Solaris/Solyaris (1971/1972) **½
It’s been called “the Russian 2001,” and it sometimes seems as if its fans’ favorite pastime is arguing over the extent to which that epithet is merited. There’s something to be said for either position. On the one hand, it is certainly true that Solaris/Solyaris has a very different feel from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and seems to have an underlying message that is almost antithetical to that of the better known film— emotional where 2001 is intellectual, brooding and pessimistic instead of awed and hopeful, casting doubt on the abilities of human beings to come to terms with anything larger than ourselves in contrast to Kubrick and Clarke’s visions of our species’s evolutionary potential. Then again, there are strong similarities of subject matter between the two movies, and both were made by directors who were justly known for the same sort of obsessive attention to detail. And at the same time, it must be borne in mind that Andrei Tarkovsky made Solaris directly in answer to 2001, almost as an explicit refutation of it. Tarkovsky thought Kubrick and Clarke had emphasized all the wrong things in their movie, and in some sense, Solaris could be called Tarkovsky’s attempt to make the film he thought 2001 should have been. The non-fan, meanwhile, will note other strong points of resemblance between 2001 and Solaris: both are endlessly long, bombastically pretentious, and far too self-consciously philosophical for their own good. And just for good measure, both have endings that seem calculated to leave audiences grumpily bewildered.
The “Solaris” of the title is an alien world orbiting a star far from our own. Throughout the decades since its discovery, it has closely guarded its secrets, and all that is known about it with any certainty is that its entire surface is covered with a strange ocean of something other than water. It is believed that this ocean may itself be alive in some sense, and possibly even intelligent, but not even the construction of a space station in orbit around Solaris, completely dedicated to the study of the planet (“Solaristics,” as the new branch of science has been dubbed) has brought to light any conclusive new knowledge, or fulfilled the scientific community’s hopes of contact with whatever intelligence may inhabit Solaris. The station is now nearly abandoned, and the government agency funding Solaristic research is just about ready to pull the plug on the whole project in frustration.
This is where psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) comes in. He has been, for twenty years, a close friend of Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), the last cosmonaut to get any closer to Solaris than the confines of the orbiting space station. The government wants a psychologist on the station because nearly everyone who gets anywhere near Solaris seems to go mad, suffering from extremely vivid hallucinations, if their mission is sufficiently long, or takes them sufficiently close to the planet’s surface. In fact, it is largely because of what Burton claims he saw on his last mission that no further efforts to explore Solaris up close have been made. While attempting to rescue another cosmonaut, whose spacecraft had crashed in the Solaris Ocean, Burton says he saw a human boy some four meters (about thirteen feet) tall emerge from the sea and gesture to him, but the cameras on his vehicle recorded nothing but clouds, fog, and waves. And though he didn’t tell this little detail to the government committee that interviewed him after his return to Earth, Burton says the giant boy looked exactly like the son of the man whom he was trying to rescue.
What all this has to do with Kelvin is that the government now wants him to go to Solaris and see if he can unravel the mystery, a mission upon which the entire future of Solaristics hinges— after all, scientists are a rare and valuable commodity, and it does nobody any good to keep sending them to study something that will inevitably make them crazy. For Kelvin, this is an undertaking fraught with personal complications. It takes a very long time to reach Solaris, and it is perfectly clear that his aged father will be dead by the time he returns if he accepts the mission. On the other hand, one of the last three scientists on the Solaris station is an old friend and mentor of his, a certain Dr. Gibaryan (Sos Sarkisyan). Going to Solaris represents Kelvin’s last chance to see Gibaryan, for much the same reason that it means never seeing his father again.
In the end (a full fucking hour into the film), Kelvin blasts off for Solaris, and when he gets there, he is taken aback by what he finds at the station. Most of it is in terrible disrepair, looking a lot like what would become of the real-life Russian space station Mir by the end of its long career. Really, this is only to be expected— how could three men possibly maintain a space station that was designed to house 85, while still having time to do their real work? The bigger shock is administered by Dr. Snauth (Yuri Yarvet), who tells Kelvin that Gibaryan is dead, and by his own hand at that. Gibaryan has left a suicide note of sorts, in the form of a taped message for Kelvin left in his quarters. It reveals that the old scientist had begun seeing things— which he swore were not hallucinations in the conventional sense— that his primary reason for killing himself was his fear that he had begun to lose his mind, and that his proximity to the alien planet was somehow responsible for his dissolution. Then again, the fact that the video camera recorded one of Gibaryan’s “hallucinations” (a pretty young woman walks up to him from behind and kisses him on the cheek) strongly suggests that the man was quite sane, and that something strange has been going on in the vicinity of Solaris.
That’s putting it mildly, as it happens. Kelvin soon notices that the station is practically infested with people who should not be on it. There’s somebody sleeping in Snauth’s bed the next time he and Kelvin meet; the third scientist, Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn, whom Tarkovsky would use again in Stalker), has what appears to be a midget hiding out in his quarters; and most significantly of all, Kelvin’s ex-wife, Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk)— who poisoned herself seven years ago— starts hanging out in his room! Kelvin is initially horrified by this development, and tries to get rid of “Khari” by tricking her into boarding an atmospheric survey rocket, and then launching it away from the station, but the woman is waiting for him in his quarters when he returns.
Fortunately, Snauth and Sartorius are able to offer Kelvin at least a few answers. Evidently, the supra-personal intelligence dwelling in the Solaris Ocean is behind these visitations; it somehow reads the minds of the humans inside its sphere of influence, and creates the “Guests” (as Sartorius dubs them) in accordance with whatever memories or fantasies are most important to the people it so probes. The scientists believe that the whole business is an attempt by the Solaris intelligence to communicate, though no one has yet had any luck in talking back.
That’s all well and good, but now that Kelvin has been “reunited” with his lost, beloved Khari, he has increasingly little time, energy, or attention for anything else. And whatever Khari may have started out being, the longer she is in contact with Kelvin, the more like a real human woman she becomes. This, alas, is where Solaris begins to come unglued, and the whole movie eventually collapses in on itself in a vast orgy of philosophical speculation on the true nature of humanity, the possibility or impossibility of human understanding of our true place in the cosmos, and even the long-term possibility or impossibility of meaningful human relationships. And in the end, Kelvin finds that the Solaris intelligence has replicated Khari only too well.
The most frustrating thing about Solaris is that, for about an hour, it really is an excellent film. Unfortunately, the movie is nearly three hours long, and the good hour is the one in the middle. The section during which Kelvin struggles to figure out what’s really going on aboard the space station is thought-provoking, suspenseful, and even a bit creepy at times, and is engrossing in a way that the rest of Solaris never even approaches. The remaining two hours are so heavily freighted with self-consciously artistic showing off that my brain just about turned itself off. To cite only the most glaring example, there is a scene fairly early in the film in which Burton drives in absolute silence down the highway for four solid minutes. There are those who find this sort of thing enchanting, who admire the nerve of a director who is willing to make his movie resemble real life so closely (I know I certainly don’t talk much when I’m driving down the road by myself, and my life generally doesn’t conveniently cut instantaneously to the next scene when I get into a car), but I am not one of them. Real life is real life and the movies are the movies, and I expect— indeed, demand— a certain amount of dramatic license to be taken as regards such things as life’s boredom-to-action ratio when I’m watching a film. Then there are a few aspects of Solaris that simply baffled me. Most perplexing was the frequent changes of film stock— though the bulk of the movie was shot in color, there are quite a few scenes that were filmed in black and white. There is no apparent pattern at work here, no underlying theme that unites the monochrome scenes, and I find myself wondering if this is something that Tarkovsky did just for the hell of it, or if this quirk would make sense to me if I were a Russian. For instance, it has crossed my mind that, in a command economy like that of the Soviet Union, with its famous indifference to the needs and desires of private consumers, a director might very well have to make do with whatever film stock happened to be available in the stores that day. Because Solaris is the first Soviet movie I’ve ever seen apart from the ancient Battleship Potemkin, I have no meaningful context against which to evaluate it, and thus no real way of knowing whether the apparently haphazard switching between color and black and white is a common feature of Russian cinema or a quirk peculiar to Tarkovsky. Ultimately though, I think your enjoyment of Solaris is going to hinge on how many lengthy scenes of sullen Russian scientists discussing the meaning of life you’re willing to sit through in order to experience the movie’s genuinely gripping midsection. In my case, I think Solaris comes awfully close to my limit. Not quite there, mind you, but awfully close.