Solaris
d. Andrei Tarkovsky (1972)
The Criterion Collection

When I bought Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris I admit it was mainly because the Criterion Collection bluray looked too lovely to pass up. The only thing I had heard about it (and it turns out this is more of a marketing gimmick than anything) was that it was a Soviet response to the coldness in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (which is a movie I love). So, when I sat down to watch this, I had no idea what was coming, and I’m glad for that. Anyone looking for something strange and potentially frustrating but altogether lovely, well, should perhaps just go check out Solaris without reading further. Not that I’m going to delve into spoilers without warning, but I am going to mention a few things that I’m glad I knew nothing about beforehand. Here, I’ll simply put what’s on the back of the Criterion edition’s case — avoid below if you want to go into the movie with no preconceptions:

Ground control has been receiving mysterious transmissions from the three remaining residents of the Solaris space station. When cosmonaut and psychologist Kris Kelvin is dispatched to investigate, he experiences the same strange phenomena that afflict the Solaris crew, sending him on a voyage into the darkest recesses of his consciousness. With Solaris, the legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky created a brilliantly original science-fiction epic that challenges our conceptions about love, truth, and humanity itself.

Solaris was based on a 1961 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. I haven’t read the book, but from what I hear Lem wasn’t particularly happy with Tarkovsky’s interpretation as Lem himself had focused on the inability of humans to communicate with or comprehend things that aren’t human; Tarkovsky said, heck, humans can’t communicate with or comprehend themselves — let’s start there. It’s easy for me to join in behind novelists whose work is “adapted” terribly for the screen, but that won’t be the case here. Solaris, as it examines grief and sensation, is stunning. If Lem’s book takes us elsewhere, that’s fine, and I’d like to read it, but here’s a work of art independent of its source of inspiration.

This is a science-fiction film that is focused on the human soul, in particular on our sadness, our grief, our relationship to our world, and our need to create. The opening images in this movie are beautiful. It opens with a detail of underwater plants flowing with the currents. We then move in slow shots through the trees around a pond. Standing, pondering the pond, with a slightly stunned look, is our protagonist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis).

It’s a very slow, very quiet opening — something to get used to since much of the movie is slow and quiet.

We are at this pond because it is near the home where Kelvin’s father still lives, and we meet him soon enough. As it turns out, this is the last day Kelvin and his father will spend together, as both well know. Kelvin is a psychologist, and he’s been called on to assess the situation on a distant space station that for decades has been studying the ocean planet Solaris. Despite all of the time, money, and man-power, almost no progress has been made: Solaris is a mystery. After cuts to the program, only three crew members remain at the space station, and Kelvin’s findings may shut the station down for good.

But the mood in the beginning isn’t one of foreboding or responsibility. It isn’t one of adventure into the unknown. It’s grief. Kelvin and his father are saying farewell forever. Kelvin is saying goodbye to this home, the pond, the lovely vegetation. We’ll learn later that there are other things to grieve.

On this last day, Kelvin receives a visit from Henri Burton, a scientist who once worked on Solaris. It’s been years since he returned, but he has disturbing things to share with Kelvin, including a video of his debriefing where he explains that he was flying around Solaris, looking for two lost crew members, when he saw a large child on the ocean surface. He tells Kelvin that it looked like the child of one of the lost crew members.

Stepping out of the plot for a moment, let’s look at one of the movie’s most famous sequences. Burton leaves rather upset because, well, people think he’s kind of crazy when he tells about what he saw. He drives away, and Tarkovsky takes us on a five-minute black-and-white (blue-tinted) car ride. Nothing really happens in this sequence. It really is five minutes of driving. Looking around online, I discovered that many fans simply skip this sequence. And there are many detractors. Now, the first time I saw this I was watching the movie very late at night and before the car ride I was starting to get sleepy (it is, I said, slow and quiet). But this scene woke me up. After about thirty seconds of driving, I started thinking, What is this? After a couple of minutes, I was completely engaged by the images. It turns out this was filmed in Tokyo, using contemporary cars. Despite the fact that this film takes place in the future, Tarkovsky didn’t want to create any futuristic setting or futuristic cars; as Philip Lopate says in the article included with the Blu-ray: “why bother clothing the present world in sci-fi garb when the estranging future has already arrived?” This long sequence is an excellent counter to the lush nature which opened the movie. I don’t mind that Tarkovsky puts me through that. As one might suspect, this scene also conditions us for upcoming strange, long, expressive scenes.

To cut into the meat of the film, when Kelvin gets to the Solaris station, he finds that one of the remaining crew committed suicide. Now there are only two left, and they’re unsettled to say the least. But Kelvin keeps seeing other people in the station. One of the crew explains that they think these appearances have something to do with the each crew member’s subconscious. That’s what Kelvin is there to examine; little did he know how up-close and personal he’d examine the subconscious.

Little did he know it would force him to examine his own. His dead wife Hari (who committed suicide ten years earlier, and is played by the lovely and unsettling Natalya Bondarchuck) shows up while he’s sleeping. He’s shocked to see her, obviously. A bit lost for words. Then he collects his thoughts, silently puts this version of Hari in a space ship, and launches her into the void. He knows whatever it was it was not really Hari, and we also get the impression that he doesn’t want to deal with his dead wife anyway.

But Hari II arrives soon thereafter, and the film proceeds to get more and more strange and more and more disturbing. After all, not even Kelvin can sort through the feelings he has toward his dead wife (love, resentment, guilt, whatever chill he may have felt that may have played a role in her suicide), but this new Hari is derived — it must be — from his own mind. And how does she, or further iterations, feel toward him? Is there resentment? Is she suicidal? Does she love him?

One thing is for sure: amidst all of the anxiety and sadness of this relationship, there is beauty. Together, they float, and it’s one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen. Is this a second chance for Kelvin?

But — and here’s why I love this film — a second chance at what? As a conception from his own mind, is it really safe to love this Hari? Will this end in pain? And even if it ends in joy, what does that mean when the real Hari is still dead on earth somewhere else in space?

When I finished the movie for the first time, I didn’t know what to make of it. I liked it a lot while I watched it (more than many others, it turns out — I was never bored), but in the years since, I have grown to love it, mainly because of so many unclear issues: how does Kelvin feel about his dead wife, and how does this play out in his treatment of Hari; does he love his dead wife, does he love the reincarnation, does the reincarnation love him; is he dealing with his grief through her, or his guilt; what demons are the other crew members experiencing? There are many potential answers to the questions above, so many paths to take when considering the movie.

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