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September 2016


cast: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Juri Jarvet, Anatoly Solonitsyn, and Vladislav Dvorzhetsky

director: Andrei Tarkovsky

169 minutes (12) 1972
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Curzon Artificial Eye DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Andrew Darlington


Russian science fiction is different. In fact, genres invariably take on national characteristics as they spread across geographies. The Russian soul is programmed with Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy into a mindset of more serious gravitas. Stanislaw Lem, whose 1961 novel the subsequent films are based on, was Polish - but Poland was part of the Soviet bloc at the time, and the novel's first adaptation was a b&w two-parter for Russian TV in 1968, directed by Boris Nirenburg. And Solaris is very much a story of interiors, ideally suited for low-budget small-screen adaptation.

Both of the movies that followed - the 1972 Russian version from director Andrei Tarkovsky, and Steven Soderbergh's 2002 American romp - use sweeping vistas of the alien planet around which the human observation station orbits. But that merely adds spectacle and breathtaking gosh-wow effects. It's not strictly necessary. Uniquely, an intelligent book has become intelligent movies. The plot centres on the internal landscapes and fraught interactions of the surviving crew members, plus the catalyst provided by psychologist Dr Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis or George Clooney, respectively), who is summoned to the station to investigate the disturbing goings-on there.

In the wake of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), and the frequently overlooked H.G. Wells collaboration with Alexander Korda for Things To Come (1936) - what Wells calls an exploration of the "social and political forces and possibilities" of the future, SF was hijacked by American pulp magazines garish with two-fisted ray-gun brandishing tough guys defending curvaceous blondes in figure-contouring see-through spacesuits from multi-tentacled bug-eyed monsters; an ideology that tracked through into cheap exploitation movies where teenage kids making-out on lookout hill are menaced by hastily-contrived special effects UFO nasties, usually to a rock 'n' roll soundtrack. Aliens were there to provide cheap thrills, not to provoke cerebral debate about the complexities of communication with non-terrestrial intelligences.

The Russian Solaris is different, from the stately organ music over the credits, on in. Although the planet is an ocean-world, the ocean is also an entity in itself, not only a "gigantic cerebral system" but a "substance capable of thought processes." Long leisurely and virtually silent pre-launch sequences show Kelvin staring moodily into rippling green water where flexing weed-tendrils suggest submerged activity; a metaphor for a 'confusing' or 'incomprehensible' gulf beyond our understanding, which determines that direct communication between such diverse biologies on any level is impossible.

The humans in the orbiting station are observing Solaris, but the oceanic 'thinking substance' is also observing and investigating them. If we can now formulate 3D computer simulations of subjects in order to examine them in the round, Solaris does something similar. It conjures simulacra dredged from the memories of the crew, translating the images that most haunt their dreams into physical form. There's no visceral Alien-style beasties bursting from stomachs to menace and terrify. Instead there's the haunting psychological pain of meeting apparently resurrected dead lovers. Adjust your mindset and time-sense to its dislocating longueurs and this is a stunningly affecting film. Brooding and dreamlike, the long sequence of Berton's car re-entering the city along colour-bleached urban flyovers set to a vague industrial-noise soundtrack serves no plot logic beyond inducing the necessary fractured atmospherics. It's an ultra-urbanised future, contrasting with the rural idyll.

If there's a prior parallel, it's got to be to Arthur C. Clarke's collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Again, there's an enigmatic alien presence, and the same slow cerebral pacing. Lem himself didn't much appreciate the shift of his story's focus from the disquisition on quantifying the nature of intelligence, to its inner emphasis on memory and dream. But it's this unsettling sense of crawling unease that creates the atmosphere of impending madness.

Solaristics has reached an impasse. Before leaving Earth, logically solid square-faced Kelvin is pre-warned by returned cosmonaut Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky). He claims that while passing through a red glowing "colloidal and viscous" Solaris fog, he saw a garden and a gigantic four-metre-tall child on the "burnt-sugar syrup" planet's surface. His observations are not backed up by film records. His evidence is discredited, discounted as the results of a 'hallucinatory complex'... maybe amplified by the bio-magnetic planetary currents.

When Kelvin docks with the Solaris station, he finds it run-down and neglected. Dr Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has killed himself, leaving only a long rambling video message. Doctor Snaut (Juri Jarvet) is nervily evasive and on edge. And Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn) talks of bombarding the planet with lethal radiation. The two movie versions chart essentially the same narrative arc, despite claims that the US film was not so much a remake of the Russian film, as a re-visioning of the Lem novel. Although Clooney arrives via a privatised NASA ship, the films share the same disconnectedness, there's even cross-over dialogue - as with Gibarian's observation that "we don't want other worlds, we want mirrors." For the American version of Solaris, Snaut has become Snow (Jeremy Davies), while Sartorius has become a defensive black woman - Dr Gordon (Viola Davis). Russian literary references to Cervantes are matched to Clooney quoting Dylan Thomas ("and death shall have no dominion").

Clooney is an actor it would be easy to dislike. He's the unfeasibly pretty pin-up from TVs long-running medical drama ER (1994-9), but he's subsequently vindicated himself with left-leaning humanitarian sympathies and movie projects as director and activist. Although the media buzz about his role in Solaris tended to obsess about glimpses of his bare bottom, Clooney acquits himself well as he wakes to find Rheya, his dead wife beside him. Banionis - in the Russian interpretation, finds Hari in his bed, the wife who committed suicide 10 years before. An element of the old life he'd purposefully burned on a pyre before leaving Earth. Both men react in the same way, by blasting her out of the airlock, only for her to reappear soon after.

Regret, remorse, and bereavement are unusual ingredients in a SF film. The characters torturously adjust to each other, Hari developing her own autonomy, resurrecting after a suicide attempt when she's told of her non-human origins. The 'guest' visitors are eliminated, by a 1972 annihilator, which updates to become a Higgs anti-boson in 2002, leading to an ambiguous denouement. In the Russian version, Kelvin appears to be back on Earth, at his father's lake-side house. But as the focus draws back, no - he's surrendered to the comforting lure of familiarity, and he inhabits the reconstructed memories that Solaris has obligingly recreated for him on an island on the planet's surface. The Clooney version is less open-ended, more neatly tied-off, although his incarnation of Kelvin arguably takes it even further. Following the destruction of the station, there's a suggestion that he's become a replicant himself, living within the planet's facsimile environment 'islands of memory', in a deathless existence with Rheya.

"That there is a growing international awareness of SF cannot be denied," argued Harry Harrison as early as The Year's Best Science Fiction #4 (1971). The evolution of Solaris through its various incarnations charts this process. The film was first seen in the west in its original Russian-language print, at a few conventions and special screenings - lacking even English subtitles, leaving audiences mystified. But its reputation has steadily grown over the years, and decades since. Director Tarkovsky's final film shot in the Soviet Union was Stalker (1979), based around the novel Roadside Picnic (1972), from brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, a novel acclaimed by Brian Aldiss. Like Solaris, it also fuses similar elements of sci-fi with philosophical dialogue and metaphysical symbolism. Russian science fiction is different.

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