When is a science-fiction film not a science-fiction film?
Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russian language film about an ill-fated space station and her crew, is a challenging film. It does not provide the ready answers, action, or special effects many may prefer from sci-fi films. So what sort of film is this?
Knowing very little about this film, other than it’s a science-fiction film, and it was remade in 2002, the trailer doesn’t do much to clarify anything. It lets the audience know that it’s a Russian film, which is based on a Russian novel, with a group of astronauts traveling to a distant and mysterious planet. It has a strange soundtrack and seems to spend about as much time on a spacecraft as on a planet, which looks very much like Earth. Not sure what this long film will do in terms of entertainment, but I’m eager to look into it.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Solaris is divided into two parts. In Part One, a psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), is walking around the lake at his house. He is visited by a former astronaut Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy) who asks Kelvin to attend to and evaluate the astronauts on a station orbiting the planet Solaris. Burton shows Kelvin and his father some footage of an inquiry on strange happenings at the station, including Burton himself who says he saw a 4 meter tall baby outside the station in the waves of the ocean. Many dismiss the vision as a hallucination, but some scientists believe that the Ocean is a living, thinking brain. Before leaving Kelvin burns much of his papers, including a photo of a woman.
Kelvin’s shuttle docks with the station roughly when no one is available to communicate with him. There are three scientists currently on board the station: Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) an astrobiologist, Snaut (Yuri Yarvet) a cyberneticist, and Gibarian (S. Sarkisyan) a physiologist. However, no one greets him. He soon meets Snaut, who is acting weird and twitchy. He informs Kelvin that Gibarian has committed suicide, which Kelvin finds odd. The station is in disarray and Kelvin finds both Snaut and Sartorius uncooperative and distracted. He also sees fleeting glimpses of other people on the station.
Kelvin watches a video diary left for him by Gibarian which cryptically explains about weird things occurring on the station. He swears that he is of sound mind, and not crazy, and the video doesn’t make him seem as twitchy as the other two scientists. Kris examines other parts of the station and when he returns to his room there is a woman (Natalya Bondarchuk) there, which he seems to recognize. She is unaware of how she came to be in the room.
Part Two opens with Kelvin taking this woman into one of the station’s rockets and launching her into outer space. Snaut confirms that strange manifestations have been appearing since the scientists bombarded the Ocean with x-rays. Returning to his room that evening, the woman is back. It’s the same one from one of Kelvin’s photos, his wife Hari–who had committed suicide years earlier. Kelvin no longer seems disturbed by the “visitor” and the two sleep together. When Kelvin leaves abruptly, Hari physically tears through the metal door injuring herself, but soon the wounds heal on their own.
The two of them watch some home movies of Kelvin as a young boy, which somehow helps Hari’s memory come back. Later Kelvin, Sartorius, and Hari meet in the station’s library to celebrate Snout’s birthday. The four share some philosophical discussions and Hari indicates that she is becoming more human than any of them. Snaut wants to broadcast some of Kelvin’s memories into the Ocean, as his “manifestation” has been the most normal of them all. Hari continues to remember her “life” and in a fit of despair drinks some liquid oxygen, killing herself. She has a painful resurrection as a worried Kelvin watches on. She has now become more real to him than the original Hari.
Kelvin says he won’t go back to Earth so he can stay with Hari. He develops a fever and has some weird memories/dreams of being with his mother when he was younger. It’s then, but it’s also now. When he comes out of his stupor, Snaut hands him a letter from Hari. She has asked Snaut and Sartorius to kill her. Snaut says that the encephalograms of Kelvin’s memories have helped the manifestations from occurring, and islands have started to form in the Ocean. Kelvin wanders again around the lake, and returns to his house where he meets his father, falling at his feet. The camera pulls back and up revealing that the house and the lake are not actually on Earth, but have manifested themselves onto an island of Solaris.
“We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror.” – Snaut
History in the Making
Solaris is probably the best known Russian science-fiction film ever. It’s also exceedingly long for a science-fiction film. With the average length of films reviewed so far on Sci-Fi Saturdays hovering between 90 and 100 minutes, Solaris is probably the longest sci-fi film that I’ll be watching. It clocks in at 166 minutes which is 18 minutes longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film it’s often compared to. The comparison is made for several reasons. They are both epic science-fiction films that deal with humanity coming into contact with an alien species that does not conform to the standard alien or martian of previous sci-fi films. The films also both confront bigger themes about humanity and the human condition, with Solaris being even more of an introspective and philosophical piece. And both films use classical music as their soundtracks. But while 2001 is more about the evolution of man toward a new level of advancement, Solaris is about man coming to grips with the pain and loss of what it means to be human.
Solaris also uses long takes and extended sequences as a meditation for the audience. The film opens with extended shots of water plants, and Kelvin wandering around the deep green foliage near his lake. Another early scene involves Burton driving home in an almost 5 minute sequence of point-of-view car shot on a highway occasionally intercut with interiors of the car. Towards the end of the film, director Andrei Tarkovsky shows Hari looking at a painting (identified in IMDb Trivia as the 1565 “Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder). The camera drifts across the image at varying depths, picking out subtle details before switching to other angles. It’s an almost two minute sequence that seems to drag on. I believe that Tarkovsky use of this omniscient or POV camera is an attempt to provide the audience with repetitive imagery allowing them to make stream of consciousness connections about the film and provide them moments to meditate on the themes and the meanings presented.
Solaris is definitely not the standard sci-fi fare, even for 1972. Its original language is not English. It has a foreign (to Americans) feel to it and is probably only tangentially sci-fi, owing more to the philosophical and retrospective films of Ingmar Bergman, like The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries. It’s even more alike to Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville than 2001. It’s not concerned with space battles, or monsters, but with discovering what makes humans human. Like Star Trek, but with less action. The film general thematic elements remind me very much of the 2018 Alex Garland film Annihilation, which deals with identity and self.
The film also sets up an interesting contrast to help with its theme of life and humanity by showing the differences between the lush world of man’s birth (Earth) and the sterile, coldness of the space station. As Hari finds herself becoming more human, the locations within the space station become more warm and inviting culminating in Snaut’s birthday party in the library, a wood-paneled room, full of knowledge and art. The opening of the film mirrors the ending with Kelvin walking around his lake, but instead of being lush and green, it’s now winter and everything is barren. It then is revealed that this is not even Kelvin’s house, but a simulacra invited by Solaris based on the EEG patterns transmitted by the scientists, showing that even the fiction of this new world can’t compare to what we already have on Earth.
More so than any other sci-fi film to date, Solaris concerns itself with the grand theme of the human condition including loneliness, humanity, self-awareness, regret and immortality. Previously viewed films may have taken on one of these themes, like Robinson Crusoe on Mars dealing with the loneliness of the stranded astronaut. The film works as a tone poem on the human condition. A man, Kelvin, troubled by the suicide of his wife decides to make a trip to a space station, presumably to never return–as evidenced by his burning of his papers. There he meets scientists that have experienced some profound revelation of their souls (one even killed himself over it). These revelations have made at least Snaut question their purpose on this mission. Per the quote above he thinks that endlessly expanding the Earth is cold and inhumane. He wants to hold a mirror up to mankind. “Man needs man,” he cries, not the cold scientific probing that they are involved in.
Once the doppelganger of Hari arrives, Kelvin must face the reality that the woman he had loved has returned. The simulacra is not an evil monster but an honest and accurate representation of the real woman, or at least much of the real woman made from Kelvin’s memories. On one hand Snaut has become a humanist while Sartorius is much colder and scientific. Kelvin is caught between them as this alien/woman grows more and more into the woman he loved. He soon begins to see her as her own entity, not an alien, and not Hari, but something new and lovely. She too experiences growth and exclaims that she is becoming human, more human than any of these men. But later she would also tell them that “You’re human, each in your own way. That’s why you argue.”
During Snaut’s birthday celebration there is talk of immortality and human need in what is the most self-reflective part of the film. Tarkovsky creates a small philosophical summit with each character acting out different parts. Prior to this revelation, Kelvin was in a hurry to leave the station and return to Earth, the paranoia and strangeness of the station being too much for him. But after having these conversations and seeing the self-awareness of Hari, as she grows into her own person, he realizes that he must stay. Whether he lives a life of immortality on the surface of Solaris or is just able to live out a more idealized version of his old life is unclear. But each character gets a chance to choose their final fate with knowledge and dignity.
The Science in The Fiction
The science really takes a back seat in the film. The nature of the planet Solaris and it’s interactions with radiation from the astronauts is more fantastical than science-fiction. Yet this 1972 film contains some interesting premonitions of future technology. As with Fahrenheit 451, which concerned itself more with the social and moral implications of censorship than the science of the future, Solaris shows the use of giant flat-screen televisions. This is not really something too hard to envision for the 70s, and it’s an easy enough effect to pull off in film. Aren’t movies just giant flat-screen versions of a television? On top of that Tarkovsky also shows clips from home movies that appear, not as grainy 16mm film clips, but high-definition (shot on the same film as the remainder of the movie), and also video-conferencing in the same hi-def state. Again, these techniques are probably not some predicted futurism, but more a by-product of creating manageable effects for the film.
The Final Frontier
Solaris was originally broadcast in 1968 as a TV-movie in the Soviet Union, prior to this version, and was then remade in 2002 by director Steven Soderbergh. While the television version ran a similar length, almost two-and-a-half hours, the 2002 film was just over 90 minutes. The film condenses and abbreviates much of the development seen in the 1972 version.
In short, Solaris is a challenging film from multiple perspectives: it’s long, it’s in a foreign language, and the subject matter is not the lighter fare of popcorn-sci-fi films. But if a viewer can engage with the film the benefit is great, as there is much to mined from the interpersonal relationships of these characters.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.