Solaris (1972)


Andrei Tarkovsky

Fridrikh Gorenshtein
Andrei Tarkovsky
Director of Photography:
Vadim Yusov

Running time: 160 minutes

Original title: Солярис

The reality of the world in Tarkovsky’s Solaris seems to be as clear as daylight and yet as difficult to pin down as the reality of the three individuals on board the Solaris Space Station. Things seem to be straightforward (despite being a science-fiction film, there are no aliens here), but as characters’ memories start to physically materialise around them and we realise that no one can really trust the physical existence of anyone or anything around them, the world of the central character, Kris Kelvin, becomes very flimsy indeed, and many essential questions can never be answered.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, arguably one of his most accessible (together with Ivan’s Childhood and The Sacrifice), is based on the novel Solaris by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, which was published in 1961. People and their situations constantly shift in and out of focus, and while the central dilemma is quite easy to comprehend (Kelvin is confronted with the physical manifestation of his late wife), the questions resulting from this situation are profound and incredibly relevant today given mankind’s ability to (re)create images.

Kris Kelvin is a psychologist sent to the space station above the planet Solaris to investigate the situation there. Solaris itself is covered by a whirlpool of an ocean, and Kelvin soon discovers that the ocean is sentient. At the space station, a close friend, Gibarian, has committed suicide under strange circumstances, and the only crew members remaining are a Doctor Sartorius, who spends all day locked up in his laboratory, and Doctor Snout, who tries to warn Kelvin about the unexpected apparitions onboard.

These apparitions take the form of someone whose trace of a memory is found deep in the recesses of a crew member’s soul, and in the case of Kelvin, it is his late wife, Hari, who committed suicide 10 years ago. Kelvin is visibly affected by her appearance, even though he knows that she is not real. After he sends her out into space, a substitute appears. These substitutes are, of course, externally identical but always copies of the memory. As such (and this is an important point that is made much clearer in the 2002 remake by Steven Soderbergh), Hari can never know anything that Kelvin does not.

Even though Kelvin knows that Hari is merely a copy, he interacts with her in a way that causes him joy instead of sadness. She does not remind him of a loss as much as her presence makes him happy, and therefore, ultimately, Solaris fails to succeed in torturing Kelvin.

The film opens at Kelvin’s house next to a lake, where clouds or fog are always visible in the background. The environment seems pure, and a lone horse passes through the frame now and again while Tarkovsky takes care to show us water flowing over lush green water plants. It seems to be nature at its most innocent, but the film slowly and surely subverts our preconceived notions until we are left with the realisation that things in the world of the film are never quite what they seem.

Solaris is long and contains a number of scenes that would have benefited from a number of cuts, including, most importantly, an early scene during which we watch a film extensively detailing a mission to Solaris. Another scene, which takes place in a library on board the space station, has some interesting components, including references to Don Quixote, a work of literature that also investigates a world where reality is no longer virginal.

Bach’s organ choral prelude (“Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”) is used in a striking way throughout the film, and the film’s final scene, when we are confronted with a frozen lake that brings to mind a painting by Bruegel (“The Hunters in the Snow”) shown in fragments earlier in the film, produces a moment of such beauty it nearly brought me to tears.

During a scene that immediately precedes Kelvin’s journey to the space station, viewers are obliged to immerse themselves in the flow of sound and image rather than story. It reminded me of sequences from Koyaanisqatsi and shows a car driving along the highways of Tokyo, at different speeds and in different colours, the sound changing as well to produce a sequence of indescribable energy that finally serves to propel the story itself forward, and Kelvin into space.

The film has a few scenes in black and white, but they are not entirely distinct from other scenes in colour, though sometimes they are flashbacks and sometimes they are not. However, our inability to easily distinguish flashback, dream and immediate reality from each other is of course part of the dilemma that the film poses to us and to Kelvin.

The examination of reality in a world where copies resemble the original to such a great extent is very pertinent and has recently been treated in many other films, from David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. I found the plot more interesting and more accessible than Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though they are both enigmatic in their own ways and lend themselves to hours of interpretation.

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