Solaris (1972): A Cinematic Odyssey

Source: IMDB

Watching a film by Andrei Tarkovsky is no easy experience. It is an emotional, spiritual and intellectual cinematic journey where you feel this inexplicable need to pause at each moment to sit and reflect on its celestial beauty. More often than not, it necessitates a second, third and fourth viewing to truly come to terms with it. Once you do, you’re injected with a profound desire to express or pen down what you’ve just witnessed.

Though often heralded as Tarkovsky’s reply to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the films are anything but similar. While Kubrick’s film depicts man’s eternal quest for knowledge and discovery through space exploration, Tarkovsky’s film is primarily interested in human nature. The theme of space exploration is a mere vehicle through which Tarkovsky raises important philosophical questions. Questions of identity, morality, love, art and the relation between man and nature. So, psychological and theological issues take precedence over the scientific and technological. Besides, Tarkovsky did not particularly enjoy Kubrick’s 2001, admonishing it as “cold and sterile.”

He notes:

“For some reason, in all the science-fiction films I’ve seen, the filmmakers force the viewer to examine the details of the material structure of the future. More than that, sometimes, like Kubrick, they call their own films premonitions. It’s unbelievable! Let alone that 2001: A Space Odyssey is phoney on many points even for specialists. For a true work of art, the fake must be eliminated. I would like to shoot Solaris in a way that the viewer would be unaware of any exoticism. Of course, I’m referring to the exoticism of technology.”

Source: Criterion

What’s it about?

Solaris is a poetic meditation based on Polish writer, Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel of the same name. It depicts psychologist Kris Kelvin’s (Donatas Banionis) experiences aboard a space station orbiting the fictional planet of Solaris. Despite years of study and research, the crew has failed to make any progress on their scientific mission and only puzzling reports to show for it. He is sent to Solaris to investigate the reason behind their failures. In his attempt to make sense of the events aboard the station, his visit turns into a nightmarish ordeal as he discovers the planet’s precariously psychotropic effects on the crew. Soon, even he accedes to the same malady afflicted by visual hallucinations that trigger visions of his dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). As these disturbing apparitions continue to haunt him, he is left to decide whether to return to Earth or retreat further into the seductive realms of Solaris in hopes of reconnecting with the past.

Breaking genre convention

“Man was created by Nature in order to explore it. As he approaches Truth he is fated to Knowledge. All the rest is bullshit.”

Solaris is not your typical science-fiction film. It doesn’t adhere to the generic conventions or the traditional themes of beloved mainstream sci-fi classics like Star Wars, Terminator or Avatar. Tarkovsky marries science and fiction to simply raise solemn questions about human conscience and consciousness. He uses space exploration as a metaphor to re-examine man’s interactions with his environment. With a budget less than 10 percent of Kubrick’s 2001, he eschews elaborate special effects and breath-taking action sequences for evocative imagery and languid tracking shots of the natural world (rather than Kubrick’s technological).

The Solarian Ocean

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The ocean of Solaris is a sentient being with the ability to dig into a person’s subconscious and incarnate spectres from one’s past. Seemingly boundless, it assumes various forms, patterns and colours reflecting its animated and vivifying nature. It highlights the shortfalls of science and technology, spelling out its inability to help man communicate with extra-terrestrial life forms beyond his understanding.

“Science? Nonsense! In this situation mediocrity and genius are equally useless! I must tell you that we really have no desire to conquer any cosmos. We want to extend the Earth up to its borders. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle to make contact, but we’ll never achieve it. We are in a ridiculous predicament of man pursuing a goal that he fears and that he really does not need. Man needs man!” Source: IMDB

You can never go wrong with Bach

Tarkovsky’s use of music is very minimalistic. On his request, composer Eduard Artemyev blends an experimental electronic score with natural ambient sounds. He also uses Bach’s organ music to great effect. His use of Bach’s cantus firmus befits the film’s culmination in that terribly hopeless scene of Hari dying.

The remake

Yes, there’s the unavoidable Hollywood remake you could watch. Yes, it’s directed by Steven Soderbergh and it’s got George Clooney! But let the inimitable Salman Rushdie tell you why you should watch the original rather than the remake.

“In Telluride, this year, we screened Andrei Tarkovsky’s great movie Solaris, to honour a sci-fi masterpiece before the contemporary plague of remakes comes to obliterate it. This exploration of the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious, this great exploration of the limits of rationalism and the perverse power of even the most ill-fated love, needs to be seen as widely as possible before it’s transformed by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron into what they ludicrously threaten will be “2001 meets Last Tango in Paris”. What, sex in space with floating butter? Tarkovsky must be turning in his grave.”

A bit harsh, but he’s got a point. While Tarkovsky’s 2-hours 45-minutes long visual poem may certainly call into question the attention span of the average film audience, it should be a mesmerising experience like no other for the cinephiles. And though it may leave you endlessly pondering about various unanswered questions, it is a cinematic journey that you must take.

Posters/Artwork (Courtesy: Deviantart and Dinca)

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