in Criterion Month

Solaris (1972)

I know it’s super cliche, but 2001 is one of my favorite movies. Like top 10, maybe even top five. That fandom helped put Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris on my radar, because one thing I had heard was that when it comes to cerebral sci fi, the west has 2001 and Russia has Solaris. And let me tell you, sure there are some obvious surface level similarities, but these movies should not be compared to each other.

Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is about to leave the Earth for a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, a world covered completely in water. On his last day, he’s visiting his elderly parents at their idyllic, lakeside home. They are visited by a former space pilot, Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who tells them the mission to Solaris has a troubled history, with weird reports coming back that read as basically gibberish. Henri shows them footage of his own testimony, where he claimed to have seen a gigantic child floating over the planet, even though his camera just shows clouds and the ocean. All of this was cause for concern for the higher ups, which is why they picked Kelvin, a psychologist, to determine if the mission should continue.

So Kelvin goes to the space station and immediately finds it in disarray. The three other crew members don’t come to greet him, and he later finds out that his friend, the only man on the station he knew, has died. The surviving other two crewmen seem distracted and annoyed by Kelvin’s presence, but even more suspicious is the fact that Kelvin seems to get glimpses of other people on the station, even though that’s impossible. Unsettled, Kelvin barricades himself in his room and has a rough night’s sleep. When he wakes up, he finds someone else in the room with him, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his late wife.

In my favorite sequence in the movie, Kelvin hurriedly leads Hari to a rocket, tricking her to get in alone. He then launches her into space so hastily he ends up badly burned by the booster. He is treated by one of the crewmen, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet), who explains that in an attempt to better understand Solaris, they had been conducting nuclear experiments. Solaris, or at least its ocean, seems to be alive in someway, and since then has been sending “visitors” or “guests” to the station, all of them people plucked from the crew’s unconscious mind when they slept. They are biologically extremely different, but appear the same and are thinking, feeling people built from the crew’s minds. When Kelvin returns to his room, Hari is waiting for him.

What follows is less a descent into madness and more an immediate embracing of it. Kelvin pretty much accepts at this point that Hari is there and he wants to be with her. He argues with Dr. Snaut and the other real crewmember, Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn), who both show concern about Hari’s presence. They propose beaming Kelvin’s thoughts to the planet and even consider using a radiation blast in hopes of stopping the visitors, all in hopes of saving the mission. But Kelvin wants to spend his time with Hari and help her understand the person she resembles so much.

2001 is a haunting, epic movie about human progression in an unimaginably large and inexplicable universe. To accomplish that, Stanley Kubrick uses all the tools of cinema – editing, special effects, music, costumes – to their fullest extent. That is really, really not Tarkovsky’s style. In adapting Solaris from the Polish novel by Stanisław Lem, Tarkovsky sought to turn the focus away from the book’s more 2001-esque concerns of humankind’s inability to communicate with aliens, and instead focus on Kelvin’s specific experience and feelings of grief and regret. So in a way, it’s the opposite of 2001, which cared little for its actual characters.

Tarkovsky wants to tap into a lot of human emotion, I think, and the most common emotion in all of our lives is also the one most in Solaris: boredom. It’s ironic, right, that we are all so worried about mortality and yet waste so much time bored. That’s the best explanation I can come up with for why there are so many scenes that seem redundant or overly long. Why the camera lingers and meanders during so many scenes. Why he includes what must be five minutes of a character starting at a painting, cut with pans and zooms and closeups of said painting. What can I say, there were times when I was bored with this movie – it’s nearly three hours long and it probably doesn’t need to be.

The movie’s not devoid of special effects, in fact, some of the shots of Solaris’ otherworldly ocean are pretty cool. But don’t go into this movie expecting spaceships or robots or even really anything that couldn’t happen on Earth. The vast majority of the movie takes place at Kelvin’s parent’s home or in various rooms and hallways on the space station. The biggest exception is a long scene of a car driving through futuristic Russia, which is clearly just footage of early Seventies Japan. That scene has no dialogue, we’re just shown it.

Yeah, there’s a lot about Solaris I can’t justify or at least explain. From time to time, the movie goes monochromatic, sometimes tinted blue, others white. I don’t know why. Please give me some credit in at least trying to review a lengthy, cerebral movie about a day after watching it, without really having any time to read about it or discuss with anyone. I’ll say this: the film’s overall message about the human condition is powerful and Solaris‘ ending is shocking. I just think it takes a special mindset to truly love a movie like this one.