Andrei Tarkovsky’s third film, following his chilling debut Ivan’s Childhood and the mammoth Andrei Rublev, Solaris is a film that is more about experience and environment than enjoyment or leisure. Clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, this science-fiction voyage into the human soul is anything but fun and games, something that proves common when talking about Tarkovsky. Solaris inches forward at a snail’s pace, showing Tarkovsky’s penchant for long, drawn out takes. This is a method that strikes fear into the hearts of film fans around the globe, considering some of the runtimes his work offer. Solaris is long and foreboding, however it never feels tiresome. Its metaphysical themes on existence are emotionally draining, but it is perhaps one of the most unique and meticulously crafted works of fiction in the realm of sci-fi.
Based on the novel by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, the film introduces us to Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist who is sent to the space station over the ocean planet of Solaris. Upon his arrival, the remaining crew members are in complete disarray. They are evasive to Kelvin’s questioning into why the space station has become neglected. However, the space station houses more than just Kelvin and the crew members, they are also ‘visitors’. Kris’s ‘visitor’ is his late wife, Hari (Natalya Bonderchuk) – who is created by the swirling ocean on the planet down below is a mere duplicate. It is up to Kris to make a life altering yet simple decision, does he hold onto what is left inside him and go back to reality? Or does he submit to the planet’s powers of a long, lost friend regained?
The first 40 minutes are Earthbound. They helm Kelvin’s last day on the planet, before he is inevitably shot up into space to investigate the station. The vast openness of green fields as it submerges around Kelvin is beautifully contrasted with the claustrophobic design of the space station. As the audience is introduced to Kelvin, there is an immediate acknowledgement that Kelvin is a lost soul – he does not tend to smile very often, hence why there would be an association from just judging how the character looks and behaves on his own. The painfully slow takes that Tarkovsky and director of photography, Vadim Yusov, adopt can make so many people alienated or bored as a result. Many directors have adopted the style simply for aesthetic choice, which is fine, but there can be some degree of critique thrown their way by the audience.
This is far from Tarkovsky’s true intention. He didn’t just use long takes for the sake of them. He used them as a device so the audience can process films like Solaris in self-reflection. Every aching second that passes by in a Tarkovsky film reminds the viewer about the importance of time. And this is perfectly encapsulated in the first 40 minutes. This is the final time that Kelvin is ever going to see the outside world around him, the final time that he will ever see his father alive again, as upon his return, his father could very well be gone thanks to the time consuming process of space travel. This means that there is a fundamental truth and reason that Kelvin is upset. A fundamental truth that can be applied to our own existence.
Once upon the space station, the white and red colour palette enhances the emptiness of each area. The warm tones are juxtaposed beautifully with the cold and bleak subject matter. This is also another Tarkovsky trademark, which is less to do with atmosphere building (which is incredible in its own right) and more to do with texture. Texture in a Tarkovsky film is a marvel as it clashes imagery in the foreground and background concurrently. Think about the jaggered, bombed-out houses clashing with fog in Ivan’s Childhood, or the sand dunes contrasting with the high concrete walls in Stalker. It always seems to be a collision between nature and man-made design. But here, Tarkovsky adopts a slightly different approach. Wires and blinking lights flow through the halls of the station, pipes weave in and out of the white padded walls in this very softly shot dreamlike state. In the station, it is less to with nature against mankind, but the mechanical and artificial entrapment the set offers contains a story so deeply personal and rich. A set that forms a human subconscious.
Kelvin’s and the replica of Hari’s relationship is complicated. Hari is not devoid of any human emotion and is more human than the crew members on the ship, she is intelligent, she has her own self-conscious. But what she lacks is memories. She isn’t aware that the original Hari committed suicide, and thus questions Kelvin about herself. She grows ever more disheartened about her existence and the relationship begins to turn sour. The crew members taunt her that she is not human, whilst Kelvin is the only one who gives her the companionship that she is desperate for, though that can still lead to provocative and philosophical monologues about herself. She can feel saddened and lonely, but she cannot harm herself or even kill herself. Hari bursts through a metal door to follow Kelvin since she does not understand how to open doors, she is covered in bloody scratches, but these quickly heal. She commits suicide by drinking liquid oxygen, but begins to literally spasm back to life. Of course, she can still emote with Kelvin, offering a similar relationship of the real Hari, but it is different.
This question forms the the very heart of Solaris, when we are in relationship with someone; who do we truly love? The person, or the idea of that person? Virtual reality now being a large part of people lives with websites to judge character, we can see what people look like through photographs, but the personality comes from the human mind. Although people physically manifest space, what we think of each other and even our relationships are formed in our heads. The ocean of Solaris can only create the replica from Kelvin’s mind, as he is the only person to meet with the real Hari, so it is based on Kelvin’s assumptions, hence why the doppelganger Hari asks Kelvin so much about herself. She is just as real as the orignal Hari to him. The second Hari is the idea of a person, and that idea can never die within someone’s mindscape. Wouldn’t you know it, the set is crafted like its own subconscious, with philosophical tit-bits like this there is an insurmountable depth to films like what Tarkovsky did here.
Solaris is completely up to interpretation; every person will have a different experience and will get a different meaning from the film. It is of course art considering that Tarkovsky’s artistic merit is favourable in circles of philosophers, filmmakers and students alike. Art is subjective to opinion, unlike symbolism which would have created a definite meaning. There is a mysterious quality lurking in Solaris, with so many layers to it that it is impossible to comprehend every single nook and cranny from just one viewing. It is hard to explain the feelings one gets from seeing a film like this. But if you ever want to talk these complex ideas and emotions through with someone, Solaris must be seen at least once during your lifetime.