Director – Andrei Tarkovsky
I had been putting off watching this film for a while, for a number of reasons. Firstly because the first time I tried to watch it I had the world’s worst hangover, and subsequently lasted about ten minutes (I ended up watching most of a season of Arrested Development instead). Secondly, I was under the impression that it was a very serious film about death and that it would be sombre. I was pleasantly surprised, and just a little bit proven wrong.
Don’t be mistaken – this isn’t a comedy romp or a feel-good film - it is still about Space and Dead Wives - but it is a lot more agreeably presented, though it does seem to make no sense at all… to the extent that I do wonder if there may be a problem with my DVD.
We begin in the lush green countryside. A countryside which is so countrysidey that it seems almost fake – tremendously lush vistas of fields and trees and sparkling rivers. We follow our main character, Kris Kelvin (who looks an awful lot like David Cann from the Chris Morris world of dark dark comedy) as he enjoys his little walk; wandering around, occasionally seeing a horse.
He is very unhappy to be interrupted from his reverie by two scientist types. He seems to know one of them (or at least their children appear to be friends, one of whom is wearing the shortest short shorts I have ever seen), but the other is new - a man named Burton, who has a disturbing video to show.
The video features a younger Burton (who has a full head of hair, rather than the contemporary baldy Burton) as he describes a rescue mission he attempted for a spaceship called the Solaris.
The description is vivid and long and pretty remarkable. It talks about dense fogs and gloopy seas creating mystic gardens made of glass which bubble and melt away. It also talks about giant babies floating around (what was it in the 70s which made everyone obsessed with giant space babies?!). All of this may be pretty remarkable, but I was still sceptical. I did not believe that a film made in 1970 with a Russian budget (which must be substantially more humble than a contemporary American budget) would actually be able to present half of the stuff Burton describes. However, we would see none of it if Burton couldn’t be persuaded to go up there and check it out.
Now… This is where everything goes a bit weirdy weird. I mean, firstly there is the passage of time. Years appear to have passed between the video trial and the meeting (unless Burton wears a wig! That’d be a turn up for the books) – so why wait so long? Also Burton just goes home, not having convinced Kris, and spends the rest of the time chatting to them on his hi-tech video car phone.
But the most confusing bit of this first part (or ‘Part 1’ as the film likes to call it) is the colour. It makes no sense at all. Some scenes are in colour, some are in black and white. At first it was easy to follow: the video trial was in black and white, the 'present day' sections in colour... But then, other scenes also started becoming monochrome... whole scenes would flit from having colour to not having colour. I hope there is a reason for this which I just didn’t get. I hope there was a valid point for there to be some colour scenes and some black and white scenes, and not just arbitrary pretentiousness.
But then, equally, I sort of hope they just had two cameras and only one was in colour.
Now, I have to admit that I was getting a little bit obsessed with the inconsistent colour and I think I missed something pretty big, because with no warning at all, Kris was in a rocket (was the rocket in his garden?) and en route to Solaris.
We’re about 1 hour and 20 minutes in. End of Part 1. Please put in the next DVD.
So after a quick little siesta and a trip to the kettle for a cuppa tea…
So, Kris arrives on the Solaris and it is mostly empty, with detritus and bits kicking about everywhere. Something has obviously gone down… Now fortunately, this film is only a PG so I don’t have to spend the whole film on edge – worried that it might suddenly all go a bit Event Horizon (that shit is fucked up, yo) – but it doesn’t mean that the events make any more sense.
The ship only has two people on it – Snaut and Sartorious, both of whom are scientists and both of whom seem to be pretty far from sane. However it doesn’t take Kris long to go a bit bonkers too.
Because finally, we come to the famous bit of the film: Kris Kelvin wanders through space with only his dead wife Hari – inexplicably brought back to life – for company. And it is here that all my thoughts of Solaris are shattered… you see, this isn’t a sombre reflection on the nature of Death. It is a quite uplifting reflection on the nature of love. There are elements of it too which I feel must surely have been inspiration for the new Battlestar Galactica series… questions about what life is, and how you can tell what is real.
For Kris is initially baffled by the arrival of his dead wife; until he realises she isn’t a ghost.
It does upset me that the weirdness of Hari’s arrival is explained with pseudo science (the slurpy sea which the Solaris is hovering above is trying to make contact by using neutrino based life-forms sculpted from the memories of the ship's crew… yadda yadda yadda). However, the explanation that Hari isn’t Hari allows her to have moments of existentialism. This is a very existential film.
She realises that her memories aren’t really there, that she doesn’t know how to do simple things – like sleep - but most importantly, she realises that she does love Kris, and that he loves her.
And that is what the film is really about – a destructive relationship, since Hari is feeding off Kris’ mental activity. So the stronger she becomes, the more human she becomes, but the weaker and more ill he gets.
Even with this fairly straightforward premise, there are moments that don’t make sense. At one point a midget tries to run out of Sartorious’ lab, only to be pushed back in. He is never explained. He is never even mentioned again.
At another point, Hari is found dead on the floor – straight after a fairly nondescript scene. It is only after quite a bit of talking that we realise some time has passed, and that she drank liquid oxygen in a deluded attempt to force humanity on herself. This scene in particular pretty much sums up the film for me; bonkers and very badly explained, but beautifully presented and powerfully acted.
The film even has a surprising twist at the end to leave you with a little smile on your face.
An oddly uplifting film, and well worth a wee watch.