Stars: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Jüri Järvet | Written by Andrei Tarkovsky; Fridrikh Gorenshtein | Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
It’s Will Self’s favourite movie, it spawned a good remake which barely nudged the box office, and it has been described as the Soviet answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It combines the laid-back, character-based storytelling of the French New Wave with the trippy impulses of late-60s psychedelia. It is a true cult movie, one which played for decades in Soviet cinemas. But what is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris actually like to watch? I hesitate to call it a blast – but I would call it beautiful, dense, mesmerising and moving.
On the surface, Kubrick’s 1968 film and Tarkovsky’s 1972 film couldn’t be more different in their approaches (something Tarkovsky himself was keen to point out). While 2001 looks proudly outward, Solaris delves inward, deeply and directly. But what they do share is the ability to transport the mind and transfix the senses. Both are about communication between human beings and an unseen alien species, and through that depiction ask us to reflect upon our ability to communicate with each other. 2001 posits that technology renders us remote, while Solaris is concerned with time and memory. Tarkovsky’s autobiography is called “Sculpting in Time”; so, this screenplay – written by the director with Fridrikh Gorenshtein, based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel – is right up his alley.
Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is tasked with travelling to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The crew of the station has been sending strange communications, and the science has come to a halt. Kris must go there, alone, and decide whether the mission should continue. Upon arrival, Kris finds the station in disrepair. The remaining crew – Dr Sartorius (Tarkovsky regular Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Dr Snaut (Jüri Järvet) – seem unhinged. They also don’t appear to be alone. It turns out that Solaris is communicating with the crew via their sleeping minds, and creating physical manifestations of their thoughts, feelings and memories. It’s not long before Kris has his own visitor – someone who will test his incredulity, and his belief in science itself.
The hook is that the manifestations themselves are completely aware of what they are – i.e. not human. So Kris’s relationship with his conjured companion is quite literally unreal: although conscious, she is the product of his memories, so there is ongoing doubt between them about her authenticity as a person.
The simple setup is the foundation for a philosophically dense exploration of numerous themes: memory (and retroactively amending our memories); the impossibility (by definition) of communicating with an intelligence higher than our own; grief (and the way we idealise the dead); science (and the limits of science and language to convey concepts such as love); male domination of women (that is, women being fashioned by the whim of men); the human condition (the more human we are, the more we despair); and solipsism (just wait for the astonishing final shot).
Tarkovsky isn’t concerned with beauty and grace in the way Kubrick was. Solaris is not a pretty film. This is in part thanks to its low budget and the director’s relative lack of genre interest. But also, he’s keen to show the environment as a reflection of the mind. The station is degraded like dwindling memories. Like a lack of self-care. A lack of hope. There are images in Solaris which are like half-remembered dreams. Take Solaris itself: a swirling mass of oceanic light, forever unfixed. At one point a feverish Kris awakens to find his manifestation duplicated all around the room. Are any of them real? More real than the next? Ah yes, one of the other themes of the film is madness. Specifically, our fear of it. Our fear of love causing it.
Solaris is long and slow, but not to its detriment. All of Tarkovsky’s films are about time, to a greater or lesser extent, so it’s only right that he should make us aware of time passing. If it sounds like I’m making excuses, let’s be clear: Solaris is not perfect, especially when it comes to plotting. There’s no discernible reason why this particular psychologist should be sent on this mission, and sent alone, just as there is no reason for him to show zero professional ability once he arrives. (He instantly becomes a “loafer”.) Also, on a stylistic level, newcomers may need to be aware of Tarkovsky’s tendency to direct human beings as if they’re waiting at a bus stop. It seems almost like parody, even if it does give the fantastically dense monologues a chance to shine.
It’s not the investment of time that’s the potential barrier here, but rather a director working with a different palette; seeing with a different eye. Solaris is challenging (Tarkovsky once wrote that the purpose of art was to “harrow the soul”) but also hugely rewarding. It’s hardly laugh-a-minute, but nor is it cold and crushing in the way that certain other “slow cinema” films can be (I’m looking at you, Michelangelo Antonioni and Bela Tarr). As with all of Tarkovsky’s films, it’s ultimately about human beings in search of intimacy. Found wanting, perhaps, but earnest and heartfelt in their search. This was Tarkovsky’s search, and in that way he was always a pioneer.
Extras are weighted heavily toward interviews: we get Natalya Bondarchuk (just 18 at the time and the pick of the lead roles); Vadim Yusov, cinematographer on Tarkovsky’s first few films; production designer Mikhail Romadin; Eduard Artemyev, composer of Solaris’s weird, early Tangerine Dream-like electronic score; and original author Stanlislaw Yem. On top of this are trailers, deleted and alternate scenes, and a commentary track from film scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie.
Solaris is out on Blu-ray now from Criterion.