Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Solyaris (1972) aka Solaris

The Russian answer to 2001

Film::'Solaris,' Russians in Space A Science-Fiction Parable on the Nature of Mankind

Published: October 7, 1976
(New York Times)

A nation's image of outer space reflects itself. Jules Verne's moon train was a small wagon-lit. American science-fiction movies stress the gleaming pipes and dials, a kind of hi-fi waterworks. Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris," which opened yesterday at the Ziegfeld Theater, gives us Russian outer space.

I say Russian rather than Soviet because this complex and sometimes very beautiful film is about humanity but hardly at all about politics.

In any case, the space station on the planet Solaris has an absent-minded neglect about it that could have come straight out of Dostoyevsky's study. There is a suspicion of rust on the pipes, and the furniture would look at home in the Omsk railroad station. One has the feeling that wrappers of half-eaten sausage are lying just out of sight and that a samovar is at work. Outer space is shabbiness, lots of tea and urgent philosophical discussions that leave no time for shaving.

Nothing that's visible matters very much—except for nature: shots of a pond of water weeds of a running horse—and life's surface are quite unimportant. Because of it, the blockish camera work, the egg-like colors and the general visual poverty are almost irrelevant. What matters is the conversations, the problems they raise, the faces that reflect them, seen blurrily as if at the end of an all-night session.

Mr. Tarkovsky, who is known here for a truncated version of "Andrei Rublev," made "Solaris" from the novel by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. It is science-fiction in the formal sense of the word; in substance, it is a parable about the nature of mankind.

Set in some future time, it is about the voyage of Chris Kelvin to the space station on the planet Solaris. The Academy of Sciences has found no profit in the long studies made of the planet. Chris's mission is to talk with the three scientists at the station and to report on closing it down.

The surface of Solaris is something like a sea, a great pulsating mass. A previous scientist, Burton, has come back in severe nervous shock; he believes that it may not be a sea but a superior order of consciousness, a great brain, in fact. Chris, a haunted but practical man, a missioner of human progress, is prepared to order a final experiment: a massive infusion of radiation into the "sea."

Burton, now older, is horrified. "You must not destroy what you don't understand," he says. Chris's father, a solitary, severe man, is also appalled. "Space is too fragile for your kind," he says.

The whole long, strange trip develops the theme. Mankind, with its aggressive expansionism — intellectual as well as material—destroys more than it finds. Chris is the practical man who, by the film's end, will be converted.

He finds that the space station, that summit of technology, is a heart of darkness. All three scientists there have been shattered by encountering the mystery of the planet. Solaris is, in fact, a great consciousness. Thought is made reality there, including the deepest thoughts of its visitors.

One has killed himself, leaving behind an obscure message on videotape for Chris. As he explores the decrepit space station—almost visibly rusted by the presence of a greater reality—Chris finds the other two. Sartorius, who will not accept what he can't understand, barricades himself in his laboratory surrounded by dwarfs—his thoughts made substance. Snouth, more innocent and hopeful, drinks a lot, but his visitors are children.

Chris has arrived with the suicide of his wife, Hari, on his conscience. Hari begins, nevertheless, to visit him. She is not an apparition; she is a yearning that the Solarian sea has given substance and built—the other scientists explain—of neutrinos. But she becomes more and more human until, in an act of abnegation, she asks to be destroyed so Chris can return to earth.

Put in summary, the plot may seem ludicrous. "Solaris" has its problems. Its rhythm is slow, and sometimes is extinguished altogether. The narrative can be difficult to grasp. Finally, as the film draws into conclusion, the parable seems to unclothe; the sense of wonder that Mr. Tarkovsky has created yields to a certain didacticism.

All of these drawbacks must be cited provisionally. "Solaris," whose mystical, totally nonmaterialistic character has won it no other favor in the Soviet Union than the permission to exist, is here in a severely truncated form. The original was reportedly four hours long; a second version, shown in Cannes and elsewhere, was 2 hours and 47 minutes. The version we are seeing is down to 2 hours and 12 minutes and the distributors, who received it that way, say they don't know whether Mr. Tarkovsky supervised the cuts.

Obviously it is impossible to judge the pace, the rhythms and the clarity of a film that is cut nearly in half. It is like a fresco partly eaten away by rising damp.

The result must be viewed actively and with some effort. But if it is, the result is extraordinary enough to compensate. The film's great metaphors—the faces of Donatis Banionis as Chris, Natalya Bondarchuk as Hari and Yuri Jarvet as Snouth—involve us totally in the difficult mysteries. Like his Solarian sea, Mr. Tarkovsky has made ideas walk, breathe and move us.

The Cast
SOLARIS, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky; screenplay by Friedrich Gorenstein and Mr. Tarkovsky from the novel by Stanislaw Lem; photography by Vadim Yusov; music by Eduard Artemyev; in Russian with English subtitles. Released by Magna Distributing Corporation. Running time: 132 minutes. This film has not been rated. Chris Kelvin . . . . . Donatis Banionis Hari . . . . . Natalya Bondarchuk Snouth . . . . . Yuri Jarvet Also with Nicolai Grinko, Vladislav Dvorzhetski and Anatoli Solonitsyn.

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