|Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a pulsating, frustrating, enigmatic science fiction masterpiece, a film of great metaphysical weight that demands multiple viewings and an open mind. It is a brooding, introspective work in which the vast reaches of space seem restricted in contrast to the scope of the human soul. Although based on the best-selling 1961 novel by the prolific Polish novelist Stainslaw Lem, who excelled at treating science fiction themes with critical and philosophical depth, this is a Tarkovksy film through and through, aesthetically dominated by his use of elegant camera movements and the long take and philosophically concerned with the human condition and issues of life and death.|
At nearly three hours in length, Solaris is not an immediately approachable film. It starts slowly--for some, much too slowly--with a lengthy opening act that takes place on Earth. Here, we meet the main character, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist who is asked to go to a space station orbiting the distant planet Solaris because there have been reports of strange happenings from the station’s minimal three-man crew. Most of the action takes place at the small, wooden home of Kelvin’s father (Nikolai Grinko) and serves to establish the meaningfulness of existence on Earth, a theme not present in Lem’s novel. For Tarkovsky, these opening scenes were crucial to serve as counterpoint for the rest of the film, which takes place in the broken-down, technologically determined space station in the vast reaches of space.
Kelvin learns from one of his father’s oldest friends, Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who was a cosmonaut on the Solaris space station decades earlier, that there is something strange about the planet. Solaris, which is completely covered by an ocean, might be more than just a planet. The exact nature of this situation is left purposefully vague, as it will be the driving force of the narrative development once Kelvin leaves Earth.
When he arrives at the space station, Kelvin finds that all is not well. The station is still functional, but barely so. One of the three crewmembers who Kelvin knew personally is dead under mysterious circumstances. The other two men, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn), are paranoid and cryptic in discussing what has been happening. They keep telling Kelvin that he won’t understand it until it happens to him.
And, after he goes to sleep one night, it happens. Kelvin awakes to find his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who died 10 years earlier, in the room with him. She is not a hallucination--not a dream or a vision. Rather, she is a material entity; he can touch her, talk to her, tear her clothing. She is a ghost, but one with corporeality and a fractured sense of memory; she knows who he is, but she seems to have no recollection of ever having died. It is as if the last decade did not exist.
Yet, she is not Hari, and the nature of her existence becomes the lynchpin of the film’s central question: What is life? It turns out the ocean that covers Solaris--perhaps the whole planet itself--is sentient. It is like a giant mind with great powers that can read the minds of the men on the station and create physical embodiments of their deepest, most guilty feelings. For Kelvin, it is his wife who committed suicide a decade earlier. On one level, this is the most horrifying thing imaginable: guilty memories that gnaw at your soul made flesh and blood and threatening to destroy themselves all over again. Yet, on another level, it has the possibility of transcendence. Kelvin has the chance (or so he believes) to make up for his past mistakes, to create a new life with Hari. Is this Kelvin’s delusion or his chance for redemption?
The trouble is, the person in his room who looks and speaks like Hari is not his wife. Rather, she is the physical embodiment of his memory of her, and the film is at its most moving and introspective when she realizes this, thus becoming fully aware of what she is. Even more terrible than Kelvin and the others being faced with the embodiments of their guilty feelings is those embodiments coming to the realization of what they are. In a twist on Descarte’s famous proclamation “I think, therefore I am,” Hari comes to the full realization of her nature and, as a result, does not want to be.
Solaris, like Tarkovsky’s previous two films, Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966), was made in the Soviet Union at a time when artists had few freedoms. Tarkovsky was a deeply gifted filmmaker, a true visionary whom the Soviet bureaucrats tolerated because his films won awards at international film festivals and were popular in the West. Unlike those previous films, though, Solaris has very little to do with Russia. In fact, many critics suggest that it was his most popular film because of its universal nature.
In one sense, Solaris is about the limits of human moral conscience and the role of ethics in scientific discovery; at the same time, though, it is a deeply nostalgic film, one that looks back to a simpler time when technology didn’t rule the world and the limits of our universe were the oceans, not space. By avoiding any direct reference to the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky opened Solaris to multiple readings; it is not about any one culture, but rather about human kind as a whole, which gives it a scope and depth that is breathtaking and infinitely moving.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (4)
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