has been extracted. He first believes the ship only consists of himself and three scientists. (There were nearly a hundred, but Solaris has proved a challenge, and interest in research has halted.) On arrival, though, he finds that his friend Dr. Gibarian has committed suicide and left him a strange warning about the effects of the planet. When visions of other humans start consuming Kelvin’s mind, he begins to experience what every former Solaris researcher has warned about.
Tarkovsky seems interested in similar themes that he would solidify in Stalker. The movie is a surprising exploration in existentialism, often making reference to writers such as Tolstoy and Camus. (Mild Spoilers Ahead) As Kelvin begins to fall for Solaris’s recreation of his deceased wife Hari (wonderfully performed by (Natalya Bondarchuk), you begin to wonder what sort of approach the movie will take to her presence. Typical sci-fi would somehow condemn Kelvin for falling for the new Hari with an inevitable “she isn’t real” brand of conflict, but Solaris takes a dark, uncertain approach that challenges conventions about love and humanity.
Coated on top of these uncertainties is also a natural beauty rarely captured on film. There’s a wonderful piece of writing by Akira Kurosawa about the first time he met Andrei Tarkovsky and his thoughts on Solaris. (The two ended up getting drunk and singing the Seven Samurai theme song together.) Kurosawa claims that the slow but beautiful opening to the film is necessary to make the audience miss being on Earth. I was transfixed when I read this; it’s such a poignant point about the film. The opening scene shows you the beauty of Earth, while the majority of the film is a gray space station. It sucks you into Kelvin’s fever dream experience. Not only does he miss Earth, but we also miss Earth. We want to see more of Tarkovsky’s Earth, and the closest thing we get is Hari. There’s a wondrous parallel between Natalya Bondarchuk’s performance and the way Tarkovsky films the life and people on Earth, including Kelvin’s parents. The heartbreak at the center of the movie is that the beauty goes away, and we (along with Kelvin) crave it.
I knew better than to expect the expectable when I read the Solaris synopsis for the first time, but I was still surprised at how very Tarkovsky is felt. The film is a tad more accessible than Stalker (more grounded in “reality” of the plot and with a bit more conventional editing), but the themes and the slow beauty are there. I can’t imagine anyone else telling this story (which is why I’ll probably avoid the Soderbergh version for a while). Solaris is a fantastic success from an auteur who filmed the world in a unique, powerful way.
I’d recommend Solaris to cinephiles, sci-fi fans looking for a challenge, and anyone who’s down for an existential crisis of an evening. The film is beautiful, packed with ideas, and still accessible enough that it can resonate with most anyone. Well done, Andrei.
Films Left to Watch: 832