Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky 1972) – BlogalongaRusskie #3
Blimey, BlogalongaRusskie is nearly halfway through. It’s actually going faster than the experience of watching one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films!
My review of Solaris is below. But first, here’s an update on who else is ‘doing’ BlogalongaRusskie:
(Andrei Tarkovsky, Rus, 1972)
In space, no-one can hear your scratch your head in anguished contemplation of time, memory and the unknowability of life
My introduction to Andrei Tarkovsky – as I suspect it was for many – wasn’t a Tarkovsky film at all, but Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Solaris. Mis-marketed as a Hollywood blockbuster, it failed to find a mainstream audience… but its chilly, conceptual take on memory and romance chimed with me. It’s still one of my favourite science-fiction films, making the task of finally catching up with Tarkovsky’s much-loved classic a daunting one.
It needn’t have been. It’s clear that Soderbergh took the best of the Russian Solaris (and, presumably, of Stanislaw Lem’s source novel) and barely compromised on its haunting, head-scratching psychodrama. His sole concession to Hollywood was to streamline the narrative, compressing or removing characters and concentrating on the central love story between a human and the sentient memory of his late wife.
This is still the crux of Tarkovsky’s film, but there’s more to it than that…as you’d expect, when this is nearly twice the length of the 2002 Solaris. Where George Clooney’s Kelvin jetted off into space within ten minutes of screen time, it takes a whopping forty minutes for his Russian equivalent (played by Donatas Banionis) to make the same journey. Why the delay? Well, as proven in his last two films, Tarkovsky is a student of the earth, its mud and soil and vegetation and animal life. Here, it takes Kelvin a while to decide if he wants to forego the tactile reality of lakes and verdant foliage for the cramped, sterile atmosphere of a space station, not least because he’s close to patching things up with his estranged father.
But duty calls and space awaits, at which point Solaris becomes something else entirely, a Bergman-esque chamber piece about three men (and one semi-fictitious woman) on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is such a change of pace after the expansive, multi-strand narrative of Andrei Rublev, that it nearly nearly as bold a move as if Tarkovsky had done the films the other way around. And it’s a challenge that Tarkovsky meets with carefully recalibrated ambition. Sure, there is none of the action of his earlier films, but the prowling camerawork and painstakingly run-down production design show an artistic mind attuned to reinventing science-fiction from the ground up. It’s a possible influence on Star Wars, and a pretty blatant one on Alien.
And with nowhere to run, these characters slowly disappear inside their minds, only to find that Solaris is quite capable of extracting skeletons from the mental closet. In the early, Earthbound scenes, Tarkovsky made a point of depicting memory as something artificial, filmed in austere black-and-white against the slightly lurid colours of reality. But once the film arrives above the enigmatic oceans of Solaris, memory becomes as flesh-and-blood as anything else.
Tarkovsky does little plot-wise that is markedly better than Soderbergh; as in the later film, Kelvin turns from pragmatic murderer to helpless romantic, while his late wife (an excellent performance by Natalya Bondarchuk) is a lady Pinocchio, bewildered by her not-quite reality. But the juxtaposition with those early scenes on Earth renders the film satisfyingly different.
The longer the film goes on (and the length is crucial) the clearer it becomes that the only way to stay sane in space is to recreate home…but the cosmonauts’ existential awareness of the artifice will drive them mad regardless. Tarkovsky fills the film with images that are meant to bring normality into the cosmonauts’ lives but which become surreal and sinister: paper hung over the air vents to simulate rustling leaves, a wood-panelled library hidden within the steel corridors of the station… Noticeably, that library has a copy of Don Quixote, and Tarkovsky’s thesis becomes inevitable. Memory is the biggest, most impassable windmill any of us can tilt at.