Lawrence Russell

Solaris (1971) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky writ. P. Gorenstein and A. Tarkovsky (from the novel by Stanislaw Lem) cine. Vadim Yusof music Eduard Artemevstar star. Donatis Banionis, Yuri Yarvet, Natalya Bondarchuk, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko

A man in a blue jacket stands by a beautiful pond in the morning mist. A feeder stream gurgles gently as the submerged swamp grass undulates below the surface in a graceful rhythm. The atmosphere is sentient, vaguely mystical. The man circles the watery enclave... he might be looking for someone or something, or he might be a scientist observing details, mechanisms, in the swampy margins... or he might be considering suicide.

In fact he's Chris Kelvin, a middle-aged psychologist who's about to embark on a mission to Solaris, the water planet.

While it's expressed as a journey through outer space to another planet, Solaris is really a journey through inner space to another soul. Solaris is a place where humans confront identities, not aliens, ghosts, not robots. The imagery is mythical rather than logical, which enhances the mystical ambience, suggests a religious yearning in a godless universe.

"Knowledge is truthful only if it's based on morality...."

Kelvin meets Burton, a man who's just returned from Solaris. Burton tells a very strange tale about what's going on at the station. He shows the committee a film of his approach and landing, a lyrical fragment of sky and water that leaves the committee unimpressed and more inclined to shut down the Solaris "study". But this visual tone poem isn't the real news -- Burton himself is. He tells how, during his descent, he sees a giant child floating on the surface of the planet... and the fog which shrouds the ooze, the shapes that become a house, a garden, trees, shrubs, a "plaster-like" parody of an earthly paradise.

They don't know it at the time, but he's describing this house, this pond.

In a cleansing of the past, Kelvin burns his old papers and photographs, including one of his dead wife. You get the feeling that he doesn't expect to come back from his mission. Meanwhile Burton brings a young boy and commits him to the care of the older couple at the pastoral retreat (they might be the parents of Kelvin's dead wife). Burton tells the older man that "the kid is the exact image of the one I saw on Solaris."

The action is low-key, photographed in the mid-distance, as if everything you see is a memory. Kelvin, meanwhile, thinks Burton is crazy.

The next day Kelvin blasts off for Solaris, also has a rough landing. The station appears deserted, a circle of empty corridors and chambers. Eventually he finds Snouth who tells him that Sartorius is busy in his lab, and that Giborian is dead. Obviously something is wrong. Kelvin goes to Giborian's room, finds a note stuck to the monitor telling him to play a message tape. Giborian's tape addresses the problem of what's going on with this planet which appears to be a giant living entity. Giborian suggests that "radiation may get us out of this deadlock... deal with this monster." Kelvin is interrupted by a buzzing at the door -- what is it? He shuts the tape off, then spots Giborian's automatic pistol -- presumably the one he used to shoot himself -- and takes it with him....

"It's time to give up contact with the Ocean..."

The scientists are visited by "guests", manifestations of people from their past. These ghosts might be weapons of the planet, a means of destroying the intruders by driving them crazy. Or it may simply be another level of reality. Kelvin encounters his dead wife, the beautiful Hari. She's real enough to distract him entirely from his investigation, and when he thinks about shooting her or himself, she kicks the gun away.

Snouth: You're lucky -- she's only your past.

Kelvin: We're talking about termination of the station.

In a desperate attempt to rid himself of Hari, Kelvin locks her inside a rocket, fires her into space. But it's futile, as she's really locked inside his mind, and soon returns to haunt him. Sartorius chastises Kelvin for lack of ideological diligence and idling away his time in "a love affair with (his) dead wife." Eventually she disappears and Kelvin goes on a futile search of the station.

Snouth: (gives Kelvin a letter) Hari is no more.

Kelvin: How?

Snouth: Self-annihilation. A burst of light and wind.

This mystical explanation is all he gets. Her suicide is a circularity, as is the fate of all who come to Solaris. Islands begin appearing on the ocean like dream-spores and you're left with the proposition that the earthly paradise of the pond and the dacha is now another hallucination belonging to the curious sphere of water, forever an archetype, Solaris.

And so it goes, often so ambiguous that you lose the unfolding of the plot by being distracted by the mysticism of the cinematography. Is this Tarkovsky's fault? He often includes images such as the black horse whose beauty suggests significance but which turns out to be merely atmospheric. Burton's drive into the city is another example. While it's undeniably psychological and fits the film's atmosphere, it really seems beside the point, included for effect... or perhaps orphaned by other scenes being edited out. You don't mind any of this at first, as the tonality is so integrated... but by the time you get to the long metaphysical discussions in the station's library, the film becomes (alas) tedious and obscure to the point of frustration. It flattens the climax, undermines the ending.

Lem's novel has a similar poetic mysticism to that of the British author David Lindsay's A Voyage To Arcturus-- which may have been an influence. Tarkovsky's interpretation is excellent in terms of sound and image and spiritual empathy. Although it's thirty years since Solaris was filmed, the technology doesn't appear dated due to Tarkovsky's emphasis on the human rather than the technology.

So it's uneven. But you can always go with the flow....

© LR 26/6/99


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