Tarkovsky’s sci-fi mystery is indescribably profound and no doubt one of his very, very best.
Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
1972 | Soviet Union | Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi | 166 mins | 2.35:1 | Russian
NC16 (passed clean) for some disturbing images
Cast: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Juri Jarvet
Plot: A psychologist is sent to a station orbiting a distant planet in order to discover what has caused the crew to go insane.
Awards: Won Grand Prize of the Jury & FIPRESCI Prize (Cannes)
Subject Matter: Moderate/Existential
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray – first published 12 Dec 2010)
Tarkovsky’s most well-known film, Solaris is without a doubt a first-rate endeavor by one of Russia’s greatest directors. Despite making only seven films in his short-lived career, Tarkovsky remains to be a master of his own craft, developing a unique visual style that employs long takes with a slow but deliberate camerawork that draws the truth out of his complex characters.
In Solaris, he attempts a science-fiction film based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name. And like all great films of this genre, Solaris is both provocative and philosophical.
Tarkovsky’s film tells the story of one man, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a space psychologist who is tasked to travel to a space station in Solaris (an isolated celestial body faraway in space with the potential to unlock clues to Man’s existence) to investigate the mysterious happenings that have caused a few unexplained deaths to the people working there.
“You mean more to me than any scientific truth.”
In true sci-fi tradition, we learn that Solaris’ oceans are sentient and can recreate loved ones who have passed away from the memories of those who stay there. Kris meets two delusional scientists, and discovers a video made by a dead person that forewarns him of the madness to come.
Solaris’ relative lack of music that accompanies the film allows Tarkovsky to fully rely on his camera to evoke suspense, unease, and emotional tension. For some odd reason, the film feels like Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in the exploration of what a place can do to someone’s mind.
Hallucinations occur, ghostly figures of sorts that walk about the station. They are neither specters nor are they organic. However, they keep returning even if one banishes them out to space, as Kris finds out for himself. You see, his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) returns and ‘haunts’ him, but not for reasons that are evil.
“In his endless search for truth, Man is condemned to knowledge. Everything else is a whim.”
The struggle for identity and the desire to feel loved are core themes of Solaris, just as they are for Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence (2001) three decades later. When a sentient human-like creation wants to feel loved, could a real human ever be accommodating enough to offer “it” that love?
Kris eventually succumbs to the prospect of infinite love with a being that could very well be a figment of his imagination, irking the scientists on board to the extent that they are considering realizing their destructive thoughts. Now who’s delusional, they are entitled to ask.
The Kris-Hari relationship forms the narrative core of Solaris’ second-half. Particularly, Bondarchuk delivers an exacting performance that allows the injection of emotional warmth so absent in these kinds of films.
This was the most widely seen of Tarkovsky’s films outside of the Soviet Union. However, the director himself reportedly considered it the least favorite of the films he made.
In a way, Tarkovsky’s film is the anti-2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), described by the Russian director as “sterile”, which he saw only years after completing Solaris. Ironically, Solaris could be seen as an extension of Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, both thematically and visually; there are far more elements in common in both films than not.
There is a very special sequence in the first-quarter of the film prior to Kris’ departure to space that shows the point-of-view of a vehicle traveling along a long stretch of road with cars passing by. It is a series of long takes that could be read as a metaphor – that of an endless journey into the unknown about to be taken by Kris. Along the way, the vehicle goes into a multitude of tunnels – perhaps a foreshadowing of the darkness to come?
Solaris is beautifully photographed by Vadim Yusof (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962; Andrei Rublev, 1966), and ends with a satisfying epilogue that provides the film with its most chilling, skin-crawling moment.