EDITOR'S NOTE: This will now be a recurring feature where we will take a look at films that have a major anniversary this year and how they have stood the test of time.
What does one first think of when confronted with the term ‘science fiction’? I immediately think of spaceships, a vast expanse of black space intermittently dotted by small specks of white, perhaps some aliens, and supposedly futuristic technology that, to me at least, seems all too fake. That, at the very least, is a précis sketch of what you might expect to find in a sci-fi flick—see Star Wars, Alien, or District 9. That mold is so carefully followed that deviations are prominent, especially to those like myself that aren’t particularly disposed to the elaborate fantasies that make up the bulk of the genre. And there’s one deviation that I’m particularly fond of: Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 work, Solaris.
This year marks Solaris’ fortieth anniversary—and the tenth anniversary of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, released in 2002, which was based on the same source material as Tarkovsky’s work—and in reflecting on the film, I’m not entirely sure it fits comfortably with the likes of the aforementioned pictures. We may as well call it science fiction for administrative purposes, but only because it is set sometime in the near future on a space station somewhere in space orbiting the ocean-covered planet Solaris. The film, an adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem, follows the psychologist Kris Kelvin as he leaves Earth to investigate strange occurrences on the Solaris station. Once aboard, he finds that the planet seems to be sentient and capable of resurrecting people from an individual’s past (in Kris’ case, his deceased wife Hari). Two scientists remaining on the station suggest that Solaris can tap into an individual’s consciousness, and the three men try to find a way to stop the planet’s interference.
Perhaps we can chalk up the genre-blurring to the fact that Solaris appears to be set in the present day. One of the film’s more patent themes, which is worth mentioning in order to make this point, is man’s confidence and increasing dependence on technology over the natural environs from which we matured. The film begins at Kris’ father’s house in the countryside where Kris goes for a long walk out in the garden, and the camera captures images of organic life as he leisurely ambles about: plants, reeds in a pond and the like. Earth’s color is bright and variable, but the space station is cold, metallic, gray; there’s a telling scene where one of the scientists suggests attaching strips of paper to a fan in order to recreate the sound of rustling leaves. But this from nature, Tarkovsky asserts, is not limited to the future; it is us now. In what may be Solaris’ most recognized sequence, Tarkovsky presents us with footage of a five minute drive along a freeway. He shot the footage in Tokyo, and all we see are overpasses, skyscrapers, and cars—specifically cars from 1970, not from 2125. As Phillip Lopate noted in his essay for the Criterion release of Solaris, Tarkovsky didn’t show “futuristic” cars because for him 1970s Tokyo already was the future. The point of the five minute drive was to show that humanity had disregarded its roots in favor of steel and concrete.
The 2002 American release of Solaris was officially a re-adaptation of Lem’s original novel—so say Soderbergh and James Cameron, producer on the project—but viewed in succession with Tarkovsky’s adaptation, it’s apparent that Soderbergh must at least have been influenced by his precursor. Consider that both films take the same approach to the novel: whereas Lem’s Solaris is more interested in man’s use of technology and our relation to the natural world and the universe, the films place a much greater emphasis on Kris’ relationship with his suddenly reanimated wife. That similarity has led some to compare the two pictures, and comparisons typically result in a value judgment where one version is elevated above the other; in most cases Tarkovsky is the victor.
While their narratives converge to a point, the two films differ significantly in tone and objective, enough so that trying to argue for one over the other seems senseless. Rather, I am quite content with placing them at the same level, for both are exceptional—I’m reminded of The Criterion Collection’s dual pack of The Lower Depths, with Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa’s versions side-by-side, and it would be appropriate if both Solarises were released in a similar format. In fact, contrasting Tarkovsky’s film with Soderbergh’s can illustrate how the two pictures accomplish their respective goals.
Both versions of Solaris share the same impressive quality: they are emotionally impactful, and unusually so, but the feeling one gets from each film is different. Tarkovsky’s Solaris is like a long and turbid journey. When lifting off from the launch pad, astronauts experience the straining effects of gravity—you’ve heard of people being forced back into their seats, almost unable to move. Tarkovsky’s film can be likened to this: it is dreamy, and we are locked in for the ride like statues staring stoically ahead. This effect is very much deliberate. Tarkovsky mostly accomplishes it through long takes, like the unbroken five-minute freeway ride, which captures the viewer even though it seems to lead nowhere. But he also tricks us into feeling this way. Even with short takes or scenes, Tarkovsky’s camera is strict, unmoving save for essential tracking shots, and panning is virtually nonexistent. He slows it down because he wants to ensure we feel the film, that we literally feel the effects of the story.
Soderbergh’s Solaris is very different. While he too limits camera movement, he doesn’t make a conscious attempt to artificially elongate each scene like Tarkovsky. Rather, in Soderbergh’s picture, the emotional effect we feel is sudden and jarring: we feel lost. I described this feeling in an article published earlier this year. Through beautifully hypnotic shots of the planet Solaris, emotionally distant characters (that frequently stare vacantly into the camera, right at us; click to see image), claustrophobic camerawork (click to see image), and a haunting musical score, Soderbergh catapults us into Solaris’ miasma and threatens to leave us there. So while Tarkovsky forces us into a protracted dream, Soderbergh pushes us into a nightmare. As noted in the earlier article, Soderbergh’s Solaris can be positively horrific at times, but not because there are monsters or jump scares; quite the opposite, it is a docile film. Rather, it is horrific because it makes us feel alone. It is, in simple terms, terrifying.
Neither approach is superior, but interestingly, Tarkovsky’s Solaris allows for more reflection and personal interpretation than Soderbergh’s. This is entirely due to the disparity in length—Tarkovsky’s slow-going film is three hours long, while Soderbergh’s is half that. Tarkovsky injects more noise into his story, leaving random tangents out in the open without comment, and while ordinarily we might interpret this as shoddy filmmaking (or at the very least poor writing), in Tarkovsky’s case the opposite is true: it is all of interest, and it all adds to the dream-like quality of the film.
What, for instance, are we to make of the sudden appearance of a Freudian-like mother complex in the last twenty minutes of the film? Kris dreams he is back on Earth, returned to his home, and there he meets his mother, but his mother is young and beautiful, at the age when Kris was an infant. The two embrace, practically caressing each other, and the scene becomes as explicit as Soviet censors allow—which is to say not explicit at all, but suggestive enough for it to be striking. Tarkovsky throws this at us and leaves it there, and minutes later the film ends. But this has tremendous implications for our reading of the film, almost like a domino effect in reverse-time. Under this scenario, Hari is essentially a surrogate for Kris’ mother. But if the planet Solaris causes people from the past to appear, and if Kris is obsessed with his mother, why is Kris’ deceased wife summoned first? If he had spent more time in the planet’s grasp, would his mother have appeared?
One could take things further by questioning the reality of the entire film. The ending suggests that Kris either gave himself to Solaris or simply could not escape the planet’s grasp, and in that case, one could argue that the entire film might be akin to a dream. If not that, then might the two scientists in the space station be projections from Kris’ consciousness brought about by the planet, just as Hari is? There are no concrete answers, and that’s the way Tarkovsky wants it. His Solaris is a dream, and more often than not dreams don’t make sense. Objects appear and disappear randomly in dreams; you carry one train of thought and two seconds later you’re in a different setting addressing different circumstances and you can’t recall what was going on moments before. Dreams are bizarre, and even the best ones can be disconcerting. Solaris the film does precisely what the Solaris the planet does: like a dream, it swallows us. That two films made thirty years apart can reflect that sensation in different ways is remarkable.