(Kris Kelvin [Donatas Banionis], a psychologist, in the haunted realm of space, outer and inner, in Andrei Tarkovsky's third feature, the 1972 Solaris. Extract courtes of Criterion.)
I am one of a period that relied on repertory cinemas for seeing or rediscovering older films and key foreign language titles. Before the advent of home video rendered it obsolete, the repertory market was crucial for watching films in optimal conditions.
It proved essential in fully appreciating a difficult though mesmerizing artist like Andrei Tarkovsky. His long take style and formally sophisticated layering of image and soundtrack demanded the size and immensity of the projected screen.
I first saw Solaris, the Russian director’s third feature, in the late-eighties. Adapted from the 1961 science fiction by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, it was regarded as a response to Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Having finished the movie in 1972, Tarkovsky had as problematic a time with American distributors as he did with the Soviet censors. The original version I saw was incomplete; it wasn’t until January of 1990 I saw the one-hundred and sixty-seven minute original version.
Likewise, Criterion published its first video iteration of the film in 2002. Now they have issued a beautiful new high-definition edition. Given how quickly the technology evolves, the nine-year space of the two editions constitutes a virtual lifetime. Tarkovsky made just seven films, and all of them are terrific and essential. Personally, I don’t think Solaris is his greatest achievement. I still prefer Stalker and The Mirror (a film crying out for a high-definition transfer, in the manner of the forthcoming The Sacrifice).
Taken on its own, Solaris remains a remarkable piece of work: cogent, powerful and filled with transcendently eerie and beautiful passages. What seems inarguable is Solaris is the most influential of his films for other filmmakers and writers. Chris Nolan’s Inception is inconceivable without it. Steven Soderbergh’s coldly fascinating 2002 translation is not one of his most successful films. Even so, certain parts of the film, the work of George Clooney and Natascha McElhone and sometimes striking production design, cut a distinct impression.
Interestingly, Lem did not really care for the Tarkovsky adaptation; in turn, Tarkovsky apparently felt constrained artistically by the genre requirements of the story. “The true cinema image is built upon the destruction of genre, upon conflict with it,” he wrote in his book, Sculpting in Time.
Tarkovsky adapted the script with Fridrikh Gorensthein. The movie’s final two-thirds unfold in the largely abandoned and deteriorating space station orbiting the eponymous planet. (Travelers there are called “Solaristics.”) Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist, has been dispatched to investigate a series of mysterious actions and unexplained behavior occurring there. His underlying task is helping determine whether the station should be permanently shuttered.
There’s a lot of beautiful and enthralling stuff before we get to the space station. The high-definition edition enables a repeated and close study of the opening movements, specifically the rhyming visual echoes Tarkovsky and his great cinematographer Vadim Yusov build from oppositions of water and landscape, between color and black and white, and the past and present. Tarkovsky was apparently very familiar with the Kubrick film, and it’s obvious he had also seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.
Like Godard, Tarkovsky conjures a haunting though brisk feel of the future through found objects and recognizable shapes. The visual highlight of the movie’s first part is a five-minute “highway sequence.“ Tarkovsky poetically tracks a car traversing open highway lanes as it’s jet propelled through tunnels and connecting overpasses. The camera swoops and dances, the point of view moves fluidly between a trailing overhead shot of the car to various angles on the interior as it allows us to follow the private thoughts of a former astronaut named Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) who’s similarly haunted by his own past associations at the mysterious planet.
It’s a bracing and hypnotic sequence that underlines the director’s mastery of mood and contemplative emotion. He captures possibility and wonder through a breathtaking use of color and monochrome. It ends in a wildly imaginative burst of color, strikingly shot at twilight, as the car is swallowed by hundreds of others; the formation is shown moving in opposite directions. The beautiful crescendo is achieved between the blinding whites of headlights moving toward us against the dark reds of the taillights floating off in the distance.
The connection to Vertigo is explicit once the action shifts to the space station. Kelvin discovers the two surviving scientists (his friend and colleague has killed himself and left a confessional if enigmatic video) are also deeply unmoored by their experiences there. The first part, which runs roughly eighty minutes, concludes with Kelvin’s arrival on the space station and the simultaneous appearance of Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), Kelvin’s startlingly beautiful wife who killed herself ten years earlier.
The sentient planet is not just an ecosystem of misty and unstable surfaces and complex cloud formations. It functions as its own living, breathing organism. As such it materializes human figures projected from the tormented psyches of those visiting the space station. (The accompanying figures of the two surviving scientists are more difficult to decipher.) As the great critic Phillip Lopate points out in his accompanying essay, it’s a poetic variant of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers; the ghost figures materialize from the creators’ dreams.
Kelvin initially is so distraught and overcome by the ghostly reappearance of his dead wife that he conspires a way to jettison her into deep space, nearly burning himself to death in the process. Her form quickly re-emerges, even though that version, the number of which apparently is infinite, also eventually takes her own life by drinking liquid oxygen. The third ghost proves the most complicated of them all.
The drama is not about deciphering what befell the previous inhabitants of the space station; it’s about mining Kelvin’s guilt and culpability for the death of his wife. Most intriguingly Hari’s simulacrum exhibits her own brand of feelings, emotion and independence. Solaris is not just a probing, moral inquiry into loss and despair. It ponders larger questions of existence and meaning, consciousness and mortality.
Visually, the widescreen framing beautifully, even devastatingly, heightens the collapsing sensations, invoking an intense feeling of entrapment and isolation against the abject loneliness and desperation.
The movie’s final twenty minutes is open to all manner of conjecture and readings. It’s not fair to say much about it, except to note perhaps how the final meeting of father and son (a recurring motif) anticipates the extraordinary final sequence of The Sacrifice.
For all of my admiration of the film, I do have issues. Banionis is deliberately blank or vague presence; he’s solid and meaty but not terribly interesting or able to adequately convey internal doubts. Fortunately, Bondarchuk is a knockout and everything he’s not: dreamy, sensual and suggestive.
Yet, it seems the least pessimistic of the director’s work and the one most engaged with the dizziness of life and all its glorious, profound and melancholy possibilities.