When we love someone, do we love the person, or our idea of that person?  Solaris is an art film in sci-fi clothing, as if Ingmar Bergman had taken a handful of characters and set them in a space station.  But more than just a character study, Solaris takes a deep look at the essence of existence.  For a film grappling with such ambitious material, it should come as no surprise that  it became a cult film along the way, having screened throughout the USSR for 15 consecutive years.

The Players:

  • Director:  Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Writer:  Stanislaw Lem, Andrei Tarkovsky, Fridrikh Gorenshtein
  • Cast:  Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Juri Jarvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy, Nikolay Grinko, Anatoliy Solonitsyn

Notes:

Kris Kelvin (Banionis) is a psychologist investigating the mysterious effects that the planet Solaris has had on the various crew members of a previous mission.  Not much is known about what happened on this planet or how it works.  The planet is said to trigger hallucinations in people, perhaps directly caused by its ocean surface, which seems to function like a large brain.  As Kris explores the space station, he begins to have hallucinations and gets caught up in a tangled exploration of his past and the meaning of life.

Kris’ visions include the physical manifestation of his ex-wife, Hari (Bondarchuk).  Hari had committed suicide 10 years earlier, so her reappearance forces Kris to revisit his past and his perspective on the meaning of man’s relationships. Solaris is concerned with providing a meditation on life, a poetic journey with very few special effects.  Without always understanding the relationships onscreen, we sense that some type of meaning is being conveyed by the contrasting images of a bare space station and lively images from nature.  Having been released just a few years after Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the two films are often mentioned together, but Solaris is not as spectacular in its imagery nor does it fit the bill of conventional sci-fi films.

More impressive than the camera work are the set designs.  Despite the inside of the space station being shot in the 1970′s, when Kris first walks along a hallway framed by computerized panels on each side, it doesn’t feel dated the way other futuristic sets might.  The sets go a long way into immersing us in the story.  The camera work is not as masterful as Kubrick’s, but there are some gems.  When space pilot Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy) drives through a city, Tarkovsky uses great long shots that making transportation by car feel as if space travel were taking place.   The cutting between color and black and white images, and the use of sound is also spectacular, as it also adds much to the poetry throughout.  The material overshadows the acting, as its impact can be felt by the mere contemplation of the words being spoken. – as Kris is told later in the film, “when a man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal themes rarely interest him.”  Perhaps this is the lesson being explored.  But while there is a joy observing introspective questions and thought-provoking images, Solaris verges on being a tad boring.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

Based on my first view of Solaris, I agree when you say that Tarkovsky’s films are more like environments than entertainments.  Given the excellent use of set design and detailed camerawork, there is a great deal of visual engagement despite few special effects.  However, your dismissal of those who feel that Tarkovsky’s shots are sometimes too long is a bit unsettling.

You mention that in your first experience of Tarkovsky, you balked. In my first view of this film, I felt impatient at times. Tarkovsky himself felt that his films should be seen more than once in order to be fully appreciated and understood.  As you also state in your review, “no director makes greater demands on our patience.”  Over time, I will be curious to see how my experience changes.  A slower film might intend to allow for contemplation, as  you suggest, but slowing down the pace is not automatically sufficient for mental engagement.  I look forward to seeing if multiple viewings uncover additional layers of meaning.  Ultimately, Solaris makes it clear that attempts to find answers sometimes end in failure.  The universe will always present unanswered questions.  This is not only something we should accept, it is something we must all learn to embrace to a certain degree if we wish to be happy.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like Solaris?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  Raise the Red Lantern

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris this week, he now has 295 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.