Friday, April 22, 2011

Solyaris (Solaris) (1972)
RUSSIA --- science fiction

Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky

Fifty years ago, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man to reach earth's orbit. Prior to that, in 1957, the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, sparking an intercontinental space race. However, the mysteries of space are still veiled by the seemingly endless fabric of the universe. No matter how far we go, we will still have to face the inner depths of the human soul. I believe this is the message of Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris". It seemed only fitting to explore this filmmaker's popular sci-fi thesis on the human conscience what can happen when those deepest thoughts and memories manifest themselves.

Based on reknown Polish sci-fi novelist StanisÅ‚aw Lem's 1961 novel (coincidentally the same year Gagarin took to the stars) of the same name, "Solaris", opens on a shot of running stream of water, with flowing green grass; a very familiar signature Tarkovsky shot. We see research psychologist Kris Kelvin looking on the beauty of nature longingly. We're then introduced to his father and a vistor named Burton who has a young boy in tow. It's clear Burton and his father are former colleagues, and it's revealed Kris is about to take a voyage into outerspace himself. Burton has brought with him footage of some kind of scientific council debriefing, where we see a much younger Burton being questioned about his own voyage to an aquatic planet called Solaris. As Kris and his family watch the investigative proceedings, Burton looks on with disdain. Kris comments that the beareaucracy of the council has not changed. On the footage, the younger Burton describes an alien lifeform took shape from the planet's waters, attempting to become humanoid in appearance. It's then revealed later that his own mission is to check in on the scientists. Kris discusses the politics of space exploration with Burton, basically dengrating it to daydreaming. He tells Burton he will just as soon destroy the oceanic surface of Solaris than to continue fruitless research. Burton insists there is more going on there than they have knowledge of, possibly extraterrestial life. After he leaves in a fit of contempt, he calls Kris on a videophone from his car to warn him of what can happen out there, and that he should not think himself mad. With that, Kris does leave for the toroidal shaped space station orbiting Solaris.

Kris arrives with no welcoming party at all, and is left to seek out the remaining researchers. He gets to Snaut, who is surprised to see him and standoffish. When questioned on the other researchers, Snaut reveals Santorious is a hermit and Gibarian has committed suicide. Snaut tells Kris to return in the morning, but to not let anything he sees bother him. Upon departing Snaut, Kris notices he's not alone, as he sees someone in his quarters, besides the fact that it appears someone else is around on the station. He finds Gibarian's room, where he notices on the door a child's crayon drawing with the backwards notation for the russian word for man. He gets inside and a note is left for him on a screen, from Gibarian. It's a recorded video message with Gibarian telling Kris something similar to Burton's warning, about keeping his sanity. While watching this, Kris hears someone at the door, we instantly get that foreboding clue that all is not right in this space station.

Kris eventually seeks out Santorious (played by director pet Anatoly Solonitsyn), who is secluding himself in his room, even reluctant to talk to Kris. It's also clear he too has someone in his room. When he returns to Gibarian's room to finish watching the message, he sees a girl in the background of his recorded message. This same girl appears in the corridor in a turquoise dress and leads Kris to a freezer room where Gibarian's body is on ice. Exhausted, and probably quite perplexed at what is going on, Kris dozes off to sleep in his quarters. He does, however, awaken to the appearance of his dead wife Hari. We also begin to notice the oceans of Solaris are in movement, possibly over the psychological formations of new beings. She acts as if nothing is unordinary, and Kris quickly devises a plan to get rid of the shape by rocketing her off the station. This however fails.

When she does return, Dr. Snaut gives Kris a little advice about the very corporeal apparitions, and that the oceans of Solaris have the capacity to tap into their memories to create these shapes. His warning, however, is to not become too attached, because "they" can never leave Solaris. Hari however is like attached to Kris, as evidence when he tries to leave her in his chambers alone, she busts through the metal door even cutting herself up to shreds to do so. Of course, she heals almost instantly. Toward the end of the film, the doctors have a sort of meeting  about what to do, involving a brain probe into Kris' mind to expell Hari, but it too fails. It fails because as the doctors begin to notice, she has not only come into being more and more like Hari, but a new creation capable of her own decisions and free will. She too realizes this, and ultimately tries to rid herself of the guilt by drinking liquid oxygen. Interestingly, she is wearing a turquiose dress similar to the girl that lead Kris to Gibarian's body. Expectedly, she becomes resurrected. The ending is very ambiguous as Dr. Kelvin decides to leave and return home. We see him home, but this too is out of place from when we saw it in the beginning of the film, leaving us to believe many interpretations.

Tarkovsky's "Solaris" is one of the great science fiction films of our time. Wrongfully termed "A Russian 2001", the film didn't quite hit international audiences like Kubrick's film. There is no technical innovations or fear of technology, but like all of Tarkovsky's films, is about our human soul. To use the old axiom used by "Buckaroo Banzai", "No matter where go, there you are". The idea of sentient planets was not created solely by Lem. From a 1928 Arthur Conan Doyle story "When the World Screamed" to the recent James Cameron film "Avatar", the idea has never gone out of style. Many ecologists will argue that the Earth, in some manner, is a living being.

For anyone familiar with the cinematic work of Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, it should come as no surprise "Solaris" is a slow-burner. The film almost operates on the level of a futuristic detective film, or having inklings to a mystery that builds and builds with choppy character depth and layered moody early electronic score. "Solaris" is a great poetic essay into the human soul, and that we are never really alone in our own minds. The people we know and love shape our conscious as well over time, and cannot escape our lives. This is not the kind of film you get up in the middle of and nuke some popcorn, it demands your complete and undivided attention.