My recently rekindled interest in science fiction and spaceflight, together with my longstanding affection for European art cinema, led me to check out Solaris, a 1972 film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, the movie is largely set on a space station orbiting the fictional planet of Solaris, and it examines the crew's interactions with a strange and mysterious ocean on the planet's surface. The major themes explored by the film are the psychological impact on human beings of spaceflight, and also the relationship between science, perception and conscience.
The film is long, and slow, but symbolism and meaning are there in abundance if one looks closely enough, and I found it quite gripping. I empathized with some of the characters, identifying with their alienation, distractedness and confusion. The contrast between the organic, fecund, green Earth and the clinical and ascetic environment of the spaceship is very cleverly underlined.
Special effects are employed sparingly, but where they do appear they are surprisingly good and convincing. Nothing, though, obscures the intellectual and emotional thrust of the movie. The film looks more "modern" than 1972 somehow, and this might be down in part to the lovely cinematography.
Another element of the picture's impact is the soundtrack music, by Eduard Artemyev. Part of it is based on a piece by Bach, an organ prelude, and this forms a recurring, and haunting, "theme tune". Ambient sounds form a subtle, yet unsettling and disorientating backdrop.
I find films set on spaceships absorbing, no matter the overall quality or gravitas of the work. I feel the same way about movies set on submarines. The claustrophobic and captive atmosphere means that arguments are often distilled down to a basic or existential level.
This is a film which demands intense concentration and attention, and it is one where the viewer is rewarded by taking notice of nuances in the dialogue. Science fiction films occasionally emerge as excessively earnest in their examination of profound topics. Solaris doesn't fall prey to this, and is not as literal or straightforward as many of its Western counterparts. The movie's length means that the philosophizing is diffused, and the characters appear less anxious to ruminate on the meaning of life and the universe - interesting to note for a film produced in the Soviet Union.
Some of the minutiae of the "science" in this picture are not startling original, but they are fused into a strong and plausible whole. The various sub-texts are addressed, on the whole, with finesse and sensitivity, and the primary themes are interwoven adroitly.
Donatas Banionis gives an assured performance as Kris Kelvin, conveying authority in addition to a reassuring "everyman" quality. One of those performances which instills confidence in the viewer, and which supports the overall believability of the story.
The film generally explores the question of humanity's purpose in space. Is this to be human, and how should this blend with cold science? One could interpret the ocean on the planet Solaris as a mirror, forcing us to confront our nature. There are also hints about the limits of rationality.
Solaris is an engrossing and stimulating film. I am just disappointed that it has taken me this long to watch it!