Solaris (1972)

A review by J Fox.

Solaris (1972) is an arthouse science fiction movie by renowned Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. This wasn’t my first rodeo with Tarkovsky’s legendary filmography, having watched Stalker – his iconic adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ A Roadside Picnic. When I sat down to play Stalker, I had the perfect setup for a Russian arthouse movie – a quiet Sunday afternoon, in a dimly lit living room where I watched the two-disc DVD on my home entertainment system. I was one bottle of red wine and a bowl of nuts away from the full luxury package. Contrastingly, my experience with Solaris took place as I was hunched over my PC, watching a poor-quality Youtube stream over Discord with my weekly film group. Despite not being the ideal viewing situation for a 167-minute contemplative art film, I had an incredible cinematic experience.

Solaris follows a chap named Chris, who was not a bookkeeper. I was never entirely sure what he was, but it appeared that his job was to determine whether an authority known as Solaristics should terraform an oozing ocean planet. We are given about forty minutes of expository dialogue on previous missions to the space station Solaris, an account brimming with four-metre-tall infants that we never actually see, Chris caught in a moral dilemma on whether he should go to Solaris or not, and about ten minutes of a car driving around Tokyo for absolutely no reason. While some viewers may find the exposition to be a bit of a slog, there is some extraordinary cinematography, where Earth is given a serene, dreamlike quality. The hazy, greenish colour scheme could be likened to the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz, which juxtaposes an Edenic vision of Earth with the visuals of the space station Solaris. I found Tarkovsky creates a profound sense of atmosphere despite there being next to nothing of a soundtrack in Solaris, with only a few synthesized renditions of Bach scattered throughout the film. As the plot moves towards the eponymous space station, we find that the surrealness is greatly amplified.

It is striking how very little of the space station in Solaris evokes the traditional science fiction atmosphere that we get from other titans of the genre. There is no mechanical whirring to be heard, no humming of engines and very few displays of futuristic technology. The station is hauntingly mundane, yet empty, a collection of liminal spaces slotted together. ‘Liminal space’ refers to a location transitioning between places, such as a school corridor or hotel lobby, spaces which typically see high levels of activity, as they are used to move from one location to another.

Seeing these places devoid of life can have a strong psychological effect, as if they are separated from time itself, making them eerie and uncanny. In the case of Solaris, the liminal spaces are ordinary locations taken and displaced far away from home. The sense of atmosphere created by this plays heavily into the themes of Solaris regarding isolation, loss and consciousness. These themes are central to the protagonist and Solaris’ moral question of making the right choice or the easy one. Solaris is a goliath of a film, running just shy of three hours, but it needs to be. Aside from being a visual masterpiece, the slow burn of Solaris intensifies its bizarre atmosphere, adds weight to the questions raised throughout the film and intertwines its deep philosophical themes with a dreamlike setting.

We find out early in the film that the planet beneath Solaris is creating hallucinations of the crew’s memories, and that there could be something more sinister afoot. I do not intend to go any further into the plot and one might expect that Solaris would delve into the realms of horror, akin to Event Horizon. However, Solaris centres on ethics, which perhaps could be expected of a Soviet arthouse film, but I feel that’s why it has such a strong legacy in science fiction cinema. I believe that science fiction is at its best when it provides a powerful allegory for the real struggles and dilemmas that we might face. I found myself relating the larger questions raised in the film to The Matrix as Solaris demonstrates the contrast between the noble path and our human nature to seek comfort instead. 

While this may be only one interpretation of Solaris, I feel the film has enough depth to create a spectrum of different readings and I would be intrigued to see more of the science fiction community’s thoughts on the film. A group viewing of Solaris helped to exchange insight and fill in the gaps on a work that relies so strongly on interpretation, and we got to share a good chuckle at the absurdity of some scenes. Overall, I can recommend Solaris for the visuals and atmosphere alone, but it does require a lot of input on the viewer’s behalf. If you are prepared for this slow-burner, you will be rewarded with some genuinely intriguing ethical dilemmas to ask your friends about next time you see them. At the very least you might earn a good reputation with the local cinephiles, and who can say no to that?

Read more about the author J Fox HERE.

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