I still remember my first time watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris – for at the time I was 15 years old and trying to talk about a work of science fiction so meditative almost to the point it troubles the mind long after a viewing. Over these years and my rare revisits, I have only become even more intimidated to talk about the sort of film that Solaris ever was and quite possibly, I’m still struggling at the very moment to find words that do it justice because a quick label for it like “the greatest science fiction film ever made” wouldn’t seem as if it were enough to give it what it deserves. Andrei Tarkovsky, within his short career, has carried an incredible consistency that no other directors have held and Solaris stands atop all – for it still remains an ever so life-changing experience of all things.
Only being the second of three adaptations of Stanislaw Lem’s novel (the first also being in Russian but for television and the third being helmed by Steven Soderbergh), Andrei Tarkovsky’s version goes down as the definitive. The story takes place aboard a space station orbiting a mysterious planet known as Solaris and our protagonist is the psychologist Kris Kelvin. While aboard the station together with the crew end up experiencing different sorts of emotional crises: haunted by late wife of Kris Kelvin who was taken away ten years prior. Upon first experience, Solaris can be disillusioning when we come to witness this blend of reality and fantasy, but it only goes to show another one of the greatest aspects to the wonders presented in Solaris. One mind ends up getting mixed into the subconscious of another, and new discoveries about the human condition come forth in this journey for the inside.
It will not be easy to get used to the pacing at first but upon subsequent revisits it only felt even more fitting that Solaris had moved in the manner it did. On one end it only helps in building up the mood that Tarkovsky intended to create for what is set to come forth but on another, it is perhaps the only way to get as close to one’s mind as the film can ever reach. But to know Andrei Tarkovsky first would be to understand his meditative pacing that creates an environment in which we aren’t watching events unfold on the screen like we are spectators. With the confined space, Solaris succeeds in creating a claustrophobic vibe that goes ahead to establish the reflexive nature of Solaris. Yet with this sort of buildup coming to mind it would be easy to find a greater sense of the psychological breakdown our characters go through.
Rather than an exploration of the world of this planet Solaris from the outside, Andrei Tarkovsky forms another beauty in another realm that goes beyond visual beauty from its cinematography or gorgeous set pieces. But there’s no denying that this adds up to what makes Solaris so effective: highlighting a feeling of alienation amidst the viewers and the environment around them. But all around this mysterious planet it brings back a memory of grief upon Kris Kelvin, which is only one amongst a few of the main motifs that Tarkovsky brings into question. If Tarkovsky’s approach to the subject just carries so much mystery all around whether it comes to what is its purpose with bringing these memories back, something greater resonates hand when one can come to think about how far one has ever brought themselves as a result of their own grieving.
Many of my own memories of grief have come back to haunt me as a result of trying to interpret what the purpose of the trip to Solaris ultimately had meant for Tarkovsky’s purposes. How far have we gone thanks to this recurring mood as it lingers in our head? Why is it always coming back to us in such a manner? But regarding this trip to Solaris and why it only now has brought these memories back, there’s a greater question being posed from Tarkovsky’s point of view. If the slowness of Solaris had ever felt more observant of anything, it plays almost like human evolution as the subconscious only finds itself growing over time. Through the slow movements as opposed to a need to rush back to the characters, it is clear enough that Solaris only brings out a sense of fear from our own ends. From moments in which the camera stays within one spot, there’s a greater meditation that comes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s end for we aren’t merely watching only science fiction but rather instead a meditation on the evolution of human life.
I probably have not revisited Solaris enough in order to find the words to describe such an experience and do it justice, but every time I come back it only grows so much more overwhelming in terms of how many memories it flashes back in front of my own eyes. To say it is a beautiful film only goes to expose one layer of Solaris‘s wonder, but to talk about something as meditative as this is already a greater challenge in itself. But maybe what has always remained most interesting to me about Solaris is how we never feel sure of our own place as it keeps moving along, only to have our thoughts drained from its conclusion. From my first visit I knew already this was an intimidating experiment to tackle, but on subsequent revisits I only notice something more about Solaris that continues to haunt me. Contemplative, beautiful, and altogether – one of, if not, the greatest science fiction film ever made.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Janus Films.
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay by Fridrikh Gorenshtein, Andrei Tarkovsky, from the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Produced by Viacheslav Tarasov
Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko, Anatoly Solonitsyn
Release Year: 1972
Running Time: 166 minutes