Solaris celebrates 50: A Retrospective
Science fiction knows no bounds. Star Wars and its canon are often cited as science fiction. Planet of the Apes, Metropolis, Alien, 12 Monkeys, etc. As evidenced by that brief list, the genre is remarkably versatile, defying any set rules and perfect categorization. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968 is regularly listed as among the very best, if not the outright best example. It has so much to say about humanity, or so the argument goes (not that this article is going to belittle Kubrick’s famous film). 4 years following its release, Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky responded with his own piece of grand space-age imagination that spoke to humanity: Solaris. Comparisons between the two seem inevitable. They were back in the day and still are today.
Both propose lofty ideas about what mankind may find in the depths of outer space. We explore to discover, to better understand phenomena previously unknown to us. Why? Because we hope that, be it in small or grand ways, our discoveries will help us better understand ourselves and how we fit into the larger scale of Earth and the cosmos. In both instances, the human characters do indeed make stunning discoveries about life among the stars. Solaris’ Kris and A Space Odyssey’s Dave (Kier Dullea) come face to face with beings and entities more powerful and influential than anything they could have foreseen. Much like the genre of science fiction itself, the alien life forms featured defy obvious categorization.
Despite the similarities, each film is very much a product of what its respective auteur filmmaker strove to achieve.
Hot and Cold
Kubrick’s approach, as well as his approach to a lot of his oeuvre, is often categorized as cold and clinical. The visual effects are splendorous, the plot’s mystery magnetic, and the conclusion majestic. Unless one simply doesn’t have the stomach for obtuse storytelling (and not everyone does. It’s okay), it’s difficult to resist the inexorable pull of Kubrick’s starry-eyed opera. And at the risk of sounding like so many film aficionados who bask in its glory, the final third’s voyage through space and possibly time itself is trippy and amazing. Even so, those qualities do not overcome the standoffish approach with which Kubrick waves his directorial wand. It’s fantastic to behold but still feels like a documentarian pointing the camera and shooting at the most mind-blowing cosmic phenomena imaginable.
By contrast, Tarkovsky hopes to ease the viewers into an experience that they can understand and appreciate emotionally. Just as 2001’s monoliths have influence over humans (in transformative ways!), so too does the ocean on Solaris communicate with Kelvin, Dr. Snaut (Jür Järvet, voiced by Vladimir Tatosov), and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn) in ways that would have been described as witchcraft a few centuries ago.
But as cosmonaut Henri Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) elaborates in the debriefing that Kris watches at the start of the picture, what people witness on Solaris are things and realities that any human can relate to. The yellowish goop underneath the surface is said to produce gardens reminiscent of those found across Europe, to say nothing of the humanoids the planet’s energy can replicate. Make no mistake about it, both A Space Odyssey‘s and Solaris‘ experiences are incredibly bizarre. When Kris says that his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) died 10 years ago yet is seen walking the space station’s halls as if on a Sunday stroll, something’s up. But between that and Kubrick’s kaleidoscopic, acid-trippy light show, the former is easier to digest and touches upon something that makes us who we are: emotions.
Getting the Feels
Forgive the Gen Z expression, but if the youth of 2022 were to describe the predicament Kris and his fellow Drs. face in Solaris it would be how to deal with all the feels. Getting Gen Z to watch Solaris would be something, but that’s another discussion for another time. Regardless, Tarkovsky (and of course Stanislaw Lem, who wrote the original novel) presents an extra-terrestrial whose physical manifestation is ill-defined, but whose method of communicating with the human visitors taps into their consciousness.
The memories of Kris, Sartorious, and Snaut are what produce near-perfect replicas of people they knew. Not enough is explained for the viewer or the astronauts to understand precisely why Solaris is doing this, but that’s almost beside the point. The fact is its ocean can read into the deepest thoughts and conjure up beings made of flesh and bone. Although Tarkovsky hints about whom Snaut and Sartorius reminisced, the most important living ghost is Hari, Kris’ long-deceased wife.
From that point onward we learn just as much about the protagonist and his failed marriage as we do about, well, what it means to be human. It appears Solaris cannot produce fully formed, mature humans. During the first hours and days of their existence, the apparitions lack the memories of the originals and even the capacity to perform basic human functions, such as sleep. It is only through the learning process, much like with infants, that Hari slowly becomes the person she once was. Or who the real Hari once was. It’s complicated.
Complicating matters further is the fact their marriage on Earth eventually turned sour. Will this new version of the couple suffer the same fate? Should this new couple even exist at all? Hari of Solaris is not, after all, Hari of Earth. Thus begin rounds of fascinating arguments amongst the trio of men. Their exchanges are equal parts intellectual and emotional. The capacity to reason through their experiences is just as important as living them. Again, it’s what makes us human. People are emotionally charged creatures yet possess the ability to take a step back and ponder the greater questions about why we do what we do. It doesn’t take long for Hari to experience her own existential crisis. What is it like to be a perfect replica of the real thing yet fully aware they are not, ultimately, the real thing?
Pan but no Scan
It isn’t only Tarkovsky and Fridrikh Gorenshtein’s script that carries the proceedings to hypnotic heights. Solaris’ technical merits brilliantly serve the film’s themes. The filmmakers aren’t putting on a show just for the sake of it, although if they were it would still be an incredibly captured film.
The most important trio making Solaris what it is its director, its cinematographer Yadim Yusov, and its editor Lyudmila Feiginova. Not many movies are brought to life the way Solaris is. In our modern age of quick cuts and flashy editing, Feiginova and Yusov’s work runs the risk of coming across as appallingly slow. In defense of people who may strike the film down for those reasons, it is slow.
Yusov’s camera, supported by Feiginova’s judicious editing, pans constantly. Right to left, left to right, depending on whatever story an individual scene needs to tell. Rather than capture hundreds of medium-wide shots or close-up shots and edit them together as most films do, Solaris smoothly replicates a person’s eyesight. When we turn our heads, the camera that is our eyes turns as well. We take a step back and our camera zooms out. So on and so forth. Just as Kris is discovering the space station and the fantastical human experiences the planet offers, the viewers live vicariously through the actual filmmaking technique. Cuts are kept to a minimum, allowing the image itself and how the frame moves to envelop the viewer with this peculiar location’s prowess. Solaris thus becomes a uniquely sensorial experience.
The Human Touch
Adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name, Solaris saw a few draft revisions penned by the director himself and fellow scribe Fridrikh Gorenshtein. The entire book transpires on the space station hovering above the mysterious, eponymous planet, yet the original screenplay had most of the action occur on Earth! Ultimately, Tarkovsky found a balance between showing its protagonist at home before departure and the existential adventure in space.
Balance is a key component of everything that makes up Tarkovsky’s picture. For all its brilliance, Kubrick’s Space Odyssey is concerned with grandeur and headiness. The Russian famously didn’t love his American counterpart’s effort. To him, whatever truth science fiction could delve into resided more in the human experience than obsessions with technological advancement. A spaceship is required to get to Solaris, film stock is required to brief Kris on what to expect, and the doctors possess the measuring tool to scientifically conclude that Hari isn’t really Hari. Ultimately, none of that means much if the people concerned cannot feel anything.
Solaris is a lot like A Space Odyssey but with a human touch.