Between Dimensions: Solaris (1972)

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Between Dimensions is a continuing feature that examines science-fiction on the screen in all of its forms: big or small, good or bad.

Bring an overnight bag to your couch. This star trip takes awhile.

Solaris is about first contact and tells its story most authentically. It is sprinkled with tantalizing hints of an incomprehensible alien presence and deftly threaded with some of humanity’s long-standing existential issues. These factors combine to create the conditions that in turn perplex, humble, and threaten the movie’s cast of characters. Be warned however. Solaris is also the ultimate litmus test of a viewer’s attention span. Transformers this is not.

For better or worse, Solaris tells its story (from a novel by the great Russian sci-fi writer, Stanislaw Lem) in almost real time. For better because you are cocooned in layer after layer of allegory and allusion. This style ensures that you are impacted the same way the Solaris’ crew is – frightened by the alien presence, deeply concerned for humanity, and afraid for your own sanity. For worse, because this meticulous layering takes 90 real time minutes. It proceeds with a somnolent rhythm delivered by a stolid Russian cast that will severely test your enthusiasm for wanting to be present at first contact.

Solaris begins at the country home of the cosmonaut, Kris Kelvin. Nothing has been heard from the mission station on Solaris for years. The last cosmonaut returned with a story of a strange alien sea and hallucinations that might have been real. To resolve the mystery of Solaris’ crew, Kelvin – a psychologist – is dispatched to the planet. On his arrival, he finds only 2 surviving crewmembers – a third has just committed suicide. Kelvin finds the two survivors in deep contemplation about their experiences and pretty much indifferent to his arrival. Get some sleep, we’ll talk in the morning, he’s told.

At this point, the pace picks up. Alien constructs appear – seemingly human – as our survivors investigate the sea and its influence on them. Intriguing questions of alien intelligence, human identity, and intimate personal bonds carry the movie to a simple but satisfying conclusion. The final visual has some of the same shiver that ends Planet of the Apes.

The last hour of Solaris makes up for the slow build of the opening ninety minutes. Tarkovsky tantalizes the audience with glimpses of people who shouldn’t be on the station. Furthermore the two remaining scientists never mention them. His actors are at their best when Hari (the dead wife of Kelvin) appears and soon begins to suspect her own unreality but in very agonizing terms. At one point, Kelvin leaves her in his room alone and she panics. Using only her fists and arms, she breaks though a strong metal door. It startles Kelvin because a human couldn’t do that. It startles us because it’s the first loud noise and violent action (well sort of) in the film.

The cinematography is marvelous. The movie opens with the camera caressing sea grasses gently waving in the clear waters swell. It then tracks through the rich, damp countryside. You can almost smell the earth. Tarkovsky is equally adept in creating the space station. Techy, organized, but fraying around the edges, it’s the perfect metaphor for these humans confronting the unknown. Sequences occasionally toggle between B&W and color. This helpful style keeps the visual energy up when the story pace slows. Another brilliant sequence hints at our fate. As the exhausted Kelvin stretches out to sleep, the camera starts at mattress level on his shoes, slowly slides up his torso until lightly coming to rest by his chin. It foreshadows the impact of Solaris’ heaving sea as its presence inundates the human visitors.

The film is not without oddities. Kelvin arrives at the space station dragging a very cool carry-on bag. You can imagine the light speed premium Aeroflot charged for that. His monogrammed pajamas also seemed curious in this mostly emotionally flat movie. Even more so, an extended camera shot wandering through Bruegel’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap barely hints at its purpose – Kelvin’s love for his native Earth or his humanity being absorbed by Solaris’ sea?

Solaris is definitely a mind trip, not a visual extravaganza. For its time (very pre-CGI) the space station set is compelling and believable in the same way the station in 2001: A Space Odyssey was. The visuals of the Solaris sea suggest unfathomable power with a sinister overtone. Or perhaps that’s just what we project into it. Tarkovsky uses his actors mostly monotonally to realistically portray the unsettling unknown of first contact while challenging our definition of humanity. It’s all very believable. So if you really, really like SF – e.g. if you don’t need to see starships transiting wormholes – and if you are intrigued about alien contact, you will enjoy this movie.

Perhaps Solaris’ best achievement is its ability to suggest an alien without reverting to a rubber suit or overdone effects. Only one other movie has been as successful with this approach – 2001: A Space Odyssey. What’s out there was invoked with nuances and visual suggestions that left experiencing first contact up to your personal brain chemistry (straight or enhanced) at the time. Until there actually is a first contact, that’s the best a science fiction movie can do for you. And Solaris does it.

Recommended If You Like: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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  • Curt, I was wondering what you thought of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. I’ve seen it twice and I can’t remember what the ending was.

    I’ve wanted to see Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but I’ve never had the opportunity to do so. I suspect I would be bored by it. For me, reading about existentialism is kind of boring. Visualizing it would perhaps be even more so.

  • Hoffamania

    Spoilers….

    The ending of Soderbergh’s has Kelvin deciding to stay on the station. I interpret it to be that he died on the station and that his essence / being is recreated by Solaris along with his memory of Rheya essentially providing them all eternity to be together.

    End spoilers

    I’m not going to lie… Tarkovsky is a hard director. I’ve been put to sleep many times and now only watch his movies at like 12pm but I still love them. They are incredibly rich and thought provoking. Seeing as though sci-fi has been trending towards monsters and laser beams, Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a gem simply for doing things differently.

    It’s a benchmark for what I hope sci-fi re-discovers someday soon. (Moon was a great step in this direction)

  • bullet3

    The original Solaris is way better than the remake.
    Just the unique approach to science fiction where it doesn’t try to wow you with any action or special-effects, that makes it feel so much more realistic to me.

    And it has a way better ending.

    Spoilers

    There’s kind of a jump cut back to Kelvin at his fathers house, making you think he’s decided to return to Earth, but then the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the house is on an island in the sea on Solaris. A real mindfuck ending.

    End Spoilers

  • Sarna

    StanisÅ‚aw Lem is a POLISH writer, not Russian. and he is (was) great indeed. Solaris is a an icredible movie, one of sci-fi all time classics. Be sure to check out Tarkowsky’s STAKLKER from the late 70’s, its mind blowing.

  • Sarna

    sorry, the name of the film is STALKER

  • AlexG

    I think I prefer this to Stalker, a beautiful movie in itself, but one that, I think, has a less ambiguous message, emphasised in the ridiculous final scene

  • Nathan

    Thanks for correcting that Lem was Polish.

  • Reed

    I have not seen the Solaris remake – maybe I’ll have time on the SF Universe project.
    You will love the original – before you see it just taper off all movies, video games, posting, tweeting, writing, TV (especially Star Trek reruns), and podcasts for two weeks prior to viewing. You need to be in a deep trance to appreciate this film.

    Thanks to Sama on the well-deserved correction for Lem being a Polish writer. I knew better. For penance, I will read Solaris in the original Polish.

  • I’m really quite dismayed at all the warnings about “Solaris”, in any of it’s forms being so slow. I saw the (Soviet?) version at a revival house sometime in the late ’80’s-early ’90’s, and fell in love with it. I’d originally become intriguied with the concept of Solaris through “Barlowe’s Guide to Extra-terrestrials”, in which the illustrator features “aliens’ he considered to be the most interesting thoughout all science-fiction. The “planet” Solaris was one of these.
    My experience of Clooney’s Solaris was that it was almost exactly the same plot as the Russion version, and like both movies, quite a but removed from the book. In fact, I found the movies QUITE less incomprehensible than the movies. I disagree that the ending to Soderbergh’s movie was essentially different than the Russian, perhaps just a little more open to interpretation. I beleive that ht ending of OSderbrgh’s ALSO has the main character living in a Solaris-created facsimile of his home on Earth. (Now, I may NOT have come to this conclusion if I hadn’t seen the Russian version, I admit).
    As to these being called slow, this truly dismays me, and makes me worry for the generations that follow mine. Perhaps you ARE all spending too much time being constantly stimulated by the myriad devices at your disposal. It makes me worry that there won’t be any READERS left in a generation or so. That’s a skill that takes some patience, and attention-span, you know.

  • @yomark: Some people may think I have an attention deficit disorder. I do have a habit of watching ten minutes of a DVD and then coming back to it later if I get bored. I think the problem is that too much entertainment IS BORING. I love reading, and there are many books that are just as boring as many movies.