Editor’s Note: I started writing this while kind of blitzed (similar to my Bye Bye Man review, but with maybe half a dozen more bottles of Alpine in me), so bare with me here. I took a sober moment the next day to comb through this write up and clean it up to the usual amount of typos and grammatical errors.
I’m lucky enough to live in a town that has a local independent cinema, which screens a ton of newer indie releases as well as manages to show old prints of classic movies. Local arthouse and documentary films also get a home there, but the reason I’ve taken a new shine to the place is because they’ve been on a bit of an Andrei Tarkovsky kick recently. Last month they showed Stalker, arguably his most revered movie (honestly, among Tarkovsky fans, every single one of his films is up for being considered his best work) which I unfortunately wasn’t able to catch. I was kicking myself for that one, so when I found out that they’d be showing Tarkovsky’s philosophical sci-fi epic Solaris, I made sure I was able to make it out to catch it on the big screen.
For those of you who might not know (I was only introduced to Andrei Tarkovsky recently), Tarkovsky was the most famous Soviet era Russian filmmaker, and was able to produce art so expressive of his own feelings and thoughts his films were repeatedly banned, seized, and burned by the USSR until finally he was exiled from the union. Among the arthouse and independent film fans, Tarkovsky is usually held in the same echelon as Kubrick, Lynch, and Coppola. He’s apparently kind of a big deal. This film is the first I’ve ever seen of his, so we’ll see how he stacks up.
Tarkovsky’s 1972 offering Solaris is often considered as a Eastern European response to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a slow, heady sci-fi flick that uses its setting and creative choices to explore interesting and thought provoking themes and questions. Solaris is smaller in scale and a little more introspective than 2001, following a psychologist named Kelvin who is sent to a space station orbiting the eponymous ocean planet. Kelvin’s mission: to investigate the strange messages received from the station. Word is that most of the crew are dead and the survivors have since descended into madness. When he reaches the station, Kelvin is informed that there are “guests” on board: physical manifestations of the occupants’ memories, apparently conjured up by the alien planet below them. Before long he runs into what appears to be an amnesiac version of his wife, Khari. Kelvin is particularly distraught over this, considering Khari committed suicide a decade prior. Things then get weirder, and much more Russian.
I’m going to give a fair warning here to anyone tempted to watch this film. If you have an inkling to watch Solaris, seek it out and watch it. It’s definitely not that much of an accessible film, clocking in at almost three hours long with very little dialogue, and many long, long stretches of glacially paced, unbroken shots. That being said, there was almost never a moment in Solaris where I wasn’t completely engaged. I will admit that I nodded off once, but I blame the fact that I now have a boring adult bedtime for my sleepiness in the theater that night. Right from the beginning, you will know if you will like this film or if you’ll turn it off before it reaches its conclusion.
The opening shots come on to screen showing tall grass, misty ponds, and Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) slowly walking around, taking in the scenery. Take in the scenery you will with this film. Shots stretch on for what feels like forever, but every bit of framing is beautiful. Whether or not everything is set up with Kubrickian precision is up to debate, but I think Tarkovsky meant for his films to make people feel, not necessarily to entertain in a traditional sense. The late, great Roger Ebert has written on Tarkovsky’s style before:
When he allows a sequence to continue for what seems like an unreasonable length, we have a choice. We can be bored, or we can use the interlude as an opportunity to consolidate what has gone before, and process it in terms of our own reflections.
I think Mr. Ebert is completely correct here. Solaris is slow. And I can see why some people might want to tap out of it, but it’s execution lends itself to being much easier to digest than it sounds.This might have been quite a few conflicting sentences in a row, but I’m kind of drunk right now, and my brain is always muddled when I steep myself into films this demanding of my (very limited) mental processes.
Solaris is one of those movies that demands multiple viewings. Not because the plot will unravel in a different way upon a second or third viewing. The narrative will remain relatively static across repeat screenings. I do firmly think that the more you watch it, the more personal and nuanced your translation of the film will be. The messages in Solaris are presented without much subtlety, but there are some layers at work here. After a couple blanket statements, Tarkovsky leaves a handful of questions hanging in the air for you to chew on. I don’t think he had an answer for them, but he wanted to ask them. You could argue that Tarkovsky makes the subtext text in Solaris, but your understanding and interpretation of the themes might evolve over time. This is a movie that will make you think about it and will make you want to watch it again, which will make you think about it more. It’s an endless cycle of thinking and watching. It sounds exhausting.
So, what are these mind-bending, spiritual, and enlightening themes that I keep mentioning? Well, let’s just tackle one of the first major plot points of Solaris head on and see what comes tumbling out. Dr. Kelvin runs into a version of Khari created by the planet below him. Solaris can only create things based on the memories of those around it. So, Khari as we know her is only what Kelvin remembers of her. Does this make the woman created by Solaris Khari? Or does it make her a cheap imitation? When Dr. Kelvin inevitably falls in love with Khari 2.0, what does that imply? Does Kelvin love Khari herself? Or does he just love what he remembers of Khari? This Khari is incomplete, since there are obviously things that Kelvin did not know, or might not have remembered about her. Is it possible to truly, fully know and understand someone, even a lover or wife you’ve known for decades? Everything in somebody’s life influences and inspires every other aspect of their life. It might not be obvious, but there are subtleties in your personality that are informed by fucking everything you have ever experienced, ever. You can’t possibly know 100% of another human’s experience, so if a manifestation of them based on your fragmented understanding of them appears, it can’t possibly truly be them. So I reiterate: is Khari actually Khari here? Who are you? Who am I? What’s going on here, I thought this was a movie review? Thoroughly existential crisis’d? Me too.
Christ. I’m going to shift gears here, lest this write-up become a first year philosophy lecture.
So this movie is beautiful. Just fucking beautiful. There’s a great use of colour (and lack thereof) in Solaris, with it’s pretty limited palette from setting to setting. The film opens with brilliant greens and vibrant browns and oranges splashed throughout. Even the opening shot of a lonely red leaf floating down a river filled with wisping greenery, is hypnotic. For one of the most uneventful opening seconds of a film, I was sucked in right away. The space station orbiting Solaris is mostly sterile, with lots of greys, whites, and beiges punctuated with deep reds, sparkly silvers, and rich yellows. Solaris itself is shown in different colours as the story progresses, and as it possibly(?) gets more and more aggravated. The film’s palette opens up a bit in the famous anti-gravity scene, which garnered a few legitimate “oohs” and “ahhhs” in the theater. While it might be a bit of a stretch, I’m convinced the moment of weightlessness in Solaris influenced Damien Chazelle’s “dancing in the observatory” scene from La La Land.
All the visuals coalesce into quite a unique experience. For being an art (or at least artsy) film, there’s very little to find in terms of heavy-handed or overt symbolism. Solaris is void of religious paraphernalia like crosses, bibles, Jesus-figures, et cetera, despite giving us a very abstract and tough to understand representation of a God-like being. It’s nice to see a movie so laid back in its symbolism that it lets you place the dots and connect them yourself. The planet Solaris is the God-substitute here, and instead of being shown with divine lighting, or pulling imagery or passages straight from religious texts, the only glimpses of the ocean planet we’re given are from the view of the space station. Solaris is enormous. Unending. It’s watery body stretches out far beyond any comprehensible distance, it’s waves crashing and whirlpooling in an almost nonsensical manner. The planet has a supernatural vibe to it. Almost beyond being alien. You can feel that Solaris is much more than just a hunk of rock covered in water floating in space, which is quite a feat considering all we ever see is turbulent fluid.
While Solaris is generally regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time, I don’t think I’d blame anyone for their disinterest in it. It’s a bit of a strange beast to wrangle; I didn’t know how to feel walking out of the theater, but after a couple days of letting my brain soak in it, I do really think I love it. Is it one of my favorite movies of all time? No. Watching Solaris is a huge venture, one that I might not undertake for a while I know that when I am up for the task, Solaris will be waiting, and I’m sure I will have a renewed and deeper appreciation for it.