First, I saw the 2002 Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris, starring George Clooney. Then I read Stanislaw Lem’s novel. And then I watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 169-minute film version of the book, Solaris / Solyaris, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year.
Each successive interpretation I’ve seen of the work is better than the previous one, even though Lem publicly disavowed Tarkovsky’s film, which was scripted by Fridrikh Gorenshtein. The book is a good piece of sci-fi, but it’s not great, not that long, and its philosophizing not nearly as deep as that which Tarkovsky explores. Also, the novel is told in the first person, unlike the two film versions. That sometimes gives away too much of the dramatic arc of the tale. Still, Tarkovsky hews closer to the Lem novel than Soderbergh, as Lem apparently, by contract, forced him to do so. The film (really, both of them) does make a bit more sense if you’ve read the book, but the parts that are left inexplicable are fine in a film like this – one that is not about details, but the “big picture.”
The Russian film version has some problems – mainly the ineffective use of black-and-white scenes interspersed with color at moments that do nothing to justify the dreamier feel of black and white. That said, there are a few standout colorless scenes, while scenes of a “futuristic city” – seemingly shot in East Asia – looks like any metropolitan city of the 1970s, and were dated even upon the film’s release. Another visual flaw is an early scene on earth where a rainstorm is clearly not occurring, for the raindrops are seen only in the foreground of the screen – there is no realistic visual “depth” to the storm. All of these are minor, and given this film’s limited budget, not really something to worry over.
Aside from those flaws, however, Solaris has rightfully earned its comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s great 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, despite a recent spate of critics who have tried to point out the differences between the two films. While these exist, as in any two films, the similarities are far greater and deeper than any handful of differences. Yet, Solaris also has as much in common with another Russian film from a decade earlier, and also reputedly adapted from a Lem novel – the black-and-white Planeta Burg / Planet of Storms (1962), which was later bought by Roger Corman for American release, and recut first into Journey to the Prehistoric Planet, and later the Mamie Van Doren schlock film Journey to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. While Lem never acknowledged the similarities between those two versions of two of his works, he publicly disdained Kubrick’s approach. But his claim that 2001 was inhuman says far more of Tarkovsky’s limits as an artist than Kubrick’s.
As in 2001, the Solaris storyline is rather simple. Also, it involves slow pacing, languid tracking shots, and long expositional dialogues. In short, both films are everything that dumbed-down Hollywood films are not. Solaris starts with Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), an astro-psychiatrist, visiting his parents’ dacha – which is “old fashioned” on purpose – a scheme Tarkovsky used to explain why contemporary things would exist in the future, because his budget allowed no great special effects.
Kris’ relationship with his parents is explored as the film proceeds, though not in a straightforward manner. He watches with tem an old video of the initial exploration hearings on the planet, where an astronaut named Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) – seen as young within and old without, as he watches it with the Kelvin clan a day before Kelvin’s launch – speaks of the planet’s weirdness, and of its ocean being thought of as a sentient thing. Burton became a joke to the scientific world, and spent years in humiliated seclusion. He and Kelvin then clash over the fate of the planet and its ocean, with Kelvin appearing as a selfish, cold clinician.
He then heads to the Solaris station, where only three of eighty-five crewmembers are still alive. He finds one of them, his friend Gibarian (Sos Sarkisyan), is already dead – by suicide, and is only seen on a cryptic video. The two others, Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Snaut (Jüri Järvet), are in a delusional state, harried by “guests” that the ocean conjures up to test them – reminiscent of the pod people from Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (even down to the fact that the guests are pulled from the scientists’ dreams). The guests dart about the ship, like subliminal creepy crawlies in the corners of one’s eyes. Kelvin soon gets his own visitor – a replica of his beautiful ex-wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who committed suicide after their breakup a decade earlier. The film then ends its first part, for an intermission.
The second part opens with the first version of Hari being trapped by Kelvin in a rocket he sends to orbit the planet. Then, a second version appears – as Snaut warned, with deeper knowledge of the real Hari, as well her immediate predecessor, and the longer she is with Kelvin the more human she becomes, to her dismay, as well the others.” The ocean, while sentient, is clearly fallible, and often gets things wrong, such as reproducing things askew, or too clearly – like creating clothes without a zipper, buttons, or any means to take them off, or creating a “child” for Sartorius that turns out to be a dwarf. We never see Snaut’s visitor, but sense it is much like a poltergeist.
As the film progresses, subtle tensions arise between the four main characters, and a long philosophical discussion ensues at Snaut’s birthday party, including a reading from Cervantes’ Don Quixote on sleep and dream. There, Hari declaims Kelvin the most human of the three men, for he can love, and this is where Solaris echoes back to another film, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari, which likewise is about a human falling in love with an otherworldly representation of a deeper and greater love.
Sartorius, ever the scientist, says she is not a woman, and only a replica of one, and derides the “romance” between Kelvin and her as his turning “a scientific problem into a common love story.” It’s a great line, and it’s at that point – his injunction, that the film does stop its drift into the Hari-Kelvin tale, and focuses more on the larger dilemma. That said, a terrific shot, not long after, of a weightless Hari and Kelvin at bliss, is wonderful, poetic, and sums up their faux relationship before it falls apart, for, eventually, the guest Hari becomes too human – even taking up smoking, and, like the woman she was based upon, tries to commit suicide – albeit she does it by drinking liquid oxygen. She has become too much like the real Hari.
Eventually, she leaves, perhaps back to Solaris- we are never sure of this, for, while she leaves, Kelvin has febrile dreams of his mother (Olga Barnet), whom we saw as an old woman early in the film. But she is now young – and recognizable from a photo we saw earlier in the film – back on Earth. Later, Kelvin and Snaut debate the real meaning of Solaris and their experiences, after they send an encephalogram of Kelvin’s brain waves, and the ocean no longer toys with them. The reason it started making guests was after it was bombarded by x-rays, by the humans, and created the guests out of neutrinos, which gave them super-strength – one of the many things it gets wrong.
The film then ends, like 2001, with symbolism and no specifics. Kelvin seems to have returned to earth, as Snaut suggested, for he’s back at the dacha, only it’s raining within the building (another flaw of the ocean or symbolism?), yet his father (Nikolai Grinko) is unaware of it. Kelvin sees him, kneels to his father when he opens the door, and hugs his legs on the porch, as the camera pans up and outward, to reveal what seemed to have been the Russian countryside is really a newly formed island in the Solaris Ocean. Some critics interpret this to mean Kelvin went to the planet, or stayed on the station, or went back to earth, or perhaps the whole film took place on Solaris and was a flashback. It is never made clear, and wisely so, for, in a sense, his physical ending does not matter, for we have seen Kelvin grow from a cold, remote man to a loving, open one with the guest Hari, who, despite leaving him, still tugs at his being.
The very claims of this film’s vast differences from 2001 are as much based upon the misinterpretations of that film as being cerebral and unemotional – even though one of the most touching and disturbing scenes ever filmed are of HAL’s being deprogrammed by David Bowman, as they are on the misinterpretations of Solaris. Both films are slow paced, but this film lingers lovingly over the natural world, not the technological world of Kubrick. Similarly, whereas Kubrick’s film almost fetishizes over the technology and spaceships in its cosmos, Tarkovsky’s film makes mysteries out of the home videos of Kelvin, their relationship to Peter Brueghel the Elder’s paintings, or where anyone on the station is getting their fresh food. Other than the dull, 1970s Far Eastern city of the future, that Burton rides through for five minutes, and with a techno music background, the only real visual drag on the film is the Solaris Ocean itself, for waves cannot be visually scaled, thus the ocean always looks like a small brew of colored liquids in a big bowl – alternately and inexplicably like water, lava, or pond scum.
Yet, Tarkovsky makes the most of his reserved editing techniques by letting scenes play out in real time, then going to another with the music continuing as a bridge. Often, the camera will rotate around a room and disorient the viewer with the rapid repositioning of the characters in places they could not seemingly have gotten to in time. The problems with the black and white interspersions is not too much to drag the film down, but a bit more judicious use of it would have helped delineate aspects of the film’s tale better. But, while this film is slow, it’s never boring, just as 2001 is never boring. Both films let anxiety and tension rise slowly and naturally, and they do not telegraph when the “bang” will come, like some slasher flick laden with bad scoring and a “killer’s eye point of view.”
Stylistically, though, Tarkovsky’s film has more in common with the visual storytelling style of Terrence Malick than with Stanley Kubrick. Narratively, it is also very much in the vein of the great Russian novelists of the prior century, for philosophy and that notorious Russian desire to think everything through to the Nth degree shines through. Even more cogently, this film is really a taut psychological Chekhovian chamber drama set in space.
That aligns it very much with the cerebral Kubrick film, especially given that despite Solaris‘s more talky nature, the aliens in both films are utterly inexplicable to present human consciousness, even if Solaris‘s characters express and struggle more explicitly with emotions. Both films are long, set up their stories with poetic prologues, and both end with explanation inviting scenarios that leave their respective heroes transmogrified. In 2001, Bowman has transcended the physical human form, while in Solaris, Kelvin has transcended his darker and baser impulses. Both make a choice to not return from whence they came – Bowman with his plunge into the monolith, and Kelvin with his appearance on the island recently formed in the Solaris Ocean. Both films also make great use of Classical music – in 2001 it’s Strauss’ “The Blue Danube,” and here it’s Bach’s organ music.
This film is, like 2001, vastly misinterpreted by many critics – many of whom initially linked it to 2001, due to its American ad campaign, then later delinked it, then claimed it was merely a Communist agitprop critique of capitalism, or a Socialist rant against religion, with the Solaris Ocean in the role of godhead. But, clearly this is wrong, as the ocean, if indeed alive, is clearly as fallible as humans, however more powerful, for we have seen it err many times in the film. What it does represent, however, is the truly alien-unlike the humanoid aliens of such film franchises as Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien, and Predator. It is the ineffable, that beyond human comprehension, which is something any human-based gods are clearly not, for they all manifestly are merely “superhumans.”
No political claims can alter that fact of the film. Also, some critics have claimed that 2001‘s characters are motiveless, while those in Solaris have definite purposes, yet this only goes to show how bad most critics really are since both film’s scientific crews have almost identical motives – to explore mysterious circumstances at far away planets. Another noxious, and wrong, claim is when the film is called a “poem.” It’s not. It’s far too extended a dialectic to be a poem, even if it has moments of great poetry. Far too much explication is given. That most critics do not understand this difference speaks as much of their ignorance of poetry as it does for their misinterpretation of this film.
The Criterion Collection DVD is in Russian with English subtitles. There was an English dubbed version of the film released in America, in the 1980s, albeit in a truncated form, but Criterion should really look to broaden its potential market by dubbing the foreign films it releases. There simply are too many film lovers who detest subtitles to not spend a little extra to hire competent actors to read the parts in a day or two. The first disk has the film, with a commentary by Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, co-authors of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. It’s a typically dense and pre-scripted commentary, long on minutia, and short on spontaneity, emotion, or any real excitement about the work, especially specific scenes where the duo seem to be battling boredom as the film goes on. The two experts seem more intent on droning on to show off their knowledge than really imparting anything of substance to the viewer.
The second disk has deleted and alternate scenes, as well as interviews with actress Natalya Bondarchuk, cinematographer Vadim Yusov, art director Mikhail Romadin, and composer Eduard Artemyev. While Bondarchuk has a few interesting anecdotes to reveal, the only interview of any depth is with Romadin, who seems to have been the closest and most in synch with the director’s ideals, and relates a tale of a visit to the set by Akira Kurosawa. There is also a short Polish black and white documentary excerpt with Stanislaw Lem, and two essays in the DVD insert by Phillip Lopate and Kurosawa. Solaris succeeds as a work of art, however, because it is everything the critics think it is not. It has no central core philosophy. The characters and the viewer are left to interpret at will, and this makes the slow pace of the film tolerable because the viewer is drawn in to “fill in the blanks.” Tarkovsky was not going after deep philosophy, but the necessity of critical dialectic between thinking beings, and the greatest one in the film occurs between the humans and the Solaris Ocean.
Yet, the film is far better, and more realistic, as such a philosophic mishmash, than having a simplistic central tenet, for it puts the viewer in empathetic emotional league with the characters onscreen. The same claim can be said of the misinterpreted end. Many critics feel this represents Tarkovsky’s view that to love an illusion – be it apparitions of Kelvin’s ex-wife or father – is better than to be incapable of love, but there is no evidence within the film for this claim, because the camera backs away from the final shot. We do not know if the respite seen, and only seemingly experienced by Kelvin – not his guest-father, will last any longer than the tensions left unresolved with his real father, back on earth. Clearly, such interpretations tell us more about the laziness of the critical claimant than the intentions, much less the more important accomplishments, of the film and filmmaker.
Yes, there are elements of suggesting that a state of happiness obviates the human desire for questioning, but we can also see the final scene as that not of a human submission to a higher power, but of a human conquest. This is also in league with interpretations of 2001‘s ending, which similarly has been seen as a human submission to a higher race of beings, rather than a human triumph over mystery, for the Solaris Ocean – with a deeper knowledge of Kelvin and humanity, may now be tamed, perhaps lulled or narcotized, and willing to merely serve up fantasies for its human visitors – as a sort of sentient, futuristic, and extraterrestrial Disneyworld.
That harkens back to an earlier posit in the film, where the men argue over whether humans really want to conquer the cosmos, as they explore outer space, or only want to extend the earth to its ends, which ties into the motto of William Cameron Menzies’ pre-World War Two sci-fi classic film Things to Come, and its insistence that man must conquer all that lays before him, lest not really be human. Whether or not this, or any other posits that films make need be true is not the point, for art is not philosophy, which is simply about inert ideas. Art is about ideas in motion, ideas put into the service of communication, and as such, Solaris succeeds about as well as any other film that’s ever appeared onscreen. And, if one is not quite sure what the ideas it has are, there’s little doubt that how it is served is memorable, and in that regard, art does conquer all, even if the men that create it might falter.
Solyaris / Solaris (1973). Dir.: Andrei Tarkovsky. Scr.: Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky. Starring Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky.
Copyright © Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.