Solaris (1972) Blu-ray
I understand Solaris‘ cinematic cousin, 2001: A Space Odyssey, quite well: a Monolith, a construct of an alien civilization, or an alien entity or AI itself, teases mankind forwards on the evolutionary path, teaching man-apes the use of tools in order to kill. Jump forward to another technological test of when the man-apes are evolved enough to discover a buried monolith on the moon. This monolith in turn raises a further test by transmitting a signal which tests whether the man-apes are advanced enough to travel to Jupiter. Jump-cut (and here I’ve cut out a whole sub-plot regards a homicidal Hal computer) to Jovian orbit where another monolith invites an evolved man-ape to journey across the infinite to a physical transformation into a Star Child. It’s all quite elegantly simple really, humanity has been taking taking some kind of alien test since the Dawn of Man.
Solaris, however is another matter. Even though I have read the Stanislaw Lem novel it is based on, the film Solaris itself is a different entity to its source and remains a fairly cryptic work, albeit a fascinating one. The film is so frustratingly slow and so willfully poetic -all pluses for advocates of the film of course- that it makes Kubrick’s 2001 seem like a conventional fast-paced thriller. Attention spans be damned, this film’s long, long shots will test most peoples patience- boring or mesmerizing, that is the question.
Maybe it is both.
Indeed, while people who dislike 2001 for being slow-paced can at least confess to enjoying its spectacle and technical polish, that can’t be said of Solaris. Solaris doesn’t do spectacle, or futuristic trappings of traditional sci-fi imagery. It is very low-fi, almost low-rent; the effects are minor and largely ineffectual compared to Kubrick’s wizardry. 2001 displayed a physical, technological odyssey from cave to orbit to lunar landscapes to Star Gate. Solaris displays a very internal odyssey, as director Andrei Tarkovsky was clearly not interested in making a sci-fi film, and is rather scathingly bored with traditional sci-fi trappings of technology or prediction. We know, physically, where we are at all stages of 2001, the mechanics of space travel minutely displayed – in Solaris, we never even know where the alien world is or even how we get there.The odd thing is, none of that is really important.
The central plot, such as it is, concerns a scientific outpost studying an alien planet that appears to be sentient. For decades the mysterious alien world has befuddled the scientists sent there, so much so that only a handful remain and, as they are now behaving quite strangely, and the project’s purpose is being questioned, a psychologist is being sent there to appraise the scientists and the progress of the mission.
The irony of Solaris is that its protagonist, psychologist Kris Kelvin, is possibly the very worst person to send to the alien world and judge the outpost studying it. He’s clearly damaged goods having something of a midlife crisis. Living with his father, he wanders his childhood haunts as if keen to re-capture the innocence and happiness of those days having suffered painful tragedy in his adulthood (the suicide of his wife) .
Kelvin is hurtled off to the alien world of Solaris- somehow alive, intelligent, and yes, utterly alien to human understanding. What, after all, does Time itself mean, or human mortality, to an entity millions, perhaps billions, of years old? The few remaining scientists at the station orbiting Solaris, at their wits end after decades of failing to understand or communicate with the alien intelligence, have begun experiencing strange visitations on the station. Kelvin arrives at the station and soon encounters a visitation of his own- in his case, his long-dead wife. Cue long sequences of soul-searching and anguished guilt as the film considers what is human, what is fabrication, what these visitations mean, whether humanity can ever really understand what Solaris is. Indeed, not so much whether humanity can ‘know’ the alien, but really if the alien can ever ‘know’ the human. Is Solaris even aware of the humans studying it?
What I find most rewarding about Solaris, and 2001, is that it is science fiction on the grandest scale, the greatest of ideas. No robots or ray-guns or evil monsters here- this is no space fantasy, this is science fiction, in the greatest tradition of the literary genre.
The problem with Solaris is its glacial pace which even back in 1972 was slow, but now, compared to the pace of modern films, it seems a film from another planet. I consider myself a fan of the film but it’s certainly testing at times. On the whole the film rewards on each successive viewing but its pace makes rewatching it a rather daunting experience, which is why I’ve seen it far fewer times than 2001. Purists will yell foul, but a good thirty minutes, maybe even an hour, could be cut from the film and it would make just as much sense. Maybe it wouldn’t be as beautiful, or poetic… but I contend the film isn’t perfect, and is clearly inferior to 2001. I don’t mind it confounding, indeed, I rather like it being obtuse and subject to the viewers interpretation, but the presentation is clearly beyond sedate.Its more… indulgent. Yeah, maybe that’s the word. Ultimately, maybe Tarkovsky wasn’t the right guy to make a science fiction movie, maybe the film was simply beyond the technology of the day.
When I watch 2001, at the end I feel inspired, enthralled, the film always opening my eyes to a bigger world, a bigger worldview, a cosmic worldview. When I watch Solaris, I always feel rather… well, down at the end. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s because Kelvin at the end has simply retreated back to his childhood, literally so, as it is reconstructed on Solaris. He hasn’t evolved, or improved himself. He’s gone backwards somehow. He hasn’t embraced the cosmic, he’s retreated to his own private world, and his childhood. It feels negative somehow, rather than positive. But maybe that’s just me. I’m sure, like 2001, Solaris really means something different to everyone.
But it’s still a damned interesting movie.