Andrei Tarkovsky: Solaris (1972) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Andrei Tarkovsky: Solaris (1972)

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"Единственное, что мне остается ждать."

Scientists aboard the space station orbiting Solaris have been attempting to unravel the mystery of the thinking ocean that covers the planet's surface.  As the ocean's activity continues to grow, the scientists begin seeing manifestations of their loved ones from earth.  Dr. Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is called to evaluate the situation, and once he arrives at the station is haunted by the appearance of his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk).  This is Andrei Tarkovsky's follow-up to Andrei Rublev, and his first foray into science-fiction.

The oceans of SolarisKyle Commentary BannerSolaris (Солярис) was my main point of reference going into the Tarkovsky project, so it was a little weird to me when finally watching the movie that it seemed like a bit of a departure from what we've been seeing. Make no mistake, it's still brilliant — but it seems to contain substantially less of the “distinct but intangible threat” that the previous films have been so concerned with. The story is simple: the few remaining members of a space station established to study a mysterious planet covered in what is described as a kind of living ocean (because the Earth-based ocean isn't terrifying enough with its untold horrors — we had to make it a sentient organism) blast the planet with radiation, and soon after “guests” begin to manifest on the station, seemingly generated by their individual subconscious.

If I read that description on an American movie coming out in the near future, I would guess that it certainly must be a horror film, that the “guests” eventually would be revealed as malicious forces, and that we'd be getting a film more akin to Alien with memory-ghosts replacing the xenomorph. In Tarkovsky's hands, the premise yields a slow, thoughtful meditation on how we experience relationships and form identity. The closest thing we get to conflict is when a character arriving on the space station for the first time encounters one of the “guests” in the form of his dead wife and jettisons her off into space in an escape pod — and this moment isn't played for suspense or terror, but rather to show human fear in the face of a painful memory actualized.

Much of Solaris concerns Dr. Kelvin grappling with the knowledge that the visitors generated by the planet are not in fact the people they resemble, but instead are literal manifestations of the crew members' own memories. The woman who appears as Dr. Kelvin's dead wife is actually just a being made up of Kelvin's concept of the real person — she looks, acts, and thinks the way he imagines her, and furthermore, this being/person knows this, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the very real feelings and thoughts she is experiencing. The movie liberalizes the process of projecting our own thoughts and expectations on another, and then indulges in the idea that our subjective experience may be more important anyway.

Solaris is a movie than needs to simply be experienced more than anything else, because what it accomplishes is so rooted in emotional response that it struggles against impartial analysis. One interesting difference between the original and the Soderbergh-Clooney remake of 2002 is how Tarkovsky makes very clear the implications of the final scene. I think both speak beautifully to the importance of individual experience vs. some objective “truth,” but, strangely enough, Tarkovsky shrouds his message in less mystery or intrigue than I remember. The fact that we go along with the 2 1/2+ hour running time even though there's no real revelation to be had attests to how well he speaks to something we as an audience understand so instinctively.My reflectionAndrewCommentaryBannerThis was also my first foray into Tarkovsky many years ago.  I loved the film but, for whatever reason, did not watch any of his other works until recently.  There weren't many moments that I remembered, but the long drive to the launch station in the middle of the first part of Solaris has stuck with me vividly.  The strength of that memory is tied to my own love of interstate driving, but also how subtley Tarkovsky builds around normal experiences until they feel alien.

For example, in that drive we watch the cars and billboards slowly come in and out of view while the soundtrack layers on the slightest hint of otherworldly noises.  But the signs and markings are not in Russian, they are in Japanese.  This puts us already in the position of being a traveler in a strange land before Dr. Kelvin takes that claustrophobic trip to the Solaris station.  That is my favorite instance, but so much that comes before adds to the emotional distance at the beginning.  There's Dr. Kelvin stands outside in the rain for far too long, beeping during the younger Burton's (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) testimony that suggests "Reel Missing" could come up at any point, and the way that Dr. Kelvin has distanced himself from people reflected in that overlong shot centered on the little girl.  None of this is unsettling, exactly, but by the time that beautiful ocean comes into view from Dr. Kelvin's craft it's like fulfilling a promise of cathartic release that we aren't aware is ready to happen yet.

The design of the interior of the Solaris station is a beautiful thing.  I love the way that the station grows from a harsh grey to more pronounced oranges and browns.  This casts a different light on the equipment which at first seems shackled together through improvisation but with the addition of the shifting color tones makes the station feel as though it is becoming an organism all its own.  As Hari is slowly able to make her way around independent of Dr. Kelvin, it follows that the environment would evolve to become more hospitable to her.

I'm also glad that you touched on how this could have been a horror film instead.  Watching it this time, I felt horror, but for the mirror Hari and not for Dr. Kelvin.  The scene where she tries to kill herself by drinking liquid oxygen is terrifying and also when Hari blends in the most to the gray parts of the station.  Natalya Bondarchuk's performance is like an exorcism that never rids her body of the demon as we wait for her to stop painfully contorting herself.  Her existence is one that she slowly realizes she cannot end no matter how much she may wish it to.  David, from last year's Prometheus, is drawn from her template except that he has learned not to mind the pain, while she is constantly reminded of it by her very existence from Dr. Kelvin's self-torture.

All the while Tarkovsky finds a way to instill faith in those, like myself, who don't feel capable of it anymore.  The languid pacing, the slivers of insight into the oceanic mind, sterile to pulsing interior, and Hari's gradual acceptance of her existence, are all reminders of the great faith that Tarkovsky placed in us to stay with the story.  We, in turn, have faith in the payoff and when Dr. Kelvin reaches his home, sees the miracle before him, and is forgiven by his now holy father, the faith pays off in bulk.  It's a beautiful, astonishing moment that rewards faith.Intense performance

Question time!

Tiny Kyle CommentarySolaris still seems very much a Tarkovsky film — but how does it depart from the previous work we've discussed?  Here Tarkovsky seems to be putting the ominous and harsh worlds of Ivan's Childhood and Andrei Rublev aside for something gentler and more forgiving. This may be a more overtly spiritual film simply for the way it focuses on dealing with and forgiving oneself of the past. The darkest elements of the characters' lives have already occurred, and on the space station they have the opportunity to reconcile their guilt in a consequence-free environment. The planet will continue to generate “guests” based on their own memories, and in that way they can (literally) confront their own unresolved issues without actually confronting reality.

All of that sounds very cynical, but Tarkovsky puts the emphasis on emotional catharsis instead of any broader ideals, and the result is bound to be different and deeply personal for each viewer. Andrei Rublev was hopeful in the end, but Solaris accomplishes this in a different way. Hope still springs from personal struggle, but by rooting the struggles of each character off-screen and outside of the direct events of the movie, he's made something a bit more universal.Please forgive meTiny Andrew CommentaryThat's an interesting distinction, because the conflict of the film is entirely within Dr. Kelvin, and not against unseen Germans or other invaders.  Had Kari not manifested herself from Dr. Kelvin's psyche some other fear would have done the same.  That's why I love that ending shot so much, the ocean is learning to empathize fully with the crew and with the appearance of Dr. Kelvin's father and the house is saying, "Here is a place where you can be forgiven."

Tarkovsky also has settled for his own form of editing and rejected montage for Solaris.  Even in Andrei Rublev, which certainly requires a degree of patience, the bell ringing scene at the end cuts to different angles of the bell and crowd.  More conventional montage is present in Ivan's Childhood when young Ivan is trying to find a way to temporarily appease the ghosts of the past.  Solaris is content to wait and watch until the magical, and nightmarish, happens.  This makes the limited special effects used in the film incredibly potent, like when Dr. Kelvin and Mari are floating through the air, as there is slow proof that prayers can be answered.

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Next week: Steven Soderbergh's Solaris.

Tarkovsky with text

Posted by Andrew

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