From the first viewing, it is easy to pile Solaris into another IMDB list of sci-fi films that explore life beyond earth. In fact, for many Solaris is considered a response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as they both explore space journeys and the presence of artificial intelligence. But any film fan having seen both of the films knows that Solaris goes into an emotional direction, where 2001 doesn’t.
Solaris, a 1972 film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is based on a 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem. Critically speaking, Solaris doesn’t dig into the themes of extraterrestrial intelligence deeply as Lem’s novel does, and unlike, Soderbergh’s 2002 film Solaris starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone, the theme of love isn’t as prominent either. In this adaptation, Tarkovsky explores nature and human connection to it. The rain, trees, animals are a reflection of nature and life. Tarkovsky utilises every tool he has to lift the beauty of nature and the importance of it to humans. For example, in one specific scene, the character of Kris Kelvin (played by Donatas Banionis) is immersed in nature and a cut is made to a shot showing a horse going by. This shot reflects the beloved symbolism Tarkovsky loved to use. In a 1969 interview with Positif, a French magazine, Tarkovsky talked about the ending of Andrei Rublev, which also uses horses as a symbol, stating: “We wanted to come back to the symbol of life because for me the horse symbolises life.” In Solaris, the same symbol of a horse symbolising life is used and arguably acts as a symbol for Kris as a glimpse of hope.
“My decision to make a screen adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris was not a result of my interest in science fiction. The essential reason was that in Solaris Lem undertook a moral problem I can closely relate to. The deeper meaning of Lem’s novel does not fit within the confines of science fiction. To discuss only the literary form is to limit the problem. This is a novel not only about the clash between human reason and the Unknown but also about moral conflicts set in motion by new scientific discoveries. It’s about new morality arising as a result of those painful experiences we call “the price of progress.” For Kelvin that price means having to face directly his own pangs of conscience in a material form. Kelvin does not change the principles of his conduct, he remains himself, which is the source of a tragic dilemma in him.
Why is it that in all the science fiction films I’ve seen the authors force the viewer to watch the material details of the future? Why do they call their films — as Stanley Kubrick did — prophetic? Not to mention that to specialists 2001 is in many instances a bluff and there is no place for that in a work of art. I’d like to film Solaris in such a way as to avoid inducing in the viewer a feeling of anything exotic. Technologically exotic that is. For example: if we filmed passengers getting on a tram and we knew nothing about trams — let’s assume — because we had never seen them before, then we’d obtain the effect similar to what Kubrick did in the scene of the spaceship landing on the Moon. If we film the same landing the way we would normally film a tram stop, everything will fall in its rightful place. Thus we need to put the characters in real, not exotic, scenery because it is only through the perception of the former by the characters in the film that it will become comprehensible to the viewer. That’s why detailed expositions of technological processes of the future destroy the emotional foundation of film.”
– Andrei Tarkovsky on Solaris
Much like nature, Tarkovsky also presents ‘the future’ which conflicts with his beloved nature. However, unlike many sci-fi films, Tarkovsky presents it through contemporary buildings and visuals. There isn’t much of an attempt by Tarkovsky to make the world in the film seem futuristic. Arguably through this choice of representing the future as contemporary Tarkovsky critiques the state of the world and the loss of human connection with nature. Moreover, it doesn’t let the film fade away from its emotional side.
Praise has also to be given to the technicality of the film, which truly showcases the sheer talent of the crew. Solaris treats the viewer with some truly mesmerising set design and equally spell-binding cinematography that helps boost the richness and the naturistic side of the film.
In terms of editing, at times the flow of the film can feel long-winded and questionable. However, Tarkovsky chooses to utilise the long takes to let the viewers meditate and contemplate the philosophical questions Solaris poses. Personally, I’ve never seen slow-paced editing as a problem, as long as there is a reason behind it. Tarkovsky clearly had his reasons, and it shows.
Overall, Solaris is a must-watch for any cinephile that looks to explore the world of sci-fi and the mind of Tarkovsky further.