Solaris (Andrei Tarkovski, 1972)
[originally posted 3Dec2002]
There is endless debate among film snobs as to which of Andrei Tarkovski’s seven feature-length films is the best; for me, there’s no comparison. Solaris, Tarkovski’s compelling, gorgeous epic retelling of Stanislaw Lem’s thin (and somewhat mediocre, unlike most of Lem’s work) novel, is first among equals. [ed. note 2014: it has encountered some serious competition in the past few years from Stalker, and the two are now almost running neck and neck with me.] Clocking in at just under three hours, Solaris is the tale of Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist sent to the spaceship orbiting the ocean planet Solaris to find out what happened to the crew. He soon finds that the planet is a sentient being itself, and that it sends visitors to the crew—beings that are for all intents and purposes human, but are constructs from the crew’s minds. The one it picks for Kelvin is his late wife Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk), and soon Kelvin finds himself in the same position as the rest of the crew: questioning everything he knows about humanity, existence, and what it all means.
This is no new ground for filmmakers, to say the least (though Tarkovski does his best to put a sucker punch into it at the end), and so what separates Tarkovski’s telling from the pack is his style. He allows the movie to set itself up at its own pace, giving us enough background to figure out what’s going on once we get to Kelvin-in-space (at which point, the dialogue in the film drops to a minimum) and coming up with brilliant, extended symbolic shots that add the perfect touch of foreshadowing to the film.
Unfortunately, Tarkovski does drop the ball in a few places, but nothing that makes the film less watchable. The ending is a little less ambiguous than one would normally demand from a movie that is, in essence, an existential work. Ironically, the final scene wants to tie up the loose ends pertaining to the main questions in the film, but leaves a number of other unanswered questions extant (which Soderbergh, in his more recent reworking, attempts to answer, and fails miserably on all counts). But in the end, if you see the movie with the right bunch, those unanswered questions are going to inspire endless debate. Which is what the movie should be doing anyway. It just goes about it in a rather odd, convoluted way. ****