2 Hrs., 46 Mins.
Solaris May 18, 2018
n Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel, 1926’s The Sun Also Rises, the characters, all part of the so-called “Lost Generation,” shuffle from bar to bar, country to country, lover to lover, with the sort of intensity an Olympian might reserve for their respective diet and training regimens. All are feeling the aftereffects of fighting in, or living through the ups and downs of, World War I. Which are, namely, dissatisfaction and trauma. Here, hedonism doesn't have much to do
with an insatiable appetite for pleasure. It has to do with the fact that they believe, or at least want to believe, substance use, foreign-land hopping, and quasi-swinging can rid them of their Weltschmerz. Nothing, however, can put a stop to their anxieties or their disenchantment with life in general. Their misery is too immaterial to overcome.
Solaris (1972), a pensive masterpiece co-written and directed by the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, similarly circles around characters who find their lives devoid of much meaning. But their discontent is hardly abstract, to be blamed on faraway memories that haunt them. In the world Tarkovsky draws, ghosts of the past can manifest physically. No longer are the things that torment the most confined to the psyche, incorporeal and difficult to explain. They can appear out of the ether with the snap of a shellacked finger, able to be confronted even if their presence is unwelcome.
In Solaris, our protagonist, a silver-streaked psychologist named Kris (Donatas Banionis), is sent to the eponymous oceanic planet to investigate the goings-on at a decades-old space station, tasked with deciding whether it is worth it for scientific research to continue. The mission, though, proves itself more eventful than that: Strangely, Solaris is capable of bringing memories — especially memories of the deceased — to life in part due to “neutrino systems” which comprise its oceans.
Reported hallucinations by scientists who previously explored Solaris were not hallucinations at all. They were, indeed, physical beings who were conjured by the fears and recollections of those on board the space station. Kris gets a taste of this himself when a woman who looks exactly like his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who died years ago, suddenly materializes.
What was supposed to be a professional, rather clinical task, then, turns into a semi-crisis. This ethereal version of his dead wife will not go away, no matter how often he tries to rid himself of her. (In an early scene, he dupes her into getting into a rocket that plunges her into peripherals of outer space. Another version of her arrives the next night.) She also thinks and feels as any human would, and, in many ways, parallels Hari as she was in life.
After so many years of denying the pain his and Hari’s difficult marriage caused him, Kris is finally forced to do away with his compartmentalization; he has no other option but to wallow in this unexpected development. He is made to ask himself: What did Hari really mean to him, and how has her death impacted him in the ensuing years?
What we have in Solaris is a ruminative, thoughtful psychological drama, a character study in situ. It's bare bones and understated but never tedious, in spite of its initially daunting 166-minute running time. Tarkovsky seeks to place us directly inside the mind of a man who is unforeseeably forced to reexamine both his life and himself, and it’s compelling. All is swathed in sci-fi that eventually seems to bear little on how much we engage with the storyline. It's important we try to identify with Kris, and increasingly consider what it means to be in love with someone versus being in love with the idea of someone. Here, science is but a supplement.
Many consider Solaris to be something of a counterpart to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), in no doubt because it was released around the same time and because both so truculently toy with the orthodoxies of sci-fi. But the comparisons, though fitting in many cases, don’t altogether feel apt. Kubrick’s feature is more prominently fascinated with man and his relationship to the universe.
In contrast, the Tarkovsky movie is convinced that the idiosyncrasies and shortcomings of man are more complex and ultimately unknowable than anything decorating the outer limits. The space angle is there, as it was in the 1961 novel of the same name by the Polish writer Stanisław Lem, as an emblematic device to further illustrate the wonders of the human experience. And Tarkovsky is nonchalant about it, allowing silence and revealing, minimalist dialogue to beckon us toward introspection.
Before Solaris, I had never experienced any of Tarkovsky’s features: In my mind he’s always stuck out as the difficult, tacticious auteur with a whim for making three-hour, psychologically oriented epics. In watching Solaris, though, I’ve discovered that Tarkovsky is hardly the inscrutable artiste I had foolishly believed him to be. He is, instead, an insightful humanist who uses surfeited length as a way to let his characters exhale, his ideas stew. He creates an atmosphere in which we are supposed to get lost. Not a detail is wasted. What it all means doesn’t matter; the conclusion definitively tells us so. What matters is that we are immersed, that we can empathize. Its mysteries become it. A