Solaris [Solyaris] (1972)

This post marks a particularly auspicious moment for me:  it is my Five-Hundredth review since I began this site back in February 2016.  It seemed an impossible goal back then, but somehow, it happened anyway!

Thank you to all my readers, and to the many filmmakers and producers who have given me the opportunity to review their work.  Good Science Fiction seems so hard to find these days, but it is surprising just how many talented people are out there, taking chances to put their vision on the screen.  All of them deserve a big thank you.

To mark the occasion, here is a review of one of the most controversial and miss-understood great Classics of Science Fiction…

Solaris has been called the Russian 2001.

A less helpful description would be harder to find.

Yes, both are serious works of cinematic art that transcend the normal bounds of the genre, but any real similarities end there.

It doesn’t help that Andrei Tarkovsky, who directed Solaris, is one of the least accessible great directors.  He was, as I put it in one of my essays some years ago, a Cinemapath:  he didn’t just make movies, he inflicted them on people.  He put his vision on the screen, and did so without the slightest concession to the audience.  He expects us to sit still and pay very close attention to the screen, because he isn’t going to stop to explain anything we might have missed, or weren’t smart enough to figure out on our own.  It is not unusual, for example, for us to see or hear something, but not get the information we need to understand it for four or five minutes afterward.

But, if that weren’t enough on its own, his films are meant to be experienced rather than just watched.  There is this often traumatic emotional depth to them which he expects us to surrender ourselves to.  Many reviewers have complained about the ten minutes the film spends in a car going through endless bridges and underpasses, but, if you manage to connect with Tarkovsky, it is a numbing and oppressive scene.

Tarkovsky is definitely not for everyone (and seems to be either adored or reviled, with no middle ground viewers saying he’s just okay!), and while Solaris may not be his most challenging film, it is still difficult and requires a certain amount of patience, a willingness to let it all wash over you, and a fair amount of spare time as it is almost three hours long.

A soft cushion to sit on might help as well!

It is also perhaps his most beautiful film:  it starts with an absolutely stunning image which seems totally abstract at first, before we finally see enough to realize that it is weeds waving in a stream.  One might be tempted to credit his cinematographer,  Vadim Yusov, but all of his films are beautiful, and we know that when Tarkovsky was at work, he would routinely look through the camera lens to see what his shot looked like — something which would never be allowed on a Hollywood production today!

It is about an hour into the film before we finally get into space:  instead, the film begins with the astronaut hero, Kelvin, spending time at his childhood home before his mission, a sequence which plays a profoundly important part in the film.

Another curious aspect of the film is that, despite the Russian film industry’s ability to create impressive effects sequences, there are very few effects shots in the film (although the interior sets of the space station itself are undeniably gorgeous and believable).  In the Soviet Union at the time, making SF films was a way to avoid a lot of the routine censorship.  He’d just made a deeply religious film about a Russian Monk who is considered a Saint in the Orthodox Church (Andrei Rubelyev) — one which, despite some serious official efforts to bury it, had become a critical success in the West.   Making an SF film was perhaps the only way he would ever have been able to make another film at the time (and one should remember that he deliberately chose, in his next venture into science fiction, Stalker, to make an SF film without the usual trappings of the genre)

Sadly, this also meant that he thought very little of the film, and barely mentioned it in his book Sculpting in Time.  He even claimed that he deliberately made the beginning of the film boring so the censors would stop watching before he got to the important parts, although I’m not sure I believe it, as it is no slower than most of his other films.

It is — at least on the surface — an adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem:  a remarkably close adaptation, at that.  However, Lem hated it — and, curiously, approved of the Steven Soderbergh version which radically changed the story to give Kelvin and his wife a happy ending.

There’ve been a lot of theories about the film’s meaning, with some people reading its enigmatic ending as if Kelvin were stuck in an endless loop.  But Tarkovsky wasn’t making some sort of strange existential mind-you-know-what of a film.  No, Solaris is in fact, like Andrei Rubelyev, a religious film.

As in Lem’s novel, it is a film about a deeply traumatic encounter with an intelligence which is profoundly different from ours, but, in a line not found in the novel, one of the characters says that it would take something bigger than us to love all of mankind.

And Tarkovsky didn’t just mean a sentient sea on an alien planet.

Then there is Dostoyevsky, whom Tarkovsky quotes throughout the film, who emphasized the role of suffering in our attempts to draw closer to God.  It is one of those things which should be obvious, except that we no longer have the cultural depth past generations have.  Certainly there aren’t many people reading Dostoyevsky in school anymore.

This description may leave the film sounding grim, and yet there is also a dry, nearly black sense of humor at work here, although not everyone will be Russian enough to appreciate it.

This is not a film for casual viewers.  It rewards those who are willing to watch it on Andrei’s terms, and is, in my opinion, the finest SF film ever made (although it may be tied with Stalker).

Just don’t watch it expecting Star Wars.

Or, for that matter, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

(For more information on other Soviet era SF films, see this essay)

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