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  • Benjamin May

Solaris (1972) Review

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to a space station above the oceanic planet Solaris, tasked with determining the viability of its ongoing study. Upon his arrival, he finds the station in a state of disrepair, and learns that one of the scientists there has killed himself. Kelvin discovers a message from the dead man, warning him about strange things happening aboard the station. Alongside the remaining scientists, who seem verging on insanity, Kelvin begins to experience the inexplicable. Will he be able to make it back to Earth and, even if he’s able; will he want to go?

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and based on the novel of the same name by Stanisław Lem, ‘Solaris’ is a fascinating science-fiction drama, both visually striking and thought-provoking. Written alongside Fridrikh Gorenshteyn, Tarkovsky’s narrative delves into a multitude of themes, from the labyrinth of regret and grief to the ephemeral nature of memory and perception. Often compared to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001 A: Space Odyssey,’ it is a film that different viewers will interpret in different ways, inviting one to reflect on one’s own experiences and the constructs of reality.

Throughout the film, Tarkovsky poignantly explores the human psyche, confronting his characters with their past actions and unspoken sorrows. The sentient ocean of Solaris acts as a catalyst for this introspection, materializing their innermost regrets into tangible forms. This externalization of grief forces the characters- and, by extension, the audience- to confront the often-painful process of healing on the road to closure.

Moreover, Tarkovsky depicts memory as a malleable and unreliable entity, challenging the very notion of objective reality. The film questions whether one’s memories serve as faithful records of one’s past or are merely reconstructions subject to our current emotions and desires. Furthermore, Tarkovsky invites viewers to ponder the constructs of reality. Are our experiences genuinely authentic, or are they merely reflections of our deepest fears and wishes? Blurring the lines between the real and the imagined, Tarkovsky creates a film that transcends traditional storytelling: a mirror, reflecting not just the characters’ truths but also those of the audience.

Each of Tarkovsky’s characters serves as a vessel for exploring these profound themes. Kelvin is our guide through the enigmatic world of the film, a man of science confronted with phenomena that challenge his empirical beliefs. His journey is one of internal conflict, as he grapples with the manifestations of his own psyche, which Solaris brings to life. The character of Hari, meanwhile, is the personification of Kelvin’s deepest regrets. Her presence on the station is a constant reminder of a past that he cannot escape, making her a pivotal figure in the narrative’s exploration of memory and loss.

The supporting characters of Dr. Snaut and Dr. Sartorius are not just colleagues aboard the station but represent different facets of the human response to the unknown. Snaut reflects the weariness of facing the inexplicable, while Sartorius embodies the struggle between scientific detachment and the undeniable impact of Solaris’ influence. Through each of these characters, Tarkovsky crafts a narrative that is as much about the individual’s inner space as it is about the outer cosmos, where the boundaries between the mind and the external world are blurred.

The film is not just a feast for the mind; it is also a feast for the eyes. Tarkovsky’s mastery of visual storytelling is evident in every frame. He juxtaposes lingering shots of the space station’s sterile corridors with the lush, almost dreamlike sequences on Earth, creating a dichotomy that mirrors the inner turmoil of the characters. The starkness of the station, with its endless hallways and cold light, stands in contrast to the vibrancy of Earth, emphasizing the isolation and alienation felt by the crew.

In addition, Tarkovsky’s use of symbolism- particularly through shots of water- weaves a thread through the narrative, representing the fluidity of time and memory. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov’s camera lingers on scenes of rain, pools and oceans, inviting the audience to contemplate the depths beneath the surface of the characters’ minds. Moreover, the use of colour is sparse yet impactful, with the muted palette of the station being punctuated by moments of vivid recollection. The lighting is purposeful, often using shadows and silhouettes to create an atmosphere of mystery and introspection.

Furthermore, Mikhail Romadin’s production design, as well as the set design from S. Gavrilov and V. Prokofev, are testaments to the film’s meticulous craftsmanship. The space station, with its utilitarian yet broken-down features, creates a palpable sense of claustrophobia and decay, reflecting the psychological state of its inhabitants. The attention to detail in the set decoration, from the technological instruments to the personal artifacts, adds layers of authenticity and depth, making the environment a character in its own right.

Additionally, Nelli Fomina’s costume design is equally striking. The functional, uniform-like attire of the characters not only situates the story within the realm of science-fiction but also symbolizes their attempts to maintain order amidst the chaos of the station. The costumes are devoid of excess, aligning with the film’s themes of stripping away superficial layers to reveal deeper truths. Combined with the production design and set decoration, a visual narrative is formed, which complements the story and its themes. They are not merely aesthetic choices but are integral to the storytelling, contributing to the film’s haunting, timeless and immersive atmosphere.

Moreover, the haunting score and soundtrack are integral to this immersive air. Eduard Artemyev’s electronic music composition, interspersed with classical pieces by Bach, creates a soundscape both ethereal and deeply resonant. The music serves as a reflection of the film’s exploration of time and memory, while the juxtaposition of futuristic sounds and classical harmony underscores the themes of past and future, science and humanity.

Furthermore, Tarkovsky, Lyudmila Feyginova and Nina Marcushe’s editing is another aspect that deserves recognition. Although some critics are quick to call the film slow-moving, each carefully considered cut enhances the narrative’s dreamlike quality. The film’s purposeful, meditative pace allows the viewer to inhabit the space and time of the story, to become an active participant in the unravelling of its enigmas, whilst ensuring the audience fully absorbs the complex emotional and philosophical layers of the story. The transitions between scenes are seamless, yet carry a weight that prompts contemplation, further drawing the viewer into the depths of the film’s enigmatic world.

Donatas Banionis stars as Kelvin, opposite Natalya Bondarchuk as Hari, Jüri Järvet as Dr. Snaut and Anatoliy Solonitsyn as Dr. Sartorius. Banionis, dubbed by Vladimir Zamanskiy, delivers a nuanced portrayal of a man caught between the realms of rationality and the unexplainable, capturing Kelvin’s internal struggle subtly- his face often conveying more than words could express. Opposite him, Bondarchuk is nothing short of captivating, bringing a haunting presence to the screen. Embodying the film’s themes of love, loss and the desire for connection, her portrayal of Hari is both ethereal and deeply human, a reflection of Kelvin’s own conflicted emotions.

Järvet does similarly fine work, providing a weary yet compassionate perspective, offering a glimpse into the toll that Solaris takes on the mind and spirit. His performance is understated but powerful, with moments of vulnerability revealing the character’s depth. Solonitsyn, meanwhile, is the embodiment of scientific detachment, his stoic demeanour clashing with the inexplicable events (and more emotionally driven people) aboard the station. His cleverly measured performance is compelling, and he and the rest of the cast work well together.

A thought-provoking, compelling piece of science-fiction, Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ is much more than a Soviet ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ In fact, comparing the films, it is arguably the better of the two. Tarkovsky infuses the narrative with thematic depth, inviting viewers on a journey that is as introspective as it is outwardly explorative. Boasting stunning cinematography and stellar production, set and costume design, as well as a stirring score and powerhouse performances from all in the cast, ‘Solaris’ is a cosmic symphony resonating far beyond the stars.


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