45 years since it was originally released, Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ remains lauded as one of the greatest SF films ever made. Based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name, the film is a treatise on human morality, the ethics of science and the nature of love. The film still has a raw emotional power and is a continually hypnotising piece of work that revels in a languid pace and a state of hypnagogic surrealism. With spiritual connections to other great auteur helmed SF films of the time, in particular Godard’s ‘Alphaville’ and Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the film continues to inspire a generation of filmmakers not only for its aesthetic but also for its humanity.
The film begins with a long tracking shot of reeds floating in a river besides an old-fashioned Russian dacha. It soon becomes apparent that we are at the family home of psychologist Kris Kelvin (Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis) who is preparing to leave and head to the planet Solaris. As he makes preparations to leave, Kris’ father welcomes old friend Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy) who plays Kelvin some testimony he made 20 years earlier. To a gaggle of unsmiling officials, Burton recalls flying over the sea of Solaris, which seems to be a sentient entity, and recalls strange visions.
Kelvin is only interested in scientific facts and is heading to Solaris to talk to the remaining two scientists left of the station orbiting to discover whether it is worth continuing to try and explore and communicate with the planet. He will be leaving his bucolic surroundings and bidding farewell to his family.
When he arrives on Solaris, he realises that the situation is more complex than he ever imagined as the planet provides him with a manifestation of a loved one long since dead. Can pure scientific reasoning be truly applied in the face of the new ethical and moral dilemmas that have now been presented?
One of the key themes of Solaris is nostalgia and the constant tension it has with scientific progress. Humans have a desire to acquire knowledge and push boundaries forward, yet we also often fear change and stay firmly attached to the idea of the past. The opening prologue of the film sets up this tension. The lush greenery and life of the dacha is perfectly juxtaposed with the later beige sterility of the Solaris space station. Similarly, the space station is loaded with achievements of human cultural achievement, volumes of great literature, including Cervantes, and distinguished artworks are to be found amongst the cold corridors. Even the film’s spare score is music by Bach, augmented by an electronic score by composer Eduard Artemyev. Amongst what is meant to be the pinnacle of science, the true celebration of human endeavour appears to lie within culture.
This is not to say that ‘Solaris’ is a damnation of science, more a criticism of science that refuses to be guided by morality and ethics. Some of these positions are spelled in a number of scenes in which the characters portentously debate philosophy. These scenes never become too jarring thanks to the film’s underlying sense of humanity. Indeed, Tarkovsky has changed the focus of Lem’s novel, somewhat to the auther’s chagrin, which originally was meant to be about the difficulty humanity has communicating with a life-form that is beyond the limits if it’s comprehension.
The film is explicitly an ‘anti-2001’ as, in preparation for the film, Lem saw Kubrick’s film and found it too cold and sterile. Certainly, there seems to be an inversion of Kubrick’s aesthetic throughout the film. Overt SF trappings are dispensed with, partly due to budgetary reasons. One infamously long scene with Burton travelling from the dacha is filmed on the Tokyo highway with no embellishments, yet for a Soviet audience of the time the multi-lanes, Asian cars and neon lights of these roads would have looked suitably futuristic. Even the Solaris space station, ostensibly all white and metallic corridors, is dirty, strewn with rubbish and broken machinery. The humanity is evident amongst all the carefully measured equipment of science.
Yet there are also similarities. Like Kubrick, Tarkovsky is unafraid to work in ellipses, leaving details unfilled and situations unexplained. It’s up to the audiences to fill everything in as they see fit. Tarkovsky is also unafraid of the long take, though compared to his usual standards, ‘Solaris’ is actually quite a brisk piece of work.
The performances are stoic, with Banionis steeped in an air of glum theatricality, partly because he could never quite click with Tarkovksy’s way of working. This actually works within the realm of the film, which all has a slight air of artifice around it. Mesmerising is Natalya Bondarchuk, who plays Hari, Kelvin’s former wife, brought back to life by Solaris. Her portrayal woman coming to terms with her own unreality is brittle yet beautiful. Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartarious (Anatoli Solonitsyn) provide the opposing views of science and morality on the Solaris station in another two good performances.
‘Solaris’ is a monumental achievement in not only genre cinema, but cinema in general. Full of ideas, inventiveness and emotion, the film feels as fresh now as when it was released, though we’ll gloss over some of the fashion on offer. This UK release of the Criterion Blu-ray presents a crisp transfer of the film, with the monochrome and sepia sequences of the film providing sharp relief to the moments of colour. The disc also comes with a commentary by Andrei Tarkovsky and scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie. While it is sometimes a little dry, it is very revealing with productive analysis of the film alongside some nice facts, including the fact that Tarkovsky was a fan of Ray Bradbury. There are also video interviews and deleted scenes.
(region B/2 Blu-ray: pub: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. 1 Blu-ray disc. 167 minute film with extras. Price: £17.99 (UK). ASIN: B06VSTBHD6)
cast: Donatas Banionis, Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet and Anatoli Solonitsyn
check out website: www.sonypictures.co.uk