Solaris (1972): A Masterpiece from Andrei Tarkovsky

Such is the effect of Tarkovosky’s cinema that it usually leaves me at a loss of words. Often there are so many unanswered questions and puzzles that one just doesn’t ‘get’ that there’s a yearning to see the movie again to make a coherent sense of it all. A first time watcher of a Tarkovosky movie might find the long continous shots, a certain lack of action and the slow languid pace of it all utterly exhausting. But the truth is that Andrei Tarkovosky’s movies are not meant to be entertainment but an experience. When there’s a seemingly unnecessarily long shot you can either bemoan it as boring or think of it as an opportunity to consolidate in your mind all that passed before. Tarkovosky has been called the God of film-making and like all gods he first tests your patience and only then gives you what you came for.

solaris-poster-2Solaris is an adaptation of a Polish novel by Stanislav Lem . At the centre of the movie is a psychologist Kris Kelvin who travels to a space-station orbiting a fictional planet ‘Solaris’. Solaris is completely covered by an ocean which is considered to be sentient and empathetic. The space station around Solaris was originally supposed to house 85 people but now has only 3 and is clouded by a mysterious aura. Officials back on Earth want to decommision it and have asked Kris to travel to the space station and send a report back. When Kris reaches there one of the occupants has already committed suicide and left a video tape that explains his decision. Next morning Kris wakes up to find his wife – Hari; who had died ten years ago together with him in his room. There are some other such ‘guests’ cohabiting the space station with their human hosts.

At the a certain level the movie is about the nature of love. When we say we love someone, do we love that person herself or just our idea of that person ? When we touch someone we do not feel the touch itself but only our perception of that touch. When we look at the person we do not see the physical person per se but only what our eyes and the light help us perceive. If this is the case then is the ‘real’ physical presence of our object of affection important at all?

As the scientists on the station use X-rays to probe deep inside the ocean, the ocean too probes inside the minds of the scientists and gives material form to fragments of their memories. In a way Kris is lucky to find his beloved wife materialize and not his nighmares; but the new Hari is not just a dummy constructed out of his memories but a thinking, feeling being trying to come at grips with her existence.

solaris-still-1In the beginning of the movie Kevin is still on Earth  walking through what seems like a jungle. These first few minutes of the movie have perhaps the most beautiful scenes of nature ever captured on lens. The pleasant stream with weeds gently and hypnotically swaying underwater, the fog hugging the earth, majestic lush trees; all seem timeless and contrast with a lone tiny man living out his ephermal existence. The same theme repeats itself on Solaris where the limitless expanse of the Solaris ocean often stands in jarring contrast to the tiny space station.

One of the characters at a point in the movie says – “the problem with humanity is that it didn’t really set out to conquer the cosmos but merely to extend the frontiers of the Earth”. Isn’t that what we always do ? Not facing the world the way it is but colouring it with our own prejudice and expectation. Who is to judge, what is ‘real’ and what is not ? And does it even make sense to ask such questions ?

Many say that Tarkovosky made Solaris as an answer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. The former was disappointed with Kubrick’s excessive focus on the props and the general outward orientation of Kubrick’s masterpiece. Tarkovosky believed that space- faraway, remote, silent and mysterious provided a perfect motif for exploring the depths of human nature. It is but a reaffirmation of both their geniuses that their movies so well compliment each other. Kubrick’s film is  ying to Tarkovosky’s yang. While 2001 is optimistic, exploratory and a reaffirmation of humanity’s genius and hunger; Solaris is more contemplative and cautious. A general essence of spirituality and mysticism can be felt in every frame.

Ajay Jadhav


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