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Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky) 1972
has a misleading reputation that precedes it. The film is often billed as
Russia’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001,
but that’s not a particularly helpful comparison in light of the film itself.
Although both works are science fiction, Tarkovsky’s film certainly doesn’t
feel like an answer to Kubrick’s, but is instead a piece that stands on its
own. It’s much less obviously ambitious than 2001, but as a result is able to attain an emotional immediacy that
Kubrick’s film can’t be bothered with, and for what it’s worth, the
film’s special effects appear more dated than those do in the older 2001.
Tarkovsky still manages to make a film that, average matte shots excepted, shows
a stunning technical proficiency. The film is filled with more incident and
overt action than many of his films, but in comparison to most other movies, it
might appear slow. Frankly, a more helpful way of describing this film to the
uninitiated might be to deem it Bergman in a space station, as much of what we
see is closer to his thematic approach than Kubrick’s. Still, Tarkovsky is
Tarkovsky, and he’s a distinctive filmmaker in his own right, so attempting to
place him in any such context might be doing his work an injustice.
Most of the themes on display in Solaris can be elsewhere seen in Tarkovsky’s other works.
Certainly, the mother/daughter rivalry that fueled much of The Mirror rears its head here, as does the director’s general
fascination with nature and its relationship to man. Here the natural world is
used to represent a time when man was still interested in exploring and learning
from the world around them. In the film’s point of view, modern man is more
interested in simply expanding his borders and maintaining a relative status quo
of knowledge. The discovery of the planet Solaris, which appears to be sentient,
presents a possible turning point to that expansionist ethos. Will the human
race try to learn about the planet, try to destroy it, or try to assimilate it?
Conflict arises not from the alien life form, but from within the characters who
encounter it. The suggestion that man is fundamentally unable to understand
anything seems to be the thesis. It's folly for him to go out seeking other life
forms, since he can't understand others in his race, nor even how his own inner
demons wreak havoc upon him. Tarkovsky forces a form of self-examination here
that would be necessarily internalized if not for the film’s sci-fi trappings.
The abundance of mumbo jumbo frees the film's more intellectual moments from
feeling like speechifying metaphysical didacticism. Since obtuse terminology is
at home in the realm of science fiction, it's an excellent playground for
philosophical debate. Discussing what makes a human a human doesn't sound so
academic when faced with the prospect of intelligent life that clearly isn't
human. The use of the planet as a plot device is great, since it makes the
ethereal literal, functioning similarly to Bergman’s use of a ghost in his Cries
and Whispers, though Bergman’s film made its specter’s state of being
much more subjective.
Personally, Solaris seemed like an interesting dud
to me at the midway point, but the second half of the film began posing such
utterly fascinating questions that any stodginess was more than redeemed. The
film’s first half gains a great deal of resonance only once we understand the
greater goals of the work, so it might be a rough viewing experience for some
who aren't patient. What’s most noteworthy is that the film is able to pose
interesting philosophical questions without stating them. While the film’s few
characters are easily identifiable as archetypes, and while they are aware of
their differences, what they actually say often only conveys the most
surface-level ramifications of the events on display. In fact, it's their inability to
adequately explain what they say and feel drives the film. Like Kubrick’s
classic, most of the film’s potential implications are conveyed visually or
through the characters’ action. Though there’s some Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy
quoted by the cast in an attempt to use eloquence to express what they cannot
formulate into words themselves, the spoken discussions tend to be the least interesting element
of the film. More engaging is the focus on the physical nature of things (note
that a brief spell of weightlessness occurs at the moment when the main
character is at his most detached from reality) and the film’s take on the
subjective nature of memory. In Solaris,
Tarkovsky is able to dramatize an astonishingly impressive number of such
intangible concepts. Unlike 2001,
which looks with wonderment at the future of the race, this film is too busy
looking with the same awe at the here and now.