If it’s awe you’re after, in some ways you’d be better off foregoing movies altogether and reading Norman Mailer’s “Of a Fire on the Moon” instead.
With justification, it’s often called the “Soviet 2001,” although Tarkovsky, who died in 1986 at 53, was critical of Kubrick’s film and would probably have preferred that “Solaris” be called the “anti-2001.”
It could the greatest outer space movie you’ve probably never seen.
It’s also one of the most demanding. Tarkovsky’s previous movies include the three-hours-plus epic “Andrei Rublev” (1966) about the 15th-century Russian icon painter. For “Solaris,” he adapted Stanislaw Lem’s science-fiction novel but put his own distinctive spin on it. Lem, who was more wide- eyed about the blissfulness of space than Tarkovsky, was not a big fan of the film.
Although key sequences are also set on Earth, “Solaris” focuses on a manned space station circling a planet that appears to have a mind of its own. Its vast miasmic ocean is capable of channeling the consciousness of its orbiting Earthlings, rendering lifelike incarnations of their deepest fears and desires.
When the psychologist Kris (Donatas Banionis) is sent to the space station to evaluate its strange goings on, his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who killed herself and with whom he is still in love, is made manifest.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you saw Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake starring George Clooney. But Soderbergh’s vision is more streamlined and blah -- soullessness pretending to be soulfulness -- and Clooney seems poleaxed. Tarkovsky takes his own sweet solemn time immersing us in his meta-world. He gives us scenes of heartbreaking intimacy between Kris and Hari.
All the deep-dish philosophizing that Hollywood took out is what makes Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” so special. His beef with “2001” was that its mesmerizing imagery was also, in a sense, anti-human.
“Solaris,” which dispenses almost entirely with special effects, is pro-Earth, pro-human. Great recurring use is made of Bach’s Prelude in F Minor. Hari becomes increasingly, inevitably human in Kris’s presence. Even death cannot undo her. A matrix, she keeps getting resurrected.
For Tarkovsky, who felt a great attachment to Mother Earth, outer space is terror-filled. One of the space-station scientists says, “We don’t know what to do with other worlds, we don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror.”
And yet perhaps only a director with such disquietude about outer space could capture so well its horrifying dazzle.
“Solaris” was not received well by the authorities in Soviet Russia, from which Tarkovsky ultimately defected.
As Bondarchuk explains in an interview accompanying the Criterion disc, “The film was all about eternity and in our land eternity was not recognized. We were all grave diggers.”
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).
To contact the writer of this column: Peter Rainer at Fi1L2E@aol.com
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