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Inspiring Film: Solaris

Tarkovsky will teach you patience. I first came to Solaris on the basis of strong reviews with a few images in mind. I wasn’t yet prepared for Andrei Tarkovsky’s slow pace. I wasn’t satisfied after my first viewing (DVD rental) because I did not know how to properly absorb the film. Still I sensed that there was greatness, so I bought the DVD. My second time around, I was entranced. The mistake I had made the first time was waiting for something to happen. This is not the way to approach Tarkovsky. If you wait for something to happen, you will never be satisfied. For my second viewing, I learned to be more active and receptive. When you watch Tarkovsky this way, you become absorbed by all the things that are happening all the time that you would have normally thought nothing was happening. In this way, I believe Tarkovsky’s films to be important viewing for the film enthusiast. They expand the viewer’s ways of experiencing cinema.

In Solaris, psychologist Kris Kelvin ( Lithuanian star Donatas Banionis) has been chosen to undertake an important mission to a space station in orbit above an ocean planet called Solaris. His findings there will determine the future of Solaristics, the branch of science that deals with the planet. It begins with a prelude on Earth, in which Kris and his father are visited by an old friend and former astronaut, Burton. He tries, unsuccessfully, to impress upon Kris the unique situation Solaris presents. Many viewers dismiss the scenes on Earth as an over-long opening. While the scenes on the Solaris station hold greater fascination, the scenes on Earth, which take up the first 43 minutes of the film, should not be so handily dismissed. Tarkovsky wanted his audience to fall in love with the world on Earth, and to miss it when they left for space.

Kris talks about science and morality with Burton.

Kubrick took us through fantastic tunnels of light in space. Tarkovsky replies with a more earthbound journey through traffic tunnels.

Tarkovsky uses black and white footage seemingly to represent night or low-light, perhaps in imitation of the way the human eye loses color vision as it loses light.

When Kris arrives at Solaris, the station is in disarray and the two scientists are behaving very strangely. Snaut is constantly drunk. Sartorius (Tarkovsky regular Anatoli Solonitsin) is secretive. Gibarian, who was Kris’s friend and the third scientist, is dead; he committed suicide before Kris arrived. What is more, there are strange apparitions aboard the ship; visitors, they call them. Snaut’s is the most mysterious; a man whom we never see clearly, and who seems to frighten Snaut, possibly even hurt him, as Snaut is always nursing a wound to his hand. Sartorius’s is a dwarf, who only appears briefly before Sartorius tucks him away. A third visitor, who was Gibarian’s, is a teenaged girl in negligee who wanders the station aimlessly and soon completely disappears.


Our only glimpse of Snaut’s visitor: an ear.


Our only glimpse of Sartorius’s visitor.

Preserved on reel-to-reel video tape, Gibarian and his visitor.

One of many glimpses of the girl in negligee.

Snaut warns Kris not to be surprised if he sees anything unusual; what that might be, Snaut says, depends on Kris. Gibarian tells Kris, in a video message left to him, that these apparitions have something to do with conscience. Outside the station, the ocean of Solaris stirs. There is some possibility that the ocean is alive and intelligent; that it may in fact be a kind of god.

Soon, Kris has his own visitor; Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk,) the woman whom he loved and lost; whom he hurt and who as a consequence committed suicide. The first time she appears, Kris panics and launches her into space in a rocket. When she appears again, he learns to handle it with a level-head. This Khari learns, however, that she is only a copy of the original Khari, and with this knowledge she becomes suicidal. Because she is a visitor created by Solaris, she cannot kill herself, even when she drinks a cylinder of liquid oxygen. Her depression causes Kris great strain, as he tries to convince her that she is the only Khari that matters now.

To tell any more would be a blatant violation of the moratorium on plot summaries. I have given as much of the plot as I have because I feel I would be remiss not to. As Tarkovsky made his movie 2 hours 46 minutes long, so must I devote some words to the things that were important to him.

Images can only convey so much of Tarkovsky’s visual appeal. His aesthetic favors long takes and slow, lingering studies of his sets and principals. With Kris’s exploration of the Solaris station, Tarkovsky brings a spacey strangeness through his slow, hallucinatory, meditative pacing. The rewards are rich, and no other director embodies the slow, ponderous grace that Tarkovsky does. Again, patience; Tarkovsky will teach you patience. Tarkovsky teaches the viewer a new way of viewing films, and it involves a quieter, more open mind.

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