Solaris is a great introduction to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. In just forty minutes the film manages to be meditative, quiet, puzzling, startling, sumptuous, and in one long driving sequence, confounding. For the uninitiated, it is an ideal starting place because it is both alluring and disarming. Thinking to yourself, you may say “It’s beautiful, but when does it really start? I thought this was a space story. Who are these people wandering around, and how do I anchor myself among them? Horses…? Why does the film shift suddenly between color and black & white? Why does the camera not follow the action more carefully? This driving scene really is exceptionally long. What is the point?” Tarkovsky’s films could be cynically dismissed, when compared to those of the European giants Bergman or Dreyer, as in the same vein but slightly more obscure and much longer. But for those willing to gaze deeply through the language and cultural barrier (and the amount of reading and guessing that goes along with such a gaze), and meditate on Tarkovksy’s poetics, they will find a towering giant of cinema, even in one of his “lesser” films.
Solaris is a science fiction film, based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, told in two parts. The story follows Kris Kelvin as he prepares to travel to the planet Solaris, where three scientists (Snaut, Gibarian, and Sartorius) occupying the space station are having severe difficulty. Before he leaves, a very long sequence shows Kelvin’s last day on Earth, including a strange feud with his father’s colleague about his trip and a mournful self-cremation when he decides to burn his old photographs. Kelvin’s trip is a last-ditch attempt to save the station; his death is almost assured. When Kris finally does arrive at Solaris station, 43 minutes into the movie, he discovers a madhouse. One of the scientists, Kelvin’s friend Gibarian, has committed suicide. Dr. Snaut encourages him to sleep for an evening, and wait. Kelvin is highly confused, but sleeps, dreams, and wakes up to find his wife, long dead from suicide, lying next to him. The scientists can only suppose that Solaris is scanning their brains and producing living reproductions, golems really, of people from their lives. Kelvin’s ensuing trial with the suicidal rage of his phantom-wife, and his own guilt, while stuck on a station orbiting an ocean planet, make up the bulk of the film.
In order to appreciate this excursion, if you’ve never seen a Tarkovsky film before, you must first and foremost be willing to approach something unfamiliar, even jarring. The rhythm of the film is not typical. The length of shots and scenes can feel over-extended, while the important information is often skipped over. The film will change stylistically, although it is difficult to track why and how. But with a little patience, the unfolding of the story’s emotional and sensual layers become captivating, even if one’s grasp of the plot is a little hazy. This is not Hitchcock, where the suspenseful pull of the future drives every shot, and every piece fits together perfectly. Instead there is a strong focus on the sensual, and the immediate. Each scene plays out as a vivid impression of a given moment, in all its detail.
Sometimes the movie is confusing. For instance, in the first reel of the film (first 20 minutes) we see images of Kelvin’s last day on Earth combined with video of a pilot’s testimony about seeing a person on Solaris. There is an obvious alternation between color, which represents the real world, and black & white, the video. But in the second reel of the film, the alternation continues and goes to weird places - black & white no longer mean video. A long sequence of a man driving in the back of a car through Japanese highways, itself a confusing set-piece that lasts about five minutes, is both in color and black & white. It is followed by a black & white sequence of Kelvin with his family, burning his photographs. Black & white will be used throughout the film to mean video (in a bluer tone), but also memory and hallucination, on top of any number of other less obvious considerations of style.
The worst expectation one can bring to Solaris is the old falsehood passed around since its release, that it is the Russian equivalent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That may be technically true, but in reality, the comparisons between the two films are minor, and set up the false expectation that Solaris will be anything remotely like Kubrick’s myth-infused acid trip in space. Yes, both films deal with headier ideas than mere space travel and alien contact, if that’s at all possible, and both take a moment to riff about space-age bureaucracy. And sure, both have very trippy moments. But the comparisons quickly turn into contrasts. Just compare opening credits, where 2001’s anthem “Thus Spake Zarathustra” is at least ironically triumphant, while Solaris’s opening credits dirge is practically funereal - an organ piece by Bach that will recur throughout the film. Or consider pacing and tone: 2001’s mysteries pile on top of each other as each segment of the film advances, building suspense until the film finally explodes. Solaris, on the other hand, presents a single dark mystery, asked in many different ways, but never truly resolved. As Kelvin explores the space station, we feel more like lost stragglers on the set of Alien (1979), or the Overlook Hotel from The Shining (1980), both places where something bad or strange could happen at any time. And though Dave Bowman’s eventual transformation into a starman at the end of 2001 is in a way mirrored by Kris Kelvin’s slow devolution into Solaris itself, the two film’s motives for these transformations are opposite. Kubrick’s irony notwithstanding, 2001 premises the success of the American humanistic/theocratic myth; Tarkovsky’s film is unrelentingly despairing about humanity’s prospects, in space or otherwise. Science is, in 2001, humanity’s means of escape from its animal ways, the trigger for the next stage of human evolution. In Solaris, it only reflects our infuriating darkness back at us. So perhaps the comparison can stay, for it reveals the common core and great depths of both films.
The 5th Avenue Cinema is playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris from Oct 11 - 13th.