Revisiting Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpiece ‘Solaris’

Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction masterpiece, Solaris, had a difficult start. Produced under the Soviet regime, it was not only repeatedly censored during production, but once complete in 1966 it was suppressed altogether for years, only released in 1972.

Adapted from the distinctive, philosophical 1961 novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, the film’s script and general approach were disliked by Lem, who found Tarkovsky’s perspective entirely at odds with the novel’s original intention. (The author may have been oversensitive in these matters; he had experienced conflicts before over Soviet films based on his work. When his anti-war science fiction novel The Astronauts was made into the East German film The Silent Star, Lem wanted his name removed from the credits of what he saw as a heavily politicised and “trashy” adaptation.)  Lem tried and failed to convince Tarkovsky to change his approach before reluctantly signing off on the script. The film was a critical success upon its eventual release. It took the Grand Jury Prize, and Tarkovsky the Palme D’Or, at Cannes in 1972, and is still considered one of the director’s outstanding films.

The original novel deals with a scientist and doctor of psychology, Kris Kelvin, who is asked to travel to a space station attached to a distant planet known as Solaris. The crew managing the station, and who have been studying the planet, have been experiencing some sort of unexplained emotional breakdown; Kelvin is to observe the situation and decide whether it is necessary to conclude the mission and return the crew to Earth. Once he arrives and discovers the space station and crew in a state of alarming disorder, Kelvin finds himself subject to the same mental instability and apparent hallucinations that have plagued the crew – hallucinations that seem to be taken from his own memories. The cause could be the supposedly uninhabited planet itself, which may possess a previously unknown form of intelligent life; it is speculated that the strangely active ocean that covers Solaris may be a life form in itself, but of a kind hard to imagine, much less make contact with.

Tarkovsky retains the basic plot, the suspense of Kelvin’s investigation, and the horror of being stalked by entirely lifelike apparitions, in a slow and understated but intense depiction of the men’s isolated struggle. His approach, however, is completely different from the novel’s, which becomes apparent from the first moments of the film. Lem’s novel begins with Kelvin already en route to Solaris, strapped into a one-man space capsule. Tarkovsky’s film opens on lengthy, meticulous scenes of Kelvin’s last day on Earth before departing for the space station, at his father’s cottage in a secluded wood. The forest, the nearby pond, animals and vegetation are shown in loving detail, devoting an exceptional amount of time to leisurely images of reeds, flowers, the shoreline, the leafy canopy over the cottage. Even the indoor scenes emphasize the natural world, showing leafy branches extending through open windows, potted plants, and paintings of natural scenery on every wall. These scenes allow the withdrawal from the countryside to the city, and finally from the planet altogether, to make a strong visual and emotional impact. The camera’s imagery establishes that Kelvin is leaving a familiar and nurturing home for an utterly unnatural environment.

Poet and Nobel Laureate Czesław Milosz commented on this particular difference in approach: “For Tarkovsky, the most important thing is the Earth,” which he “imbues with spiritual meaning,” particularly the many scenes involving rain, which in Russian culture “represents the Holy Spirit.” Mitosz sees as typically Russian the addition of spiritual meaning and mysticism to images of terrestrial nature. Expressing these things within the guidelines provided him was a challenge for Tarkovsky: part of the censorship of the film by Soviet authorities involved removing any reference to God or the supernatural from the script. Tarkovsky managed to work around the censors, to include his spiritual content indirectly, either through symbolism (such as rainfall), or by obscure references that escaped the censors’ notice, as when he hints that a particular hallucination is evil, by having a character mockingly ask Kelvin whether he “threw an inkwell at it, like Luther.” Tarkovsky saw art as having a spiritual function (according to The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky by V Johnson and G Petrie), even if only to illustrate the materialism of a given time or place.

Stanislaw Lem saw the dilemma of Solaris as “an interesting challenge confronting man,” mainly a technological challenge although with philosophical aspects; while Tarkovsky, according to Lem, saw space as “terrible” and time on Earth as “something to be cherished.” The film makes this attitude clear; for example, Kelvin’s trip from the countryside to the city switches from colour to black & white film and dim, shadowy lighting; while his journey to Solaris shows Kelvin in a disembodied form, a spacesuit locked immobile inside a capsule, in sharp contrast to the more ‘real’ Kelvin we have just seen on Earth. Every possible film technique is used to make shots of terrestrial nature stand out as the only truly beautiful and innocent images in the film.

Solaris has often been compared with another great outer-space film, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and they do have qualities in common; but Tarkovsky found 2001 “cold and sterile,” and had what was once described as “an almost visceral negative reaction” to the film (Johnson and Petrie).  Soviet critics played up the distinctions, calling Solaris “an anti-2001.” This is an overstatement, but there are key differences. Solaris is an emotional rather than a technological story; grief and guilt are the motivating forces of Tarkovsky’s characters, the scientific storyline merely a framework. A more apt comparison was made by film critic Phillip Lopate, who compared Solaris to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; despite the superficial contrast in genre and plot, both films involve an apparent revival of deceased loved ones, the struggle with guilt over death, and a sinister conflict between illusion and reality. Yet another master filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, who met Tarkovsky during the filming of Solaris, was a great admirer of the film. He praised the extended nature scenes, which some viewers have called far too long and slow. Kurosawa felt they were basic to the film’s emotional tone and theme, setting up a pronounced nostalgia for Earth and nature, as well as making the contrast with the space station, and the trapped feeling always present there, possible. Kurosawa also appreciated that Tarkovsky didn’t “spend too much time explaining;” he let the imagery tell the story where possible, allowing the viewer to feel what is happening, rather than hear it explained in dialogue.

The nostalgia for terrestrial nature continues on the space station. The stark, sterile, metallic interior of the station is cold and claustrophobic, filled with technological gear and the most basic and functional of furnishings; but periodically, a scene from Earth will turn up, not only in flashbacks, but also in the form of a framed print of a landscape, a photograph of dogs lying in the grass, incongruous in the space station setting but reminding the viewer of how far Kelvin and the crew are from their natural home. In one of the darker scenes, the reminder of earth, and a hint at the crew’s possible situation, is in the form of a set of preserved butterflies, pinned to a framed board – a part of nature, but dead and imprisoned. 

Part of the charm of Solaris is its unusual look and sound. Many of the key scenes were shot in long, unbroken episodes, using little or no editing. The decision came partly from a simple lack of materials – spools of film were rationed out by government overseers – but Tarkovsky believed it also provided better “rhythm,” allowing the viewer to experience the action along with the character.  Some of the more suspenseful scenes were filmed in a single, unbroken shot which adds to the mysterious quality, a technique which Hitchcock used to produce a similarly eerie effect in Rope, where uncut, unedited scenes increased a scene’s suspense effortlessly. There are also the aerial shots of the planet Solaris, which are done in a slightly abstract form that expresses the planet’s mystery, one reason for the comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Moody electronic music is used in the scenes associated with Solaris, in contrast to peaceful classical background music in any scenes set on Earth or relating directly to Earth, such as flashbacks of Kelvin’s childhood. 

The key conflict of the story involves one of Kelvin’s apparent hallucinations: his deceased wife, Hari, appears in his room at the space station one morning, looking and behaving exactly as she had prior to her death years before, apart from a few minor incongruities which remind Kelvin that she is not real. The film follows Kelvin and his colleagues as they deal with their situation on two levels: first, attempting, as scientists, to determine whether sentient life on Solaris is causing these visions, and whether there is a way to communicate with it; and second, dealing with the emotional impact of meeting with their personal ghosts. Kelvin’s situation is at times frightening, particularly in moments when it becomes clear that his late wife is not merely imaginary, but inhuman; and at times touching, as in a lovely scene in which Kelvin and Hari share a brief period of zero gravity, and seem to set aside concerns with reality as they peacefully levitate together. The tension of the situation grows even as the “visitors” seem to gain awareness, and Kelvin and his colleagues make a decision with no certainty as to what will result: attempting to communicate with whatever life exists on Solaris.

The film’s final act is its most remarkable. From a purely scientific decision, the film abandons straightforward plot and becomes a mostly visual, flow-of-consciousness story which shows the final results of contact with Solaris, from Kelvin’s perspective, but without attempting to explain it. We are brought back to the images of Earth, the same rustic landscape which began the film, shown with even more affection than before; but precisely how and why Kelvin is there is kept carefully ambiguous until the beautiful but shocking final shot. 

A second adaptation of Solaris was produced in 2002, written and directed by highly regarded filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. It is well made and entertaining, featuring George Clooney as Kelvin, but takes a very different direction from Tarkovsky’s version, making Solaris a combination of sci-fi suspense and love story. The fear and tension of the crew experiencing disturbing hallucinations is handled well, but Kelvin’s visitations from his deceased wife are treated as less frightening than romantic, something which is difficult to make plausible in the context of the bizarre and disturbing storyline. The plot is altered in order to allow for this new perspective. The dependence on dialogue to explain what is happening stands out in comparison to Tarkovsky’s more cryptic, largely visual story. The film’s high production values, Soderbergh’s talent, and a good cast, including Viola Davis as a stoic crew member fighting to take a logical approach to the chaotic circumstances, help the film along; but it loses much of Tarkovsky’s ambiguity and mystery.

(All images in this article sourced via IMDb)

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