SOLARIS — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Auteur and gifted film theorist Andrei Tarkovsky, son of a celebrated Russian poet, Arseniy Tarkovsky, carried his father’s keen sense of elevated philosophical exploration into his films.
Inspired by filmmakers such as Buñuel, Eisenstein, and Bergman, Tarkovsky intuitively apprehends the flexible nature of the filmic medium to incorporate abstract ideas ranging from deeply held romantic values to metaphysical and political realities from a personal perspective. He allows provocative images (frequently drawn from nature) to editorialize and expand on the human condition that he studies from a plaintive viewpoint.
Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel provided the basis for “Solaris,” a film that Tarkovsky considered the weakest of the seven features he made during his career. The dystopian psychological drama is set during the ‘70s-era Cold War in the context of ready-made science fiction.
The burly Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis plays Kris Kelvin, a Russian psychologist mourning the death of his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). Kris visits his father at their solitary family home on the last day before Kris travels to a distant research space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The station’s three-man skeleton crew have fallen prey to a strange phenomenon that has rendered them useless. Discredited “pilot” Henri Berton visits with Kris and his father to show them a film of his testimony before a government review board, from years ago, of his own experiences on Solaris. Now an old man, Berton can barely stand to watch his former self describe a gigantic “four-meter-tall newborn” rising up from Solaris’s lava-like ocean as he hovered above the planet’s surface in a helicopter. Like the scientific review board, Kris doesn’t believe Berton’s “hallucinations.” During the sequence, Tarkovsky seamlessly switches between color to black-and-white to add dramatic depth to the wonderfully deployed exposition.
Upon his arrival to Solaris Kris discovers a space station in disarray. Tarkovsky’s ingenious production design of a modern space ship in decline provides the viewer with a wealth of details to contemplate.
One of the cosmonauts has committed suicide. The other two are mentally unstable. Their attempts to probe Solaris’s ocean with X-rays has resulted in the planet attacking their brains. Almost immediately Kris falls prey to the same insidious force, one that sends a replica of his deceased wife to serve as an ever-regenerating distraction from his mission. Every new version of Hari is more convincing than the last. Kris’s sense of reality will be forever changed.
After its release “Solaris” achieved a cult status among science fiction fans for the film’s effective set designs and strange sense of suspense. Seemingly opaque thematic elements contributed to the allure of seeing the picture more than once in order to decipher its hidden meanings. Andrei Tarkovsky’s prodigious ability to conceptualize grand-scale narrative structure with a fluid sense of cinematic time continues to influence filmmakers even if few rise to such dizzying heights.
Rated PG. 169 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)