Classic Musings: Tarkovsky's 'Solaris' ('72)

The unexplained is often the most fascinating. Humanity, even with the erudite science base of today, doesn't hold near enough knowledge about the extremities of space and what they're capable of. On top of that, we also have little grasp on the capacities of the brain, considering that we use very little of the byzantine material occupying our cranial cavities. Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris weaves together those mysterious veils and drapes them atop a tale of intellectual conquest and the demons of one's past, peering at a space station positioned above a foreign planet that shows signs of intuitive, mystical life within gyrating waves and billows of fog. Yet the obscurity that envelopes the handful of scientists populating the station isn't something explicitly solvable, much like the curiosities of physiology and environment; instead, it explores the cosmos of expression and communication, concocting a haunting rumination on science and the mental psyche as the living planet enigmatically touches those nearby.

Tarkovsky adapts the early-'60s novel from Polish writer Stanisław Lem, which arrives late in the exploration of the mysterious planet Solaris. Many years have been spent toiling away trying to identify the hints of organic life within the celestial body, the subject of debates over the course of many years that followed the scientist Burton's testimony. The project, however, has reached a critical and highly unstable juncture, a point where it seems the researchers will have to take drastic and potentially damaging measures to continue the work: either expose the planet's ocean to highly irradiated material, or close up shop completely. Scientist and psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) travels to Solaris to survey the current situation, yet what he discovers on the eerily empty, melancholy station reveals that the planet has been having a profound effect on the psychological -- and physiological -- state of the crew, creating acute manifestations of people from their past that live and breathe among them like living beings.

Those familiar with Andrei Tarkovsky's work know that the Russian director composes his shots methodically and with little brevity, getting wrapped up in slow-moving tension and emotional swelling while shifting glances among scrupulously-composed set design and enraptured close-ups. Solaris is no exception; he starts his science-fiction contemplations by glancing upon water-bound vegetation and a galloping horse, the stillness in the air luring our attention towards the calm serenity of Earth, almost as a gentle reminder before the events that follow. Even then, once the lens focuses on Kris surrounded by the wispy beauty around him in a field, there's a foreboding energy that fuels a sense of unease, intensifying as Tarkovsky seamlessly injects mild science-fiction curiosities into this time on Earth -- talk through video screens that's annotated by blue-filtered cinematography, an interesting bubble-like transport between Earth to the space station, and the eclectic sounds of the future themselves.

At first, we follow Kris to the space station in hope of receiving answers, leaning on a natural compulsion to have the gaps filled in our awareness of the alien planet's mysterious nature. The bloated, bureaucratic board meeting of bickering scientists does a crackerjack job of sparking our curiosity, with the concerned words of an aged, balding, and disturbed scientist juxtaposing against recorded footage of his testimony from many years prior. Solaris, however, isn't interested in offering answers to why the planet exists, explicitly why humans should continue researching it, and why the hallucinations occur; Tarkovsky composes his adaptation with the proper amount of obscurity as its backbone, letting the unanswerable nature of the phenomenon becomes its own guiding force. Instead of responses to inquiries of origin and reason, it merely becomes a validation of the riveting vagueness that's led to years of aimless but vital research, reflecting on both the vainness and credence of diligently examining something that ultimately cannot be answered by tactile means.

The realization of the Solaris space station itself is still, to this day, extraordinary in its subtlety and haunting design through Vadim Yusov's cinematography, along with the resolve behind the sensory reactions generated by it. From when we see the floodlights once Kris Kelvin arrives in the central bay and witness his slow stroll through the circuit breakers -- eying the dirt and debris littered about as if the station's abandoned -- it sets the tone flawlessly for the still-aired, evocative mood created upon realization that the observation station has turned into an unstable zone of phantasms and mental instability. Premeditated stretches of silence and faint sound effects permeate Tarkovsky's meditative warzone, and it creates a pensive stillness that facilitates our own reflections on how we'd stomach seeing loved ones long past manifest before our eyes. Naturally, alongside that, the sloped hallways and idyllic purity of the bright, almost ethereal lighting give it an other-worldly presence. Has the Solaris space station become something of an ether plane between realities while poised above the planet, or does the serenity merely reflect the mental state that the planet's cocooned the doctors in?

Solaris becomes a contemplative science-fiction examination instead of a methodological one, bearing witness to how this living, breathing planet alters the perception of less-evolved mentalities and how it digs into their memories and psyches in a foreign fashion. As Kris acclimates himself to the space station and, soon, quickly begins to experience his own lucid visions, in the form of his beautiful dead ex-wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), the film swiftly refocuses on the internal demons gnawing away at the scientists, without even tippy-toeing towards an explanation. Really, though, the fact that these men are scientists almost becomes irrelevant, aside from their purported investment in the nature of discovery itself. Their mania -- if you want to call their erratic yet somewhat euphoric state that -- becomes a philosophical arena for their discussions about the interactions they have with the hallucinations, with their grasp on science working as both an anchor to keep their perceptions grounded and as a base of intelligence that acknowledges a need to embrace the wonders of it.

The crucial vertebrae supporting Tarkovsky's magnum opus can be viewed in the conversations between the foolhardy but brilliant scientist Kris Kelvin and his deceased wife. These are melancholy, soul-searching reflections over the nature of their existence on the station and the power that resides on the planet Solaris, as well as glimpses into tender moments that can be seen as the lost talks between two souls who weren't able to express their devotion in the physical life. The insistence of Hari's presence around Kris -- no matter how falsely he may see her as an apparition or materialization of his mind, all due to the unexplainable life force stirring underneath them -- plunges deep into poignant reflections on our obscured, rigid perception of communication with other living beings, neither malicious or benevolent, provoking an overpowering mixture of philosophical consideration and almost hypnotic empathy with Kris, his strife for discovery and psychological constancy, and the demons of his past. One of the last shots of Solaris, where the scientist watches over the writhing visage of his wife, shapes all these considerations into a downhearted, devastatingly cathartic collision of sensations that's astonishing to behold.

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