95. SOLARIS [SOLYARIS] (1972)

“”This exploration of the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious, this great examination 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.'”–Salman Rushdie on the (since realized) prospect of a Solaris remake

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet,

PLOT:  In the indefinite future, mankind has set up a space station orbiting Solaris, a mysterious planet covered by an ocean that exhibits signs of consciousness.  Several of the crew members studying the planet demonstrate eccentric behavior and possible signs of mental illness, and psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to the station to evaluate them and decide whether the program studying Solaris must be scrapped.  On board the satellite Kelvin discovers an incarnation of his wife, who has been dead for seven years, and falls in love with the hallucination.

Still from Solaris (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
  • Solaris was based on a 1961 novel by Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem.  Tarkovsky’s version was actually the second adaptation; the story had been filmed previously by Boris Nirenburg for Soviet television.  Steven Soderberg created an American version in 2002 starring George Clooney; it was a modest success with critics, but a commercial flop.
  • Solaris won the Special Jury Prize (the second most prestigious award) at Cannes; the Palme d’or was shared by two realistic, political Italian films (The Working Class Goes to Heaven and The Mattei Affair) that are now almost forgotten.
  • Although commentators frequently claim that Solaris was created as a reaction to s 2001: A Space Odyssey, cinematographer Vadim Yusov says that the director had not seen the 1968 space epic until filming had already begun.  We can safely assume, however, that Soviet authorities were aware of the film, likely viewed it as propaganda for the American space program, and were more than happy to finance a 2001 response with cosmonauts as the cosmic heroes.
  • Tarkovsky liked Natalya Bondarchuk’s initial audition for the role of Hari, but thought she was too young for the role (she was only 17 at the time).  He recommended her to another director for a different part and continued casting.  A year later Bondarchuk had completed her movie, Tarkovsky still had not cast Hari, and she still wanted the role.  The director was impressed enough with her work and persistence to relent, ignore the age difference between  her and leading man Donatas Banionis, and make her his Hari.  Later Tarkovsky would comment in his diary that Bondarchuk’s performance “outshone them all.”
  • The weird seascapes of Solaris’ surface were created in the studio using an acetone solution, aluminum powder, and dye.
  • American reviewers gave Solaris largely negative reviews on its Stateside release in 1976; in their defense, however, the version then screened here was badly dubbed and had a half-hour cut from the running time.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: During thirty seconds of scheduled weightlessness, Kris and Hari slowly rise in the air.  A chandelier tinkles, a slow Bach organ chorale plays, and a lit candelabrum and open books float past them as they embrace.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though Solaris is far from Tarkovsky’s weirdest movie—in fact, it may be his most accessible—any movie in which a cosmonaut falls in love with an avatar of his dead wife that’s been created from his memories by an intelligent planet starts off on an oddish note. When Tarkovsky points his dreamy camera at this scenario and applies his typically hypnotic and obliquely philosophical style, the weird notes push to the forefront. The currents rippling in psychologist Kris Kelvin’s troubled subconscious turn out to be as mesmerizing as the ultramarine undulations of the surface of Solaris itself.


Criterion Collection trailer for Solaris (1972)

COMMENTS: Thirty minutes into Solaris Burton, a minor character, takes an almost five minute, silent, monochrome drive through the “city of the future” (actually contemporary Tokyo, which looked alien and advanced to Soviet audiences in 1972).  He’s just returned from trying, and failing, to convince Kris Kelvin—the psychologist who will be traveling to the space station orbiting Solaris to assess whether the “Solaristics” project should be shut down—that the planet is self-aware and that we as a species must continue to try to contact it.  The camera focuses on his worried face, shot in blue-tinted monochrome, as he speeds through the “futuristic” city with its tunnels, elevated highways and cloverleafs.  In the background is nothing but ambient highway noise, but as the trip continues, weird electronic acoustics creep into the sound mix.  As his car accelerates the pitch is manipulated, and sounds of unidentified whirring machinery blend with the increasing traffic noise.  Slowly, the alien sounds invade the mix as the audio environment grows more random, anxious and abrasive, until the scene snaps to a close and the action cuts to a silent pond.

I begin a review of Solaris with a description of this scene because it’s indicative of what the average person hates about a Tarkovsky film: the slow, slow pace, the director’s insistence on including long, challenging scenes where it appears that nothing whatsoever is happening (compare the scene where the tree principals sit quietly before the pool in Stalker, or the scholar’s nine-minute attempt to carry a lit candle across a drained pool in Nostalghia).  The point of Solaris‘ long driving scene mystifies even the film’s defenders.  There are theories that the director insisted on footage as necessary in a post-production attempt to justify the budgetary expense of sending a film crew to Japan.  The less charitable propose that the scene is Tarkovsky’s deliberate, anti-entertainment attempt to alienate the audience, to separate the wheat from the chaff and drive impatient patrons out of the theater.

Personally, I doubt both interpretations of the driving scene.  I suspect that, to Tarkovsky, it simply wasn’t that strange of an idea to focus on a single pensive face for four minutes in order to impress a mood of dreamy disquiet.  Did he even comprehend what an audience might have to complain of, when they had ample stimulation in the form of Eduard Artemyev’s sublime ambient electronic experiments humming quietly in the background?  This director thought on a different, more contemplative plane than other filmmakers.  To watch a Tarkovsky movie is to be slowly absorbed into the director’s ponderous dreams, until his subconscious almost imperceptibly becomes your waking reality.

This is not to say that Tarkovsky’s indifference to normal human pacing is unequivocally a good thing.  Solaris suffers from its slow prologue set on Earth.  Little crucial information is divulged during this long introduction, and what clues we do receive are told us in lectures rather than shown to us.  In archival film footage, a younger Burton describes his encounter with the hallucinatory consciousness of Solaris; he flies his craft through a thick colloidal fog cloaking the planet’s surface, and sees a giant naked baby rising from the ocean surface.  Tarkovsky’s budget obviously wouldn’t have allowed him to paint this mysterious vision in any convincing way; still, with the action being conveyed via dialogue we (as non-Russian speakers) are reading on the screen, Solaris seems much like a filmed novel, rather than a movie.  We get more background information on Solaris via a documentary glimpsed on TV, and the long Earthbound sequence, which gives us information that probably could have been conveyed in twenty minutes rather than forty, finally ends with that maddening driving sequence.  But fortunately better, and stranger, times are coming for the viewer, as the action and sense of mystery picks up significantly once Kris lands on the Solaris space station.

When Kris arrives, the sense that he has left Earth’s reality far behind is immediate.  He’s not greeted on arrival, but must wander through the ship’s curved halls alone looking for the crew.  When he discovers the scientist Snaut, the doctor is nervous and elliptical, explaining to Kris that only he and a Dr. Sartorius are left alive but, oddly, warning him not to react too rashly if he sees other figures roaming the station’s corridors.  Sartorius is even less helpful, only willing to speak to Kris through a cracked door—through which a dwarf escapes, only to be swiftly scooped up by the scientist and stuffed back into the room.  Kris then sees a woman in a blue nightgown walking through the ship, though he cannot catch sight of her face; she leads him to the corpse of one of the crewmembers.

Things definitely get weird from this point on, although there is always a “logical” sci-fi explanation for the strangeness—the hallucinatory interludes result from the interfacing of human minds with the consciousness of the planet Solaris, which overlaps the ship like a cloud.  After his disturbing welcome to the space station, Kris retreats to his room and barricades the door with footlockers.  He watches a black and white videotape left by one of the scientists, but Kris’ own reality is now monochrome, just like the video he is watching.  Black and white film stock is often used in color films to denote either memories, flashbacks or dreams, and Tarkovsky follows this convention in his other films.  Here, the sudden introduction of black and white in “reality” suggests that the line between the dream world and the waking world is breaking down.  Indeed, our expectations are subverted when Kris falls asleep and awakens in color: our expectations have been frustrated.  Are we now back in reality, or in a dream?  Complicating matters is the fact that there is now a beautiful young woman in the room, who walks over to Kris’ bed and kisses him; sleepily, he treats this event as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, but then he rises from his bed with a worried look on his face.  He reaches for a gun that’s lying near the apparition’s foot, but she kicks it away as he brushes her heel, saying “that tickles!”  Wandering the room, she discovers a picture of herself among his belongings and asks, “who’s this?”  She appears jealous.  Warily, he tells her he’s going out, but she protests that she can’t bear to be separated from him even for an instant.  He tells her that she can accompany him but she must put on a spacesuit and he tells her to undress.  She asks him to help her and he approaches to undo her dress, only to discover the frock has laces and threads, but no seam.  As he’s cutting her out of the clothes with scissors, he sees the sleeve of her dress is torn and there’s a puncture mark on her arm.

The relationship between Kris and this young woman—soon revealed to be a convincing replica of his dead wife, Hari, created by the planet below, for reasons unknown—becomes the core of the movie.  Hari is an illusion, a hallucination, but a convincing one, and an illusion who is completely devoted to, and dependent on, Kris.  Real or not, she arouses memories and longings in Kris both beautiful and painful.  Their burgeoning romance is even more complicated than a real life affair, for Hari carries metaphysical as well as emotional baggage.  She acts human, but we know she has been created by Solaris.  How human is she?  Is Kris falling in love with a memory, an illusion, a wisp?  Or, since she reacts like a real woman, since she appears to be a self-aware being craving love and acceptance, is it cruel to treat her as something less than human?  Things become even more complicated when the simulated Hari, herself, begins to understand what she is.  She paradoxically becomes more human to us when she begins to grasp and question her own existence.  Yet, there is a tragic fairy tale quality about her doomed love for Kris which echoes myths and folktales of spirits, ghosts and mermaids falling in love with human men.

Kris’ adventures on the satellite grow increasingly feverish as the film goes on; he begins to hallucinate about his mother, whose identity is confused with the similarly dressed Hari.  However strange things get for Kris, however, the central enigma of the movie remains Solaris itself.  What is this planet that seems to be alive, and how and why does it read the minds of those who study it and recreate figures from their past?  Who are the dwarfs that peripherally plague Sartorius? Is Solaris, that blue boiling ocean under a yellow sky, tormenting the cosmonauts, attempting to please them, or just experimenting on them in an attempt to understand them?  Its powers to create realistic, but flawed, homonculi are nearly omnipotent, almost godlike; and the film’s ambiguous ending implies it has even greater abilities, and perhaps even bears some love for humanity.  Is the planet Solaris, for Tarkovsky, an image of the God he was strictly forbidden to mention in film due to the Soviet state’s official materialism?  By making a science fiction picture, is he attempting an end-around on the ban on spirituality, by cloaking it as speculation on the nature of nearly omniscient alien lifeforms?  Tarkovsky’s films exhibit an odd, obscure and indirect mysticism, one that is more concerned with mystery, ambiguity and wonder than with clear answers or dogma.  He would push the obsessions begun in Solaris even further in Stalker, Solaris‘ weirder cousin, a fable about a journey to a strange room that can grant a man’s deepest wish.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange, slow but absorbing parable on life and love in the guise of a sci-fi theme…”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“Promising as all this may sound, it becomes apparent after the first few moments that the movie is going to remain stubbornly earthbound. The effects are scanty, the drama gloomy, the philosophy of the film thick as a cloud of ozone.”–Jack Cocks, Time (contemporaneous)

“…Tarkovsky’s eerie mystic parable is given substance by the filmmaker’s boldly original grasp of film language and the remarkable performances by all the principals.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader (DVD)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Solaris (1972) – The Criterion Collection – Features two clips from Solaris, as well as Phillip Lopate’s liner notes for the Criterion release and news snippets about the movie

IMDB LINK: Solaris (1972)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Andrei Tarkovsky on Solaris, Lem, Fellini, and Polanski – 1973 interview with Tarkovsky about the movie.  Many other Solaris tidbits can be found on nostalghia.com, an academic Tarkovsky fan site, though the wealth of articles on the director are not yet organized by movie

The Great Movies: Solaris – Roger Ebert’s essay on Solaris for his “Great Movies” series

Solaris – Information on the original novel from Stanislaw Lem’s official site

DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy) releases contain exactly the same features. Criterion originally released a Solaris DVD in 2002.  In 2011 they released a Blu-ray that corrected an error in their original transfer: certain scenes that Tarkovsky had originally intended to be shown tinted blue had been presented in black and white instead. They simultaneously reissued a corrected version of the DVD, with the proper tinting restored.  Other than that change, the updated version is identical to the 2002 release, including the commentary track provided by Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie (coauthors of “The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue”).  Their reflections are enormously informative, but stiff—the pair sound like they’re reading passages from their book rather than spontaneously commenting on the action unfolding on screen.

On DVD extra features are hosted on a separate disc.  They include nine deleted or alternate scenes; a touching interview with star Natalya Bondarchuk; insightful conversations with cinematographer Vadim Yusov, art director Mikhail Romadin, and composer Eduard Artemyev; and an excerpt from a documentary about novelist Stanislaw Lem wherein the writer discusses his creative differences with the director.  Altogether, the supplementary materials run almost two hours.  The accompanying booklet contains an essay by Phillip Lopate and a Tarkovsky appreciation by no less an authority than Akira Kurosawa, who was touring the Mosfilm studios when Solaris was being made.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “236 Design.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “95. SOLARIS [SOLYARIS] (1972)”

  1. Thank you for the long-awaited review of “Soliaris”, one of the cult movies of my youth.

    I fully agree with the author that “to Tarkovsky, it simply wasn’t that strange of an idea to focus on a single pensive face for four minutes in order to impress a mood of dreamy disquiet.” He was entirely engaged with his professional tasks. This manner is his style, his method, his understanding of how his thought should be conveyed to the audience.

    Once again, let me express my gratitude for bringing me back to the time the movie was much appreciated by our generation.

  2. I haven’t seen this idea mooted by the critics anywhere, but has it occurred to anyone that “Inception” owes a surprising amount to this film? Both protagonists are haunted by slightly imperfect replicas of wives who committed suicide, and who absolutely cannot be killed. “Monsters from the id” indeed! And there’s that zero-gravity scene in both films…

  3. Ambient movies… strange vibe to adjust to. I’m usually the first to bitch about the ADD-inducing, MTV editing seen everywhere but this kind of thing is stil a challenge. Made it through the first hour & a quarter i think, same for Stalker.

    still, there is something very… pure (transcendental?) to this style thats interesting. Unsurprising to read his faith played a large part in Tarkovosky’s work.
    Need to re-visit this one, I’ve already seen the prettied up Hollywood re-make afterall :P

  4. While I grant you that Tarkovsky was a deeply religious filmmaker in an atheist country and that he masked spirituality as science fiction with his concept of Frozen Time, my understanding has always been that what Solaris does is a mixture of trying to keep its visitors close and experiment or communicate with them in order to learn and get to know them.

    I somehow never felt like Solaris was trying to torment them as some characters think, it’s just reaching into their unconscious and grants them wish fulfillment, whether they like it or not (very much like the room in “Stalker”). I don’t think it can even comprehend mental torment and pain that are due to our immensely complex psychology and neuroses. It may be able to create homunculi to communicate and keep its visitors close, but it’s not omniscient and does it all to learn about its visitors.

    As for the Tokyo sequence, I’ve never asked myself what it was about as its hypnotic/medititative/contemplative weirdness, as well as that of the entire movie, instantly clicked with me. Although in the years since, I’ve also come upon “Stalker” which I find highly superior to “Solaris”. But I do like the subversive funniness of the idea of how some of the crew just wanted to see a Western country for once, so they submitted an excuse to film there, it’s a bit like they were playing a practical joke on the authorities, like they were playing truant or something for a few days. :P Tarkovsky then was such a marvelous filmmaker that he could use the footage to marvelous effect in the film.

    I’m still trying to catch “Nostalghia” and “Ivan’s childhood”, found “Sacrifice” kinda meh because, as the making-of showed, the editor had cut out all the good bits after Tarkovsky had died of cancer during post-production (most likely due to the toxic chemical plant they were shooting “Stalker” at), and also found “Andrey Rublev” just meh, probably because it was an old telecine with an incorrect aspect ratio of letterboxed 1:1.66 where a lot was cut off of the sides of the original Cinemascope image.

    But speaking of “Andrey Rublev”, it appears a fact that Tarkovsky during his entire career considered himself a mystic icon painter like Rublev, hailing from a Siberian mystic and shamanic tradition far older than Russian Orthodox christianity, but partly preserved within it. It’s also why I think he was probably masking his spiritualism as science fiction, but without necessarily referring to our traditional Christian god.

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