Sight and Sound Top 250 #157 – Solaris (1972)

Usually I end one of these posts with the trailer for the movie in question, but this time I’m going to start with it.

This is a perfect example of a misleading trailer and just goes to show that mis-marketing a movie, and pulling a bait and switch where the trailer promises one thing and the movie delivers something completely different if not just a recent phenomenon.

sol1aDespite what it may look like from what is shown above, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris is not an action-filled Sci-Fi thriller, but a contemplative meditation on the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how people react to and interact with their surroundings, first encounters with other species, and how they relate to each other. It is also about one man’s struggle with his inner demons and how one can and should react to overwhelming feelings of guilt and what today would be called survivor syndrome.

When watching Solaris, what with its languorous pacing, its Earth-then-space shuttle setting, and its slow burn mystery as to what exactly is happening or has taken place, along with a soundtrack that relies at times on classical music and at others on a more ambient soundtrack provided by Eduard Artemyev.  it seems almost impossible for American audiences especially not to at least initially mentally compare it to Stanley Kubrick’s much more famous and certainly more familiar epic space opera 2001: A Space Odyssey.

That, however, would be doing Solaris a supreme disservice as it needs very much to be taken on it’s own, or at least in its own context, rather than viewed through a Hollywood-centric filter.

Adapted (very, very loosely, and in a way that Lem largely objected to) by Tartovsky and co-screenwriter Fridrikh Gorenshtein from Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel of the same name, Solaris tells the story of psychologist Kris Kelvin as he leaves Earth to investigate the mysterious happenings aboard a space station orbiting the (fictional) planet Solaris. Once he arrives there, he is confronted not only with what is happening on the space station which has already driven one crew member to suicide and brought at least one of the others to the brink of madness, but with a possible ghost from his own past.

sol2Thus far we have a plot that could very well fit with the action oriented trailer above, and probably could provide a quite satisfying 90 minute or so sci-fi exploration flick. As a matter of fact, it sounds not unlike the plot of any number of Star Trek episodes and/or movies.

So what is it that sets Solaris apart and places it into the highest pantheon not just of science fiction movies but of films in general?

Well, first there is the fact that Tartovsky seems only peripherally interested in the actual plot of the film, and much more interested in exploring the more esoteric questions that the setting and circumstances raise. We actually spend the first third or so of the film not on the space station, but on Earth, as Kelvin prepares to leave his home planet for the possibly one-way trip to the station.

sol5These preparations, however, are not of the usual filmic variety involving training for the mission or even saying goodbye to loved ones, though there is a bit of the latter, as the action during this section does take place on Kelvin’s father’s farm. Instead, Tartovsky chooses to focus his camera on the man himself and his surroundings as he contemplates just what the voyage might mean and what he may be leaving behind forever. Again, in the hands of a lesser film maker, these scenes could very well turn maudlin or come across as overly melodramatic, but because Tartovsky knows and is able to get exactly what he wants from his actors, it never strays into that territory.

The director is also wisely willing to give the film  – throughout, and not just in these scenes -room to breathe and to spend plenty of time creating and exploring Kelvin’s surroundings and how they reflect the inner conflicts that are stirring in the psychologist’s mind, and as far as is possible, in his soul.

sol6Even once Kelvin arrives on the space station, the director does not rush the plot forward, Instead he chooses to let us, along with Kelvin, discover what is going on slowly, as he is again not really interested in the plot itself, but in what it might mean to Kelvin, to the other scientists on the station, to the future of space exploration, and perhaps even to the future of the human race as a whole and to our understanding of and ultimate relationship to life forms that are far different to our own.

In other words, hugely simplified: what is our place in the universe?

sol7Again, however, and as stated and restated above, Tartovsky really is far from interested in simply turning this into some kind of humanity versus the aliens sci-fi shoot-em-up as the trailer seems to imply, nor is he interested in trying to find quick and easy answers to the questions that he raises. As a matter of fact, he never actually even bothers to try to answer many of them, instead wisely retaining his focus on the effects of these questions and even the raising of them on Kelvin and on the other members of the crew of the space station.

sol8The other thing that raises Solaris far above so many other science fiction films is the fact that Tartovsky never loses sight of the fact that what he is creating is a film. That may seem an odd statement to make, but when you look at so many of today’s movies which are more interested in creating a sense of reality and in bringing their fantastical elements “down to Earth”, it’s interesting to note just how “cinematic” Tartovsky’s work here is. He has no qualms whatsoever in interspersing his narrative with shots of the fields of grain and flowers that make up the land that Kelvin is leaving or giving the viewer swirling images of the clouds and lakes that make up most of the surface of Solaris.

sol11The acting throughout the film is consistently thoughtful, with each of the performers bringing something special to the film and Tartovsky definitely getting superior performances from all of his minimal cast. Again, Tartovsky remembers that he is making a film, and not just telling a story, choosing to allow his performers to interpret their roles, often as much through their inaction as their action and through a knowing expression or gesture – showing, as only real cinema can do – as opposed to telling what the characters are thinking or feeling at any given moment.

In short, in Solaris Tartovsky has created a film that respects the viewer, that invites the audience to fill in the gaps and to understand what is going on through an active participation and investment in actually watching and thinking about the movie, instead of simply turning one’s brain off and letting the events flow by as is so often the case with sci-fi movies today. At the same time, the viewer who is willing to make that investment in time and thought will find themselves amply rewarded by a film that is not only beautiful but thought-provoking, and one that will stay with the viewer long after it’s closing shot.

Just don’t be deceived by the trailer.




One thought on “Sight and Sound Top 250 #157 – Solaris (1972)

  1. Good, perceptive review. I’ve both read the book and seen the film two or three times (having discovered it, incidentally, through a book called “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television”), and I find it a very interesting meditation on these eternal questions. Oddly enough, I haven’t seen the American remake, at least not yet. Anyway, nice job!

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