Solaris (1972)

“We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want. Man needs man.”

‘Solaris’, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, is a Russian metaphysical science fiction movie. Psychologist Kris Kelvin, played by Donatas Banionis, is sent to a remote space station orbiting the planet Solaris. When he arrives he discovers that his friend has committed suicide and the remaining scientists are hiding something. Then he begins to have visions of his late wife, but the vision become more and more real as his wife interacts with the station and his fellow crew mates. It’s a long, meditative film that prioritises ideas and philosophy over spectacle and drama. In many ways it is an attempt at a riposte to the science fiction movies of Hollywood, of ‘Forbidden Planet’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. This is a Tarkovsky film, a genre in its own right, and as such it is laced with the director’s preoccupations and personal symbolism. The opening scenes, over an hour showing Kelvin’s mental preparation for the journey in which he spends time at his childhood home, is infused with natural imagery: leaves, wind, water, snow and fire. There is something melancholic about the way Tarkovsky matches loss and grief with nostalgia, something he does in each of his other movies. Following this, the journey to Solaris is presented not so much as a movement in space, but rather as a shift in Kelvin’s psychology. Once on the space station, fragments from his past appear and threaten to overwhelm him, literally his nostalgia and memory fight against his work, and in this way the film can be seen as a meta-textual replay of the tensions between Tarkovsky’s own style and the genre he’s engaging with. The final, and frankly devastating, scenes give some sense of how this tension resolves itself and, strangely, anticipates the director’s own future being forced to move away from Russia and to make movies, like ‘Nostalghia’ that continue his themes but in an alien environment.

Would I recommend it? Yes – I’ve already suggested watching in a double bill with ‘Moon’, but instead I’d now suggest watching with ‘Nostalghia’ to get a feeling for what might be playing out in Tarkovsky’s mind.

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