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Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky) 1972   

   Tarkovskyís Solaris has a misleading reputation that precedes it. The film is often billed as Russiaís answer to Kubrickís 2001, but thatís not a particularly helpful comparison in light of the film itself. Although both works are science fiction, Tarkovskyís film certainly doesnít feel like an answer to Kubrickís, but is instead a piece that stands on its own. Itís much less obviously ambitious than 2001, but as a result is able to attain an emotional immediacy that Kubrickís film canít be bothered with, and for what itís worth, the filmís special effects appear more dated than those do in the older 2001. Tarkovsky still manages to make a film that, average matte shots excepted, shows a stunning technical proficiency. The film is filled with more incident and overt action than many of his films, but in comparison to most other movies, it might appear slow. Frankly, a more helpful way of describing this film to the uninitiated might be to deem it Bergman in a space station, as much of what we see is closer to his thematic approach than Kubrickís. Still, Tarkovsky is Tarkovsky, and heís a distinctive filmmaker in his own right, so attempting to place him in any such context might be doing his work an injustice.   

    Most of the themes on display in Solaris can be elsewhere seen in Tarkovskyís other works. Certainly, the mother/daughter rivalry that fueled much of The Mirror rears its head here, as does the directorís general fascination with nature and its relationship to man. Here the natural world is used to represent a time when man was still interested in exploring and learning from the world around them. In the filmís point of view, modern man is more interested in simply expanding his borders and maintaining a relative status quo of knowledge. The discovery of the planet Solaris, which appears to be sentient, presents a possible turning point to that expansionist ethos. Will the human race try to learn about the planet, try to destroy it, or try to assimilate it? Conflict arises not from the alien life form, but from within the characters who encounter it. The suggestion that man is fundamentally unable to understand anything seems to be the thesis. It's folly for him to go out seeking other life forms, since he can't understand others in his race, nor even how his own inner demons wreak havoc upon him. Tarkovsky forces a form of self-examination here that would be necessarily internalized if not for the filmís sci-fi trappings. The abundance of mumbo jumbo frees the film's more intellectual moments from feeling like speechifying metaphysical didacticism. Since obtuse terminology is at home in the realm of science fiction, it's an excellent playground for philosophical debate. Discussing what makes a human a human doesn't sound so academic when faced with the prospect of intelligent life that clearly isn't human. The use of the planet as a plot device is great, since it makes the ethereal literal, functioning similarly to Bergmanís use of a ghost in his Cries and Whispers, though Bergmanís film made its specterís state of being much more subjective.   

    Personally, Solaris seemed like an interesting dud to me at the midway point, but the second half of the film began posing such utterly fascinating questions that any stodginess was more than redeemed. The filmís first half gains a great deal of resonance only once we understand the greater goals of the work, so it might be a rough viewing experience for some who aren't patient. Whatís most noteworthy is that the film is able to pose interesting philosophical questions without stating them. While the filmís few characters are easily identifiable as archetypes, and while they are aware of their differences, what they actually say often only conveys the most surface-level ramifications of the events on display. In fact, it's their inability to adequately explain what they say and feel drives the film. Like Kubrickís classic, most of the filmís potential implications are conveyed visually or through the charactersí action. Though thereís some Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy quoted by the cast in an attempt to use eloquence to express what they cannot formulate into words themselves, the spoken discussions tend to be the least interesting element of the film. More engaging is the focus on the physical nature of things (note that a brief spell of weightlessness occurs at the moment when the main character is at his most detached from reality) and the filmís take on the subjective nature of memory. In Solaris, Tarkovsky is able to dramatize an astonishingly impressive number of such intangible concepts. Unlike 2001, which looks with wonderment at the future of the race, this film is too busy looking with the same awe at the here and now. 

****   

12-11-01 

Jeremy Heilman