Solaris (1972)

The introduction was given by IU President Michael McRobbie. He’s a bit of a celebrity and authority figure on campus, so it was a bit of a surprise and a treat to hear him introduce “Solaris.”

But the real reason it was a surprise is because “Solaris” is not a movie you select lightly. If you have seen it, it is likely not the only movie you’ve seen like it. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, no director ever demanded more of our patience and few films were as challenging and obtuse as his.

“Solaris” was considered the Russian answer to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a valid comparison given their proximity, their “plots,” their story telling, their breathtaking, other worldly visuals and their enormous themes. But as McRobbie spoke about the film for roughly 10 minutes, he compared Tarkovsky more to Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni than Kubrick.

I said to myself, here is a man who knows his movies.

As I said, he would have to know a lot to pick “Solaris.” I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve seen films by Kubrick, Bresson and Antonioni. It for me redefined what I thought was a movie mind-trip, opening me up to this new director I’m embarrassed to not have explored sooner. Likewise, for the mass audiences who think “Lost”  or many other modern movies and TV shows are some of the most bold, daring, confusing and complex things they’ve ever seen, they are sadly naive.

The story involves a psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), assigned to investigate the cause behind hallucinations triggered by the ocean surface of a planet. He travels to the space station Solaris and quickly begins seeing his own hallucinations. He is told he is not insane by the scientists remaining on the space station, one of whom has already committed suicide and told Kris through video. But he sees a recreation of his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who died 10 years earlier. She is his wife precisely as he remembers, but she is without any of Hari’s actual memories.

My drastic simplification of the story is much more cryptic and complex than I give it credit for. In fact I shuttled through about an hour and a half of this near three hour opus in roughly a sentence.

But whereas “2001” is a story about the evolution of intelligence and our pursuit for meaning, “Solaris” is a much more human film, using sci-fi as a way of building an understanding of human perspective, consciousness and emotion. “Solaris” may at times be as chilling, eerie and haunting as “2001,” but it has more tender moments of empathy and love than Kubrick’s film.

Its most poignant and upfront message is about the meanings and ideas we imbue in others. My minor area of study in Indiana’s Communication and Culture department considers how the messages we send are all encoded into other symbols, but what if physical people are also merely symbols? A person may symbolize love and compassion as a wife or loved one to us, but without us present, they lose that meaning and their symbol takes on a new message.

Tarkovsky illustrates this artfully. His film is a miracle of color and art direction. Even admirers of film have said his shots are long and uninteresting, but in “Solaris” he embeds so much subtle movement, activity and eye catching images in every frame that the whole film remains entrancing. There is an obsessive natural attention to detail in every one of his shots, but each is countered by some pristine beauty, serenity or stark emptiness.

Tarkovsky even employs bold, quick changes in color filters and cinematography perspectives to a stunning effect. Watching it you realize that the best sci-fi is composed not through story but purely through style. The film’s futuristic art direction is remarkable, but there is a precise pacing and cold silence permeating the film that makes it so memorable and eerie.

One of my favorite images early on is the exotic approach to the Solaris space station. A close-up of Kris’s face rotates and cants, fading into an ever growing image of a revolving space station. It’s a more haunting visage than the graceful ballet in “2001,” but at the same time, Kubrick also did not have a moment as serene and lovely as when Kris and Hari float weightlessly as they embrace in love, candles and chandeliers gliding around them.

At the end of the day, “Solaris’s” message is elegant. In order to achieve happiness, we require mystery and uncertainty about life such that we can appreciate our perceptions. Tarkovsky boldly states that in mankind’s pursuit of a broader understanding of the universe we are striving for a goal he has no need for. “Man needs man” most of all, the film says.

It’s a different, more down to Earth message than the operatic “2001,” one that could also be told outside of a sci-fi setting. But Tarkovsky doesn’t let his genre go to waste, finishing the film with a spectacular twist that will make you rethink everything that came before.

“Solaris” is a film that tests your inner consciousness. It does more than just confuse your mind or manipulate your senses. It is a beautiful, powerful, haunting and maddening movie unlike any ever made.

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