It seemed that all my adult life I had been hearing about the movie Solaris. There was a lot to recommend it; first there was the cachet of rarity. Not only was it a foreign film, but it was a Soviet film, to boot. It was notoriously hard to see in the pre-home video years, and when it was shown, it generally heavily cut. The other reason was that it was an increasingly rare creature, a genuine science-fiction movie.
That right there is a sentiment that has gotten me into trouble before. In the olden days, on another site, I once mentioned the fact that I do not consider Star Wars a science fiction movie. It is pulp, it is an adventure story with rocketships and zap guns, but that alone doesn’t make it science fiction.
I still get angry letters about that.
Science fiction is a genre of ideas, and at its very best, it shows what effects those ideas have on the human condition. A Princess of Mars is pulp. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is science fiction.
Polish writer Stanisaw Lem was pretty fed up with the Buck Rogers model that was predominating Western science fiction, and took up his own pen and wrote some cerebral literature, one of the most famous being the 1961 novel Solaris, which has been translated to film three times: a Soviet television movie in 1968, once by Stephen Soderbergh in 2002, and today’s exercise, made in 1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky, a director of undeniable talent, but one with a troubled career, making only seven movies in his lifetime.
It is probable that Tarkovsky hit on Solaris because he was having so many problems getting a movie green-lit in the USSR, and felt that such a popular novel would increase his chances. It turned out to be a cagey move, as the movie racked up a couple of awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and was even up for the Palme d’Or.
Solaris is the name of another planet, which has had a research station in orbit for some time. The surface of Solaris is covered with ocean, but it’s not water; it’s some sort of constantly-flowing plasma, perhaps a neural net of some sort. The entire planet is a living organism.
In the early days of the mission, one of the scientists got lost in the ocean, and a now-discredited helicopter pilot reported seeing the surface of Solaris coalesce into a monochrome imitation of an earthy garden, then a twelve-meter tall imitation of a human being. Only upon returning to Earth did the pilot discover the mannequin was an exact duplicate of the missing scientist’s now orphaned son.
But Solaris’ protagonist is psychologist Kris Kelvin, sent to the Solaris Station to determine whether the mission should be shut down. Originally designed for a crew of 85, it now houses only 3 men… and one of them commits suicide while Kelvin is in transit.
Something has been affecting the crewmen deeply since the station bombarded the surface of Solaris with radiation, and Kelvin soon finds out what that is when he finds his room occupied by his wife, Hari, a woman who killed herself ten years before. Panicking, he manages to shoot her into space, only to find another duplicate in his room minutes later.
Solaris is somehow manufacturing these duplicates, termed “guests” by one of the remaining scientists, harvested from the earthmen’s memories. Though we get only glimpses of the “guests” of the remaining crewmen, Snaut and Sartorius, they have definitely taken their toll on the men. Snaut drinks constantly, and is always bandaging wounds on his hands; Sartorius has become a sullen cynic, using the “guests” as experimental animals.
Solaris is short on action but long on words and ideas. Sartorius mentions that most “guests” take the form of people they have wronged; Kelvin does indeed have to face the fact that Hari committed suicide after one of their many arguments, and he unwittingly supplied the means of her demise. But he also finds that in the decade since, his feelings for her have deepened, and he loses himself in her return, however false he may know it to be.
Hari is, at the same time, frightening and pathetic. Kelvin once shuts a door between them, and the panic-stricken Hari tears through the steel to rejoin him, her wounds healing within minutes. As the weeks wear on, she actually becomes more and more human, learning to sleep and to cry. And, as she becomes more truly Hari, to learn to despair, and once again, commit suicide. Only to come back to life in minutes.
Kelvin is the first to successfully bond emotionally with a Guest, so another burst of X-rays, this time modulated with Kelvin’s brainwaves, is fired at the sentient Ocean. Kelvin shortly thereafter falls into a fever, looked after by Hari; he has a feverish dream of his dead mother, who hated his former wife. When Kelvin recovers, he is told the Guests have stopped materializing since the last X-rays, and Solaris seems to be forming a land mass from its plasma. He is also told that Hari begged Sartorius use an experimental device to destroy her once and for all.
The final sequence of Solaris finds Kelvin at his Earth home, though something is wrong – it’s raining inside the house. As he embraces his father, the camera pulls back and back and back, soaring into the sky, revealing the house to be on the land mass created by Solaris from his mind.
Like I said, science-fiction is a literature of ideas and how those ideas affect and explore the human condition. Even as long as my reviews usually run, I can’t touch on everything presented in this movie, like Snaut’s drunken musings on how Mankind is forever doomed to screw up first contacts, or Kelvin’s determined blindness to evidence of the Guests on his first arrival on the station.
Solaris is a melancholy picture, though not a totally bleak one. There is a constant urge to return to the Earth, even in the earliest parts of the movie that are actually set on Earth. Kelvin lives with his father and aunt in the country, a serene house with a large pond and rolling hills, contrasted – none too briefly – with the nearby city, where a very busy Osaka, Japan is transformed by editing and camera trickery to a vast concatenation of tunnels, bridges and heavily occupied highways.
The station itself, one of the most expensive sets ever made for a Soviet film, is a quite marvelous blend of high-tech fallen into disrepair and slovenliness. Everything still works, but trash litters the corridors, panels hang awry.
Solaris is compared to Kubrick’s 2001 a lot, mainly because of the futurism, but especially because of the pace. Tarkovsky likes his lengthy shots and languid pacing, but those trash-strewn corridors should more than serve to distance it from 2001, which Tarkovsky dismissed as “too sterile”. (also, I’m told that Tarkovsky’s usual penchant for loooooooooong shots was held in check for this movie). There is a lot more messy humanity on display here, too, though my first thought when we enter Kelvin’s fever dream is “Okay, we just got 2001 with this.”
Stanislaw Lem was also apparently unhappy with this version of his novel, and was more satisfied with the Soderbergh version – which also runs almost half the length of the Tarkovsky version. Which sort of implies I have no earthly reason not to see that version, now that I’ve seen the original.
Do I regret seeing this version? No, not at all. It’s an apple that has been held out of my reach for far too long, and which I have finally tasted, and found mostly to my liking. If it was a little too lengthy and a little too Russian for my tastes, well, that’s the world of film.
Emphasis on “world”. Even just stuck on this one planet, we ain’t got all the answers.