They’re showing a couple of Andrei Tarkovsky films at the Astor Theatre this month, so friend and I went to see this 1972 Soviet sci-fi classic. The pitch I made to my friend was, are you up for some slow and boring Russian sci-fi, an in-joke as we both appreciate slow-paced movies that are more about submerging yourself rather than going on a thrill ride. Solaris is definitely not for everybody and I saw a couple of walkouts in the cinema, but if you can surrender to its glacial pacing and penchant for ambiguity, it’s a rewarding experience and leaves you with much to think about.
Being a native speaker I could follow the Russian dialogue easily, but I soon realised that the English subtitles were a lazy half-assed job and my friend basically got an abridged version of the film’s conversations, often missing out on important subtleties and nuances or even basic information. This left me perpetually annoyed on his behalf, especially when I felt that the translation didn’t truly convey the meaning of what was said.
The movie begins with idyllic yet moody scenes in the country house, where our protagonist, psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), spends his last day on Earth before departing for a space station circling the oceanic planet Solaris. He is a taciturn, emotionally distant man, and his task is to investigate the strange reports that had come in from the station’s crew. Before leaving, Kelvin has a conversation with his father’s friend, a retired pilot whose surreal and unnerving experiences on Solaris had been dismissed as hallucinations years earlier. This lengthy backstory sets the tone for when Kelvin arrives at the station and finds it in disarray, with one crew member dead by his own hand and two more appearing deeply disturbed and vague.
Kelvin learns that, after being probed by X-ray, the planet Solaris (hypothesised to be a giant consciousness or entity) had replied in kind with its own probes, entering the minds of the crew members and manifesting their memories. In his case, Kelvin is presented with a duplicate of his late wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who simply appears in his quarters within a day. While not human – she cannot feel physical pain or die – this copy of Hari has emotions, intelligence and self-awareness, and her lack of memories distresses her. She’s also deeply attached to Kelvin, and despite the cold hard facts he can’t help but be emotionally attached to her as well.
Solaris then is partly a haunting and sad story about lost love, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the 2002 remake with George Clooney focused on this aspect the most. But it also has long meditative stretches that are wide open to interpretations, and many somber conversations on the subjects of science, truth and human condition. It’s all rather dry and humourless, and as mentioned before the stately pace is completely at odds with most of the modern cinema. Every scene unfolds slowly, often without any musical score, with no bursts of action to break up the rhythm. But in the end, it was a unique, hypnotic experience and I felt like the movie took me to places I haven’t been before. Plus, the ending invites you to reconsider pretty much everything you’ve seen beforehand.
Next week we’ll be watching Stalker, which is reputed to be even more boring and slow!