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 â€“ 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 â€“ a psychologist â€“ is dispatched to the planet. On his arrival, he finds only 2 surviving crewmembers â€“ 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 â€“ seemingly human â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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