Solaris (1972)


Cool poster. Shame about the nonsense though...

dir: Andrei Tarkovsky

Solaris is supposedly a towering achievement in Soviet filmmaking, right up there as the Russian answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, from the Russian director most considered an auteur and visionary, er, just like Kubrick. Fans of Solaris say it’s an insult to compare the two. Detractors say it’s being too kind.

And by all the gods did they get that right. Both films, judiciously used, are a viable substitute for anesthetic narcotics in modern surgery, and have, hopefully less side-effects when they knock viewers the fuck out. There are stretches of 2001 that knock me out every time, every single goddamn time I see them. Solaris is like that except it has this effect for most of its interminable length.

The stories are very different. People who saw Stephen Soderbergh’s recent remake with George Clooney in the lead role will know generally what it’s about, but others will be stunned, stunned I tell you with how out there the premise is.

Solaris is a strange planet with a strange ocean. People who’ve gone there report strange things happening to them, but they are not believed. A psychologist called Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to a space station orbiting the planet in order to find answers as to what’s caused the scientific mission to fall into disarray.

When the film opens we are greeted with around 10 minutes of nature scenes. Ten goddamn minutes of water in a babbling brook, reed fronds floating lazily in the water, some frogs, wet rocks. This is even before you’ve realised what a deathly experience the flick is going to be, which is like the jab you get in your hand before they switch the gas on.

The nature scenes around Kelvin’s father’s house are important only in that they establish that Kelvin is from the “natural” world, and will spend most of the rest of the film wandering around in an unnatural environment far from home.

Before he sets off into the cosmos, there are something like 15 dull minutes of Kelvin driving around Tokyo through the uninteresting industrial bits and lots of tunnels. Lots of goddamn tunnels.

In the scenes detailing Kelvin’s journey to Solaris, despite being well rested and fully caffeinated, I swear on all that is unholy it knocked me out at least a dozen times. I kept passing out, rewinding the DVD in case I missed anything, and then passing out again.

I’m not a sleepy, dozy individual generally. I don’t drink when I’m watching flicks for the first time, and ganja has never been a part of my daily diet. So how it could have this power effect on my brainwaves is a mystery to me. It’s just that good, it must be.

Truth be told, similar scenes in 2001 have the exact same soporific effect on me, especially in that long wordless stretch after the Dawn of Monkeys sequence.

Once he gets to the station, he finds that the place, which seems to be one long circular corridor that he walks up and down endlessly, is in extreme disarray. The remaining scientists, Doctors Snaut and Sartorius (Juri Jarvet and Anatoli Solonitsyn), are strange and evasive. They constantly seem to be trying to stop Kelvin from seeing who or what else is in their private rooms. They act, most importantly, like no people could or would act in the history of cinema, space travel or humanity at large, so it’s something of an achievement.

They allude to something that Kelvin will experience that will freak him out, and that cannot be explained or understood until he experiences it. In these first scenes on the station, Kelvin strides around wearing an outfit that is part-futuristic cool astronaut, part bondage club / gang outfit. The expression on his face, throughout the flick but especially here, is one of abject confusion. It seems, the whole time to me, that he barely had any idea what the hell was going on or what the hell he was supposed to be doing.

I’m talking about the actor, not the character, the poor darling. He looks like a chap permanently about to ask a question he’s worried will make him look stupid.

A friend of Kelvin’s, Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) was also on the station recently until he killed himself. Kelvin watches a video recording Gibarian made prior to popping his own clogs. Kelvin is as confused after watching it as he was before, and we are none the wiser.

When Kelvin finally goes to sleep, a strange one note sound starts up, and the film shifts into black and white as a woman appears with him, as both wonder how she came to be here. The strangest element of this woman appearing here is that, as far as Kelvin can remember, this woman committed suicide ten years ago.

Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) does not know why she’s there, and whilst it’s obviously some effect of the planet, the reason is not obvious. Still, in stilted conference with the other scientists, it appears that whilst their attempts to communicate with whatever alien intelligence inhabits the planet or ocean have been fruitless, the planet creates these people from the memories of the people on the space station.

Why? Well, who knows? Is it an attempt to communicate, an attempt to understand humanity, a cruel ironic joke or a form of attack?

We never find out. Is that disappointing to you? What if I told you it doesn’t really matter anyway, because this isn’t really a science fiction story with a premise regarding alien first contact, but more of a meditation on memory and grief?

Then you could be disappointed. In fact, unless you’ve already seen it, you’re unlikely to ever see it, especially based on this review. In fact, despite its curious prestige and the curious respect it is held in by many and varied people, the film, as much as I’ve tried to like it, is just unwatchable, as far as I’m concerned.

Scene after scene of Kelvin wondering what and how to emote, with long pauses before and after dialogue, are just irritating. I know Tarkovsky loved long takes, hell, I love long takes too, and go out of my way to cut slack for directors then and now who worked in such a way. But the length of some of the takes here does nothing to further the story and only ends up aggravating the audience. The audience being me.

No matter how many film nerds and cinema scholars wank on and on about this film and this director’s place in the lofty pantheon of history, I’m never going to be able to accept that Solaris is anything but an agonising crawl to a 3 hour finish line. Tarkovsky himself considered it the least successful of his films, but not for any of the reasons I’ve thought of. He disliked it because, apart from the ordinary performance from the guy playing Kelvin, he felt that it never transcended its genre boundaries, and always remained “just” a sci-fi film.

Well, I think that’s crap. In essence, though it depends on something very science fictional in its set up, it’s more of a psychological drama, or even a horror film. Few tweaks would have been required to change it into one of the generic sci-fi slasher flicks that abound on the DVD shelves of your local Blockburster.

There is something worthwhile going on during the scenes between Hari and Kelvin. He desperately tries to understand who and what she is, and how he feels about something he knows is a simulacrum of his dead wife, and she becomes more self-aware and more “human”, in other words, the more time she spends with him. Their scenes, punctuated by the unsettling score and the oddness of their interactions, would not look out of place in a David Lynch film.

The difference is that whilst Solaris may not make sense in a conventional sense, it’s not exactly supposed to, because it’s about accepting the existence of a truth beyond regular human parameters. Lynch films don’t make sense any more, if they ever did, because Lynch has contempt for his audience, or has lost his limited supply of marbles, or both. Solaris doesn’t make literal sense because it’s about, amongst a lot of other issues, the fear of the unknown, and what people do when confronted with it.

Though it’s not made totally explicit, it’s implied that the other scientists have had similar visitations from entities generated from their memories, which they dealt with in different ways. It’s strongly implied that they hurt, tortured or even murdered their so-called “guests” or “visitors”.

So Kelvin’s initial reaction, of putting Visitor Hari in a rocket and sending her into space, only to be replaced the next night with another version of Hari.that knows nothing of the first, is somewhat restrained. The other scientists know that the visitors, being differently constructed on the molecular level, heal rapidly and are effectively immortal. But they don’t think of them as sentient beings.

The manner in which they confront the planet itself, and its possibly sentient ocean, is key to the destructiveness humans bring to every situation they don’t understand, or at least as far as the film is concerned. Clunky exposition makes this explicit when Dr Snaut goes on and on about how small-minded man truly is in his venturing out into the cosmos: instead of trying to find completely new things, ideas, worlds, all man seeks outside is to push forward the boundaries of their own narcissistic world. At most, as exemplified by the visitors, all man is looking for is more mirrors for himself.

Kelvin, overwhelmed as he is by feelings of guilt towards Hari, moves from terror to acceptance all the way back to love when he figures out, belatedly, that whether she’s real or not is insignificant. She is Hari, for all intents and purposes, and as such he can’t help but love her.

As for who or what exactly she is, does it matter? She starts off solely as a creation of Kelvin’s mind, existing less as a simulacrum of Hari and more so as a filtered version of her through Kelvin’s own memories and emotions. She knows nothing of the other Hari, and only really remembers what Kelvin remembers. The other Hari’s fate looms large, all the same, but can there really be new answers for Kelvin as to why the real Hari killed herself, and whether he made her do it?

In the end, does he make peace with himself and with Solaris by getting in touch with his essential humanity, which he couldn’t do since Hari’s death, or is it that he offers himself to the planet in a way that is far more open and giving than anything the other scientists were capable of managing? I have no idea, and I could watch the film a hundred times (please gods no) and read the pretentious musings of internet geeks and film wankers till the end of time and it still won’t make me like the film any better.

All of this conjecture is fascinating, and would seem to imply that the film itself is that fascinating. The truth is that the story really isn’t told as well or as in evocative a manner as you might think from all the palaver about it. It’s told in a very clunky and clumsy fashion, with scenes that really don’t work much of the time that seem to stretch on deliberately to aggravate the viewer, with characters and actors that rarely seem comfortable with each other or what they’re doing.

Still, it is unsettling, and perhaps thought provoking after the fact, and is probably something that you could, after talking about it for several hours, use to try to work your way into the pants of a second-year cinema studies student. Maybe people should watch it but once. It does have a head-scratcher of an ending, down on the ocean of Solaris itself, with that disturbing one-note electronic score blasting out, which is about the only thing I really liked about it.

Odd, disturbing, ponderous, painful, illuminating, soul-deadening. Take your pick.

5 promises that if I ever watch this again I will ensure I am ripped off my tits on quality Smoke out of 10

“You mean more to me than any scientific truth” – Solaris.