Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay by: Fridrikh Gorenshteyn, Andrei Tarkovsky
Based on a Novel by: Stanislaw Lem
Starring: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 160 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
The next port of call in my journey through the work of Andrei Tarkovsky takes me to Solaris. It's probably the director's most well known and popular film, but at the same time it seems to be his most divisive. Some critics have cited this as the film where Tarkovsky's style began to get too philosophical and slow for its own good, with a couple claiming the philosophies lean towards the cod end of the spectrum. It's views like these that made me a little apprehensive about watching the film (and reviewing it for that matter). However, I'm determined to work through all of his films being re-released and would like an opinion on them, even if it's a negative one, so the other night I found myself sitting down in front of the projector to check Solaris out.
The film sees psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. It is believed the crew has gone insane and he is sent to confirm and find out why, possibly destroying the station afterwards if it is irredeemable. Once on the station, he finds that one of the crew members has committed suicide and the other two seem emotionally unstable. The problem on board soon becomes apparent when a woman appears in Kris' quarters who seems to be his recently deceased wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). This isn't a mere ghost or dreamed memory though, she's physically there in the station with him and the others can see her too. This embodiment of his wife doesn't share Hari's memories though, or at least not more than a few fractions to make her seem like Kris' wife. She isn't a mere shell either – although not human, she has her own thoughts and feelings, which Kris' fellow crew members give little regard to. They refer to her and the other 'guests' on board as things they should cut up and analyse, even when Hari is in the room with them.
Kris realises this isn't his wife straight away of course and initially tries to dispose of her, tricking her into a rocket and firing her off the station. However, another version soon appears so he realises he can't get rid of this painful memory and instead learns to embrace it, mentally and physically. He grows too attached though and neglects his duties on the station, instead suggesting he stay on Solaris with Hari (3.0) forever.
I found myself quite torn on my thoughts about this film. It didn't blow me away like most of his other films have so far. Part of this might be due to expectations. Tarkovsky is a master at crafting striking visuals but I found myself underwhelmed in this department. The film does look good and is carefully framed and controlled as always, but I wasn't hit by the same bold, memorable images I found so impressive in the previous three titles I'd seen. What didn't help my disappointment in the visuals was the fact that in my head I was constantly comparing the film to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the production design and special effects haven't held up as well here as they did in Kubrick's masterpiece. That said, Tarkovsky's space station isn't supposed to represent the spotlessly clean image of technical perfection. The disturbed scientists have given up maintaining their craft and so it has fallen into disarray.
Comparing it to 2001 rarely holds weight in fact, as Solaris is a wholly different beast in general. The focus here is much more personal, the themes and philosophies more intimate. In this way, the film seems less science fiction and more human drama. This works both in and against its favour. It makes for more relatable and deeply emotional food for thought (even if we're unlikely to share the same predicament), but due to the slow and sombre tone, I didn't find it as poignantly moving as it maybe could have been.
Speaking of being slow, this is an aspect often brought up when discussing Solaris and most of Tarkovsky's films for that matter. Yes, this film is slowly paced, I won't deny that. On top of the hefty running time and overly grim tone, the film is exceptionally quiet, with long sections of minimal dialogue and an ambient score so low in the mix it caused me to crank up the volume on several occasions to see if I hadn't turned it up enough originally. However, I didn't mind the meandering pace. I watched it in two parts, which helped, but I think the 'empty' spaces give you time to breathe and reflect on the moral quandaries being explored. It doesn't make for easy viewing though, so I imagine a trimmed cut would be more manageable. I'd be interested to see Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake for this reason (as well as for the less distractingly dated effects).
I didn't find the lengthy 'on Earth' scenes at the start of the film as engaging as the space-set bulk of the film though. They're much more talk-heavy and I struggled to keep on top of what was being discussed, meaning I wasn't 100% sure why Kris was sent to the station. Once he arrives there though, the film becomes more haunting and fascinating. There are some disturbing sequences (Hari's suicide attempt and quick, shocking resurrection for one) alongside a brief, but rather beautiful scene where the central 'couple' enjoy a moment of zero gravity. A powerful final twist makes you question all that went before too.
So ultimately my opinions don't quite line up with the extreme ends of the film's divisive reception. I sit somewhere on the fence. I found much to admire, but not enough to love. I get the feeling another viewing might sway me towards the more highly positive end, but I imagine I'll choose to re-watch some of his other films first.
Solaris is out on 8th August on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Curzon Artificial Eye. I saw the DVD version and the film looks and sounds reasonable, although it struggled on some of the flatter colours and detailed shots like when it rains heavily at the start.
There are plenty of special features included with the Blu-Ray edition. These include:
- Andrei Tarkovsky's metaphysical dream zone with film psychoanalyst, Mary Wild
- Actor Donatas Banionis featurette
- An interview with actor Natalya Bondarchuk
- 40 page booklet
These aren't on the DVD version I was sent though, so I can't comment on them.