Review: Solaris (1972)

To see list – no.31

solaris

It’s difficult to be interested in cinema and never stumble across the name of Andrei Tarkovsky. It was Solaris that introduced the legendary Soviet filmmaker to me. This science fiction epic is a magnificent film in every aspect with its poetic structure, philosophical background and impressive camera work. Adapted from an equally ambitious novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris was meant to break new ground in science fiction cinema and its legacy today is the proof that it succeeded.

The screenplay is formidable in its own terms. It gives no direct answers or explanations preferring to let the film and the characters speak for themselves rather than offering a clear narrative form. Tarkovsky requires the full attention of his audience. The film starts on Earth at some point in the future where space travel is established. Our protagonist is Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist who is about to travel to a space station orbiting the mysterious planet of Solaris. Research on the station has been stalled for unknown reasons and Kelvin is chosen to investigate the situation. Of the 85 scientists originally working at the station only 3 have remained and the future of their research depends on Kelvin’s verdict. Kelvin is informed by a friend of his father about some bizarre incidents regarding Solaris. When he finally takes the trip to the station he discovers that one of the three scientists, Dr Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has killed himself and the two remaining researchers, Dr Snaut and Sartorius (Jüri Järvet and Anatoliy Solonitsyn respectively) are reluctant to communicate and behave in a mysterious way. Before long, Kelvin finds himself confronted with Solaris terrible secret.

Tarkovsky used the original novel merely as the basis for his artistic visions. Instead of focusing on science and extra-terrestrial life, he cared about portraying his characters’ inner struggles and exploring themes such as existentialism and the ambiguity of reality. This caused a rift between him and Lem, who worked with him in the development of the screenplay. The infamous Soviet censorship also demanded editorial changes. However, Tarkovsky managed to prevail and maintain artistic freedom delivering an overwhelming picture that today is often cited among the greatest sci-fi films of all time.

Solaris is undeniably a masterpiece with no weak spots or flaws. I believe its greatest aspect is its philosophical background. The scene where a half-drunk and clearly weary Snaut rambles over humanity’s vain pursuits just after reading an excerpt from Don Quixote is amazing. Then we have Kelvin’s struggles with reality. Even though he realizes that what seems to be his wife is not actually a human being, he is reluctant to abandon her and soon starts to reflect on the idea of staying in the station forever. On the other hand Sartorius wants to use these beings for research something which Kelvins finds inhuman. It is interesting how Tarkovsky avoids to take a position or criticize any of his characters. It is left to the audience to decide what is moral and what isn’t. You may call Kelvin a fool for wanting to leave in his “dream” or dismiss Sartorius as cruel, it’s up to you. It’s up to you to decide what the ending scene means too but I’m not going to give it away here. To sum up, Solaris is an astounding artistic experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone, sci-fi fan or not.

9/10

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