Solaris – The film Tarkovsky didn’t like.
I had a lot of help with this review by reading M. Dawsons wonderful review here, on Left Field Cinema.
I watched Solaris a few weeks back for the first time – what an enormous pleasure it is to be able to watch films like those made by Andrei Tarkovsky. In an oh so clever move, Solaris is a film about the deep inside world of the individual – set in far outer space. Right there is a clever, engaging metaphor. Solaris is ultimately concerned with the question of what it is to be human. Why and how do we love? What is ‘real’ and does the ‘real’ matter? The space genre is subverted in this way, by using the greatest, most expansive ‘out there’ to bring us back to the deepest part of ‘in here’.
In title of the film comes from a Cognizant lake-planet or ocean-planet that hovers deep in space. This mass has the ability to probe a persons subconscious and then mentally duplicate what it finds there, not discriminating according to privacy or intimacy. For example the films protagonist, Kris who at the start is disbelieving of the mind powers of this force, soon becomes prey to them himself. Kris, after initially disbelieving Solaris’ immense potential, is thrown into turmoil when he discovers that the ocean has replicated his former wife, Hari, who committed suicide. Although Soderbergh in his film (remake) emphasises the primary relationship, the implication that Tarkovsky didn’t is an ill founded one. Part of the problem Solaris suffers under is its popularity because of the Soderbergh film, and therefore it suffers for the comparison. Tarkovsky’s film is still about love and the implications and complications of love and the way that love affects us, carries us, devastates us and redeems us. Although Kelvin’s first reaction to the apparition of his love is to violently reject this manifestation he later becomes attached to her and also grows increasingly fascinated by the nature of this alien life. Kelvin is lost, his life is becoming increasingly indeterminate, his mission is thwarted by his emotions and his scientific reasoning is destroyed by the hypnotic and hallucinatory unfolding of time and dreams, certainty become chaos, detachedness becomes love and reality begins to crumble around him.
In “Sculpting in Time” Tarkovsky had this to say about Solaris:
“Solaris had been about people lost in the Cosmos and obliged, whether they liked it or not, to acquire and master one more piece of knowledge, given him gratuitously, is a source of great tension, for it brings with it constant anxiety, hardship, grief and disappointment, as the final truth can never be known. Moreover, man has been given a conscience which means that he is tormented when his actions infringe the moral law, and in that sense even conscience involves an element of tragedy. The characters in Solaris were dogged by dissapointments, and the way out we offered them was illusory enough. It lay in dreams, in the opportunity to recognise their own roots-those roots which forever link man to the Earth which bore him. But even those links had become unreal for them.” (Sculpting Time, 198)
Despite being his most widely known film, Solaris was actually Tarkovsky’s least favourite of all the films he made. Tarkovsky wanted to make genre films that subverted the genre status. While the plot of Solaris implies this, the visuals associated with the expanse of space are too dominating, and the film looks very much like a “space movie.” Solaris also suffers from the reputation as being Russia’s answer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space Odessy, which Tarkovsky didn’t like. It wasn’t till much later in his career with Stalker that Tarkovsky would successfully subvert the genre – as was his intention with Solaris. In this respect, Solaris was a complete failure, as it is considered one of the great films of the genre now.
Another problem associated with the Science Fiction genre is its inability to age well. Solaris is like a typical science fiction film in this regard also – the sets now looks like a 1972 science fiction film – whereas Stalker is timeless. Again this speaks to the problems Tarkovsky had with the film, and cements it more and more as a conventional film of the genre rather than a commentary outside of it. There are certain aspects of Tarkovsky’s film that have the imprint of a master and therefore make it a certain sort of timeless. The lighting, the use of the extended beginning that is held on earth, the opening scene of a river, the usual Tarkovsky trademark tracking shots. When both of these are in congress towards the end of the film as the barriers between reality and fantasy come crumbling down is when Solaris comes together magnificently, an add on to Tarkovsky’s trademark is to start the shot with one person in frame then track to the right past some other people or objects only to have the person we began the shot on turn up at the other end after one continuous movement away from that person. It’s fairly disorientating and has been mimicked by many film makers since including Lars Von Trier’s The Element of Crime, Shinji Aoyama’s Wild Life and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment. Here this technique is used to great effect during Kalvin’s fevered nightmare, its application is superior here because of supernatural which is at play within the narrative. (M. Dawson)
Of course, outside of all of Tarkovsky’s judgements and problems with Solaris, is a magnificent film that turns outer space into a mirror for what is going on inside of us. The alien within, or the unexplored self out there. I found the film beautiful and engaging. Its long but you know why it’s long and this adds to the power of Tarkovsky’s message. Its hard not to love a film maker this complicated and engaged with the human intellect I for one, loved the film and will watch it many more times yet.
Many of the ideas in this review came from M. Dawsons great analysis of Solaris, that can be found here.