Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Solaris (1972)

Solaris (1972) ****
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovskiy   
Written by: Fridrikh Gorenshtein & Andrey Tarkovskiy based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem.
Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk (Hari), Donatas Banionis (Kris Kelvin), Jüri Järvet (Dr. Snaut), Vladislav Dvorzhetsky (Henri Berton), Nikolai Grinko (Kelvin's Father), Anatoli Solonitsyn (Dr. Sartorius), Olga Barnet (Kris Kelvin's Mother), Vitalik Kerdimun (André Berton's son), Olga Kizilova (Gibarian's she-guest), Tatyana Malykh (Kris Kelvin's niece), Aleksandr Misharin (Shannahan, Berton's expedition host), Bagrat Oganesyan (Professor Trajet), Tamara Ogorodnikova (Anna), Sos Sargsyan (Dr. Gibarian), Yulian Semyonov (Chairman of Investigation Commission).

I have always admired the films of Andrei Tarkovsky more than I have actually enjoyed them. Through the years, I have watched his films Andrei Rubelev (1966), The Mirror (1976), Stalker (1979) and The Sacrifice (1986), yet somehow never his most famous film – the 1972 sci-fi film Solaris.  All of these films, and I now include Solaris, are slow and meditative. They either put you into a kind of trance, where you are free to meditate on everything that has come before, and what is still to come, or else will make you grow bored and restless. Up until Solaris, I’ll admit that Tarkovsky’s films made me do both – sometimes meditate, sometimes shift restlessly in my seat and wait for something, anything to happen. His films contain some of the most striking images of any director’s work, and yet, at times everything is far too drawn out. But with Solaris, I never grew restless. I was transfixed – and that’s why this is clearly my favorite Tarkovsky film.

The film has often been compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and in some ways they are similar. They are both about a space journey, and contact with an alien life form. And both films are much more serious and meditative than most science fiction films are, relying not on action, but on its themes and implications to draw in the viewer. Yet the films are very different from each other – Kubrick’s film looks outward, into man’s place in the universe, and Tarkovsky’s film looks inwards, into its characters.

The main character is Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), who starts the film in a long conversation with a physicist about the space station rotating around the distant planet of Solaris, and the strange things that are happening on the ship. After a brief stop at his parent’s house, the film shifts to that space station, where Kelvin is now stationed. When he arrives, he discovers his friend is dead, and the two other cosmonauts are being secretive, clearly disturbed by what is happening. It does not take long for Kelvin to discover why – when he receives what the others already have called– a “Guest”. This is Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who was Kelvin’s first wife and killed herself years before. It seems that when the cosmonauts blasted the entirely ocean covered planet of Solaris with x-rays, the planet blasted something back – being able to read the minds of the cosmonauts, and create people from their memories. This isn’t the “real” Hari, but it is a Hari that the planet has built out of Kelvin’s memories of her. She is a real person, in a way, because she has the ability to think, and feel and learn. She becomes obsessed with learning about herself – about the real Hari – from Kelvin, and is becomes increasingly unhinged with her lack of memories.

While Solaris is certainly a science fiction film, it asks deeper questions that most films of the genre. The film is really about human nature – how well we are ever really able to “know” another a person, whether we love the whole person, or just our perception of who that person is. The Guest Hari can never really be complete, because all she can know is what Kelvin knows, not what the real Hari knew. There are parts of ourselves that we hold secret from even those closest to us.

Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, Solaris is not an easy film. The 2002 remake by Steven Soderbergh was an hour shorter, and yet audiences still by and large hated it. I admired that film back in 2002, and yet for some reason put off seeing the original for nearly a decade. Perhaps its because I figured that Soderbergh, who has always been an expert at aping other directors styles, had done a good job at aping Tarkovsky’s in his remake, and that watching the original, with an additional hour tacked on, would not add anything. Perhaps it’s because of my own mixed feelings on most of Tarkovsky’s work. But I regret not seeing this film sooner. Yes, the Soderbergh film still works – is still an excellent, intelligent adaptation of the same novel, and does indeed do a fine job of aping Tarkovsky’s style – but the original is a deeper film. It needs that extra hour, not necessarily because it makes things clearer (it doesn’t), but because it provides a more immersive experience. The film is startling in its beauty – easily the most beautiful of all of Tarkovosky’s films – and its pace weaves a spell over you if you allow it to. And perhaps that helps to explain why I was more mixed on Tarkovsky’s other films. Whenever someone asked me why I had never seen Solaris, I said it was because in order to watch a Tarkovsky film, you have to be in the right frame of mind, and I was so rarely in one, that I hadn’t bothered. But for whatever I reason, I was in the perfect frame of mind to see Solaris – perhaps it’s because I have had Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life swimming through my memories for weeks now. But whatever the reason, Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a masterpiece.

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