Imagine a planet, a vacuum space where all your deepest wishes, desires and even curses can become reality. This is what happened to the astronaut crew of mission “Solaris”.
The film focuses on crew heading to unknown space material called Solaris, in which couple of scientists went missing. After the mysterious mass material shows a movement, Kris Kelvin (played by Donatas Banionis) sets out to investigate the mystery. He succeeds to reach the spaceship and joins the crew of two other scientists (played by Yuri Jarvet and Anatoly Solonitsin). Kris is faced by coldness and unwelcoming crew members, who appear to be hiding something from him. His suspicion grows as he starts seeing unidentified people around the spaceship; it appears that the spaceship is hijacked by some kind of supernatural presence. All becomes even more confusing, when his own wife, who died long time ago, approaches him. Kelvin sends her back to earth by a rocket, however, she keeps on reappearing. The crew draws a conclusion that this is all done by the power of Solaris. First reluctant, Kelvin finally accepts Khari’s company and defends her in desperate and delusional way when his fellow crew members try to dispose of her. She decides to commit suicide, but comes alive once again, until she mysteriously disappears while leaving a goodbye note. Film ends with Kelvin rhetorically returning to his father kneeling down on the ground with regret. At first it appears he returned to his hometown, but as camera moves further away, it appears that it is not the earth we are aware of, but an island in big waters; the sea of Solaris. Therefore, this work poses two questions – did Kelvin really return to the Earth or has he stayed in Solaris? Where does his heart want to stay?
Film critics usually align “Solaris” with “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) by Stanley Kubrick and I think that in the visual and art department they come in tandem. While Kubrick’s movie employed more drastic colour tones and visuals, Tarkovsky used pastels, the emotions of his characters are developed gradually, showing the desperation and frustration of Kelvin. I do have to agree that both of the movies visually are stunning and barely it is possible to surpass them taking into account that they both were directed in roughly the beginning of 1970’s.
What I like is the way Tarkovsky portrayed the mood in this film. “Solaris” itself is a little melancholic, but it is not like that throughout the film. Director lets the audience put themselves at ease by giving hope, showing the affection between Khari and Kris. For these kind of moment he used bright colours and what is noticeable, that there is barely any sountrack at all; giving the viewer sense of the silence and tranquility of space. Meanwhile, sad, desperate and metaphysical moments are depicted in daunting mood, cold colours (like Khari’s suicide attempt). All characters seem to hold something secret, there is a continuous riddle going around them. Kris seems somehow trapped in this puzzle, trying to find out the reason behind all unknown things that are happening in the spaceship while creating a lonely, horrifying feeling to the audience. The artistic elements used to depict this kind of atmosphere were used, in my humble opinion, spectacularly well; not too much, not too less. Another thing that the viewers might enjoy is that there is a bold contrast between the Earth and Solaris; Solaris is unknown, different and mortifying. The Earth in this film is bright, familiar, nostalgic – we can relate to the feelings of the protagonist. “For I was at that moment very happy to find myself living on Earth” that is how Akira Kurosawa felt after screening of this film. Kris’s farewell to home before embarking to claustrophobic and lonely space journey makes you feel homesick too. This relationship with “home” imagery that Tarkovsky established is something that disbalances the emotions and frightens the audience.
Genuinely, I find “Solaris” one of those films, where you search for the meaning yourself and do not question the directors intentions. At least, that is how I was willing to enjoy it. “Solaris” embodies one of the finest pleasures in sci-fi (absolutely not tacky and tasteless!). Indulging with futurism enough, but not making it the main focus; leaving a lot of space for the development of characters, mood and story. The planet (or the matter) Solaris seems to be the space, which discloses the most sensitive feelings of the person’s heart, making them vulnerable and helpless in front of their bare desires, which is not alien to Tarkovsky: similar background is visible in “Stalker” (1979). This is an amazing approach to the depths of human’s soul – employing mystery and a certain surreal story; in this way director does not bore his audience and avoids cliché.
Humanity has got a long and wishful urge to discover the undiscovered, to advance to space and look back to earth from a different view. This has been reflected in cinema for many occasions starting with “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) by Georges Méliès to this date with multiple blockbusters with enormous budget like “Star Wars” saga. However, Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” by far is one of the most sensitive and realistic depictions of human’s experience in lonely undiscovered place. People long for discoveries, but are they ready to face their own feelings and reality when they are all alone, far away from home?
This amazing encounter of Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky on set of “Solaris”: