102; 12022 H.E.
What if a planet could think? What if a planet could act as a single entity? Feel and make decisions as a whole. Not a modern hivemind kind of a way, nor an artificial structure. An ocean enveloping a celestial body is a big brain, which wants to make contact with beings so much inferior and less complex - humans. It would even seem hard to misrepresent such a fascinating concept, yet Andrei Tarkovsky, a Soviet film director found a way to do just that.
The synopsis of Stanislaw Lem’s magnum opus - Solaris can be described as a story of how miserably small and inadequate humanity can appear when it comes one to one versus a civilization or a mind such grand, at such an unfathomable distance away in terms of intellect and abilities. Solaris, which is the planet’s name has been a riddle to humanity for many decades, unfortunately, to no avail. It appears humanity has no way of understanding something, which is simply not human.
Psychologist Kris Kelvin is being sent on an interstellar journey, to conclude whether the decades-old expedition sent to Solaris’ orbit should continue its study or simply halt all operations. Unexpectedly, it is revealed to the audience that the planet has more secrets than our heroes can chew. The last three real inhabitants of the station get visits from their materialized pasts, haunting them, bringing out the loneliness and baggage each has.
With such an incredible story, I shall stress again that Tarkovsky managed to make the pacing of the movie so painfully slow and dragged out that even I, a big fan of Lem’s works and Solaris novel in particular, barely survived through the screening of the 1972 adaptation. I was lucky enough to bring a pillow because of knowing how long it is. It was my sincere attempt to enjoy the work, however, it appeared to me that instead of following Lem’s love for Solaris, or at least adapting it to stay faithful to the very core of it, Tarkovsky went out of his way to interject every possible moment with his own opinions on what is right and what is wrong.
Let’s talk about what the film excelled at, such that it would be simpler for us to follow the thread of where it went wrong. For its time, Solaris is very well shot. Especially, the part about representing a futuristic city, we watched a couple of minutes long cut of dashcam footage on the highway roads of Akasaka, Tokyo. Stylistic choices in aesthetic visuals were very well done, ranging from how the ocean water was represented, down to the electronics and an advanced-looking space station interior. Unfortunately, when I think of the moments from the film, the above is all I could think of what I enjoyed during my watch.
It is time to get to the crux of the matter. The biggest sin of Solaris is its forced interpretation of its source, which borders closely to outright propaganda of one’s very specific views, where that specific someone is Tarkovsky with his high ideas of focusing plot on a man, his sins, and his subsequent retribution. It is no wonder that the last thing Stanislaw Lem recalled telling Tarkovsky after spending some time in Moscow assisting with the script was,
“Tarkovsky and I had a healthy argument. I sat in Moscow for six weeks while we argued about how to make the movie, then I called him a `durak' [`idiot' in Russian] and went home...” – Stanislaw Lem
Lem’s story is evenly divided into a balance of three main arcs: Drama, Science-fiction, and Solaristics. The third drama revolves around the story of Kelvin and Harey. Science-fiction part focuses of course on the observations made by scientists regarding the planet. The last third is deeply woven into the story, where we are thrown into bits and pieces of the story of Solaristics, the study of Solaris. The documentary-like flashbacks give us more insights into the relationship between humans and Solaris. Tarkovsky decided to completely ignore the value of a gradual reveal of the planet’s history by compressing it all into a single 40-minute segment at the beginning of the film.
This changed the pacing completely, thus, giving out too much information to viewers regarding what is to come in the story. Solaris is presented as something scary, untamed, and inhuman. Scientists working on understanding the planet are a bunch of fanatics, who have devoted their lives to the field. Kelvin is supposed to be some special “inspector”, which will evaluate the need for Solaristics. What happens after can be described as nothing more than “Crime and Punishment” in space, where a man deals with his past, ethics, and moral imperatives. There would have been some hope for Tarkovsky’s commentary on human conscience, only if it were even remotely close to the mastery of understanding such concepts as Dostoevsky does.
Large portions of what made Lem’s Solaris a timeless masterpiece were ignored (like the science-fiction part) as Tarkovsky was completely uninterested in `Solaristics’ and the sentient ocean. Without a doubt, stylistic and structural canons differ between films and novels, however, they should still tell a story that can live up to its source, especially if it is as strong and influential as ours is. Stanislaw Lem wants to tell a story without giving straight answers, layering it with a fog of mystery. We ask ourselves, what would a contact between earthlings and an extraterrestrial being beyond their comprehension be like? While also using an incredible depth in both imagination and philosophy to tell it.
I am a humanist myself. I love when authors and directors go deeper into the psyche of a human, the emotions, feelings, worries, and pain. This is why Dostoevsky is my favorite writer. While Tarkovsky’s version follows a man and his late ex-wife coming back to life from his dreams to haunt him on the station produces arguments and raises discussions, which seem to be entirely too sentimental, lacking competence to properly ponder and execute themes, such as sin and retribution, while also lacking the courage to go beyond those classical concepts and attempt a more unique discussion. This is presented ever so vividly in the inclusion of Kelvin’s parents.
“And what was absolutely terrible was that Tarkovsky introduced Kelvin’s parents and even some aunt into the movie. But most of all, his mother. [...] The mother is Russia, the Motherland, Earth. That just enraged me.“ – Stanislaw Lem
Those extra characters are simply not needed and the only part in which they succeed is confusing the viewer about the importance of their part in the film. This is Tarkovsky attempting to show the importance of family, of internal struggles of a man, and one’s fight against themselves. It would be great if this attempt were executed more properly, rather than showing minutes worth of stills and uninterrupted footage of what appears to be aimed at putting me to sleep or impressing inexperienced viewers with the “aesthetic” method of watching films.
I must admit, there were parts in dialogues between characters, which I found to be masterfully written, such as “Only an unhappy person will ponder about the meaning of life and happiness. A happy person has no time nor needs for those cursed questions.” I couldn’t decide whether Solaris is a masterpiece or a mirage of one in those specific moments. The ending of the movie and how it was presented answered that question for me.
Tarkovsky is the kind of a director who wants everything to be “in his own way”. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it comes at a cost of becoming blind to the importance of Lem’s cognitive and epistemological considerations to what Solaris and solaristics stand as a whole, it results in what we have today calling itself Solaris, yet having no real connection, other than the shared name and setting. It is nothing more than a hollow vassal drifting through space, simply lost in its emotional sauce with no purpose, completely amputated from the scientific landscape, which made the source a timeless classic, and instead, opting in to fill it with weirdness, which isn’t even of the quirky and fun kind. Just weird. ◼︎