Denial may be a river in Africa, but fuck if I know where, who, or what Solaris is.
The Film: Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi meditation on loss
The Potable: One tall bottle of sour ale from Rodman’s Discount Gourmet
Astronaut Chris Hadfield became something of an internet celebrity in 2013 when he recorded his own version of the late, great David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station. Hadfield is something of an oddity himself. An artist in space? Alongside scientists? Leave it to NASA.
What I learned from Solaris is that the Soviet Union had its own fantasies about arty spacemen. Protagonist Kris Kelvin may be a psychiatrist by trade, but he is a part time poet if ever I’ve met one.
When we first meet Kris he is sitting cross-legged in a field of purple poppies. He’s got a lot on his mind, but damn if I know what it is. If he’s writing a poem, we never see a draft of it. Eventually though, some colonels have a job for him; some weird shit is going down on their distant space station orbiting a strange planet and apparently there’s only one poet/psychologist qualified to investigate.
These early Earth scenes are lit a pale, hazy purple, kind of like a strip club that’s just opened at 2:30 in the afternoon, if I’m being honest.
Neither psychologists nor poets belong in space, and there is no training montage to speak of, which seems a little irresponsible. A brief, 30-second bit of our cosmonaut lifting weights would put me at ease. But before we get to orbit, the film cuts to what must be a twenty-minute highway scene of someone (Kris?) just driving. I paused at least three times during this sequence, once to get some chips from the kitchen, once to go to the bathroom, and once to get some more chips.
I cannot stress how long this scene lasts. I once checked to see if the movie was frozen. It was not, but I suppose it had the desired effect, because when it ends and the car finally takes whatever damn exit it was looking for, you’re in the great beyond. Everything feels mysterious and strange.
Kris has made it to the space station by some miracle, and he immediately sets about writing a mental poem about his new surroundings. “Feet found planted without ground, an orb, an eternal glow, a God I’ve never known,” or some shit like that. The special effects aren’t bad for the time, the planet looks pretty good, but let’s focus on the mission, Kris.
Some weird shit does, indeed, go down. A soccer ball rolls down the hallway. The station’s doctor has locked himself in his room for months. But most crucially, Kris enters his bedroom to find his dead wife in the bed. She is alive and well, but also confused. Kris doesn’t appear too happy to see her but instead also looks confused, which makes three of us.
At some point this confusion leads our hero to launch his wife out of an airlock. It seems a little melodramatic, but I’ve never met a down-to-Earth poet, which may be the film’s entire point, incidentally.
The climax occurs in the station’s billiard room. Kris stares pensively at a series of Bruegel paintings that hang on the wall. The camera cuts between paintings and the cosmonaut’s expression, scored to Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky. The intent, I gather, is that he’s come to a conclusion, found some of the inspiration he was looking for, except all I see are three ugly Dutch landscapes.
This is my main gripe with the film, I suppose. As far as character arcs go, Solaris is about a man who, in want of inspiration, travels hundreds of lightyears, only to find said inspiration in images of the home he left? Maybe that’s irony, but it’s also a waste of about three hours.
Remade by Steven Soderbergh in 2002 with Natalya Bondarchuk replaced by Natascha McElhone and the 20-minute highway scene replaced with George Clooney, the original Solaris probably won’t inspire a generation of kids to sign up for Space Camp. Or poetry camp, frankly, but I guess it makes psychiatry look exciting.
Verdict: need to rewatch