Provost's Film Series
February 13, 2006
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) has become a science fiction classic—even though the director disliked the genre. By his own report, Tarkovsky’s decision to make a film of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris “was not the result of my interest in science fiction. The essential reason was that in Solaris Lem undertook a moral problem that I could closely relate to.”
Four years earlier Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had riveted film critics and sci-fi fans with its prophetic technology and light-bending space travel. But, according to Tarkovsky, that film was “something artificial.” “I found myself in a museum,” he claimed, “where they demonstrate the newest technological achievements. Kubrick is intoxicated with this and he forgets about humanity, about its moral problems. Without that true art cannot exist.” Although it portrays its own bright planet, Solaris eschews futuristic gadgetry for more mundane machines and costumes, as Tarkovsky gives us a mind game rather than a kaleidoscope of special effects.
The “moral problem” at the heart of the film is the relationship between memory and desire, between the pangs of conscience and the possibilities of fantasy. The film will expose the interior life of cosmonaut Kris Kelvin, who is haunted by his wife’s suicide and estranged from his father. Before flying to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris, the somber Kelvin tries to destroy his past by burning photos and papers. He has been commissioned to fly to Solaris to assess the mental health of the three members of the space station crew, who appear to be overcome by hallucinations and despair. One day prior to his journey Kelvin receives a visit from the cosmonaut Berton, his father’s friend, who warns him about the undulations and power of Solaris’ massive ocean. Unmoved, Kelvin speculates about irradiating the ocean to control it. But the ocean will be more than a match for the cosmonaut: the waters reportedly are like a great brain, a sea of consciousness that can discern human desires. When Kelvin’s wife Hari suddenly appears at the space station, his search for truth takes an emotional turn. She is what the other scientists call a “Guest.” Has she returned from the dead? Or is she an alien being? Or is she the projection of his subconscious? Kelvin’s journey to discover new worlds and to overcome the moral malaise at the space station becomes a trip into his own hopes and fears.
Collaboration and Contention
When making 2001, Kubrick collaborated effectively with the author Arthur C. Clarke, yet Tarkovsky and Stanislaw Lem were quickly at odds. “The deeper meaning of Lem’s novel,” Tarkovsky claimed, “does not fit into the confines of science fiction.” But Lem disagreed—vehemently. He complained that the director “amputated the scientific landscape” of his story, transforming a tale about “man’s place in the Cosmos” into a psychological drama about a guilty conscience. Tarkovsky “didn’t make Solaris at all,” Lem protested, “he made Crime and Punishment.” After the novelist threatened to withdraw permission to adapt his book, Tarkovsky made some concessions to appease the author, though that never pleased the director. Near the end of his life Tarkovsky admitted that his film suffered because he was “unable to avoid elements of science fiction.”
Lem dismissed this finalé as merely “emotional sauce,” but critical opinion tends to side with the director. It is Tarkovsky’s ambitious and often disjointed attempt to extract a Dostoyevskian drama out of a sci-fi bestseller that has made Solaris a milestone in cinematic history. Admittedly, it is not an easy trip for most viewers: the pace is stubbornly slow, almost hypnotic, and the camera shots linger, even indulgently so. The acting is understated, and the dialogue sparse. Much of the conflict is implied, visual rather than verbal. But just when the film seems to get lost in its own languid pace or pretentiousness, it unveils new scenes of cinematographic poetry or moral edginess. In 2002, when Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney remade Solaris into more conventional American fare, they won credible reviews, but bombed at the box office and actually rekindled appreciation for the unique mysticism of the original.
Born in 1932, in the Volga countryside that is now part of Belorus, Andrei Tarkovsky was the son of a famous poet and actress. His parents divorced when he was a child, but he kept a tense relationship with both, occasionally citing his father’s poetry in his screenplays and casting his mother in one film. He studied Arabic in Moscow and geology in Siberia before enrolling in the VGIK Moscow Film School in 1959. Ivan’s Childhood, his first feature film, captured the Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice Film Festival in 1962. It introduced themes—ethereal landscapes, dreams and memories, freedom and childlike belief—that set Tarkovsky immediately apart from the tradition of Soviet realism. His 1966 film Andrei Rublev—a luminous epic based on the life of one of Russia’s famous icon painters—recreated images of stark medievalism, with enough intimations of modern politics to prompt Soviet authorities to suppress it. A visual masterpiece, Andrei Rublev was known both for its black-and-white cinematography and for its cascade of colorful icons at the film’s end. Six years later in Solaris Tarkovsky would once again mix color and black-and-white; he would also once again offer a sequence of images from famous artwork, in this case Pieter Brueghel’s “Hunters in the Snow.” Andrei Rublev, Solaris and succeeding films—Mirror (1974), Stalker (1979), Nostalgia (1982), and The Sacrifice (1986)—established Tarkovsky’s reputation as the finest Russian director after World War II. Spending his last years in self-imposed exile in the West, Tarkovsky died of lung cancer in 1986. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman considered him “the greatest” of all filmmakers, an artist who “invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”