Movie Review: “Solyaris” (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR 1972)

Ranked #154 on 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Poll
Ranked #224 on 2012 Sight & Sound Directors Poll

Andrei Tarkovsky is a director of whom I had somehow never heard before the 2012 Sight & Sound poll came out and he actually had seven films that received votes–as many as or more than such luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola (7), David Fincher (5), George Cukor (5), George Roy Hill (3), Michael Curtiz (2), Oliver Stone (3), Otto Preminger (7), Robert Atlman (5), and Steven Soderbergh (2). Many of the films also ranked quite highly. Obviously, I had missed out on a special director, so I planned to watch something of his, and I eventually decided to start with his science fiction film Solyaris.

It turns out that this is a very difficult film to review. It does what it sets out to do, and in some ways it does it extraordinarily successfully, and yet it is difficult to engage with it (in a manner ironically similar to the engagement/communication problems that the film depicts) for reasons that do not seem obvious, at least to me. It’s a beautiful-looking film with a great concept and an amazing atmosphere, but it takes so long in making its points in such painstaking detail that a creeping dullness really hurts the film.

The film’s point is the difficulty of communication, and it comes up with a very smart way of making its point: an alien species called “the Ocean” that coats nearly the entire surface of a planet attempts to communicate with people, with motivation impossible to determine, resulting in a torturous, confusing existence for the people who visit its home world. It seems to be attempting to understand humans, but it’s impossible to rule out that it’s really trying to imprison or torture them.

An earth scientist, Kris Kelvin, arrives at the human base on this planet and is quickly met by his dead wife, who committed suicide, with some odd distinctions from what she was like in reality. First, her dress is not removable, but she returns with the dress suddenly removable. However, even after returning, while she can remember the facts of things from her life, she has no emotional connection to them or memory of any emotions. Kelvin realizes that she is an invention of the planet, and the others on the base explain as much to him, and tell him that the more time he spends with her the more human she will become. The base scientist has treated his companions with a scientific detachment, experimenting on them and attempting to keep a safe distance, and has also held onto the other base member’s companions as well. They spend a lot of time discussing what the creature’s motivation is, though they also admit that there is no way to know what it is.

It’s a fascinating premise that would make Gene Roddenberry proud, and it highlights exactly what Tarkovsky was hoping to say.

Visually, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Tarkovsky and cinematographer Vadim Yusov provide high-key lighting and a wonderful use of textures that is something few films would bother with, providing the world of the film with a fantastic amount of depth. They seamlessly interweave color with black and white, using the black and white as an opportunity to explore some more high contrast lighting ideas. The only problem is, as beautiful as the film is, its visual nuances really don’t seem to have any real connection to the film’s point. That disconnect makes its visual language rather limited in spite of how gorgeous looking it really is.

The film did not require much of most of its actors, but the two leads were required to show some rather extreme emotions in rather difficult, unusual ways. Tarkovsky famously disliked lead actor Donatas Banionis and was displeased with his performance, but I found him quite credible as the emotionally damaged Kris who really has no idea how to deal with anything that’s going on around him but definitely does not want to deal with it in the same way that his crewmates do. Natalya Bondarchuk, meanwhile, had a difficult role because it was so extreme that it could easily devolve into something of a joke–it was a role not too dissimilar from Sally Field’s role as Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA 2012)–and yet she managed to inject the role with a pathos and reality that was quite touching. She was really the heart of the film, and she held together what could otherwise have been quite a sterile work.

The biggest problems with the film are that it gets lost in its own narrative at points and just takes far too long making its points. It’s intentionally ponderous, to the point that it at least borders on, if not tips over entirely into, pretension, and it’s intentionally obtuse about its narrative. While an obtuse narrative never bothers me (I’m a David Lynch fan, for crying out loud.), this film sometimes uses obtuseness just for the sake of obtuseness, such as in the enigmatic opening half hour of the film. It also makes the same point in the same way far too many times, leading to a film that just lacks in some polish.

The film is often compared with the science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK 1968), and the reasons for that comparison are quite clear, but it also doesn’t deserve the comparison. Kubrick’s film is a film about human evolution that rarely wavers from its point and only takes too long in order to emphasize the realities of space travel, evincing a wonderment at space and science that well befits the genre. This film lacks the kind of focus that 2001 has and lacks the reasoning behind its ponderousness. That said, like 2001, it has a fascinating concept and is absolutely stunning.

All told, this is the kind of film that seems made only for those obsessed with film. It’s beautiful and has a great, deep concept, but it just doesn’t quite execute perfectly. It’s worth a watch, but I don’t think it lives up to its lofty billing.

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