“Are you happy?”
“I really don’t think that concept applies here.”
And this exchange pretty much sums up my experience of revisiting Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ last night at the GFT. Now it’s not that I’m wanting ‘Muppets From Space’ here, or ‘Galaxy Quest’ or anything, or wanting some rib-tickling cosmic chuckles from the director of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, but boy, like a flight to another planet, ‘Solaris’ draaaags. “But it’s meditative!” you might yell at me. Well, so’s being lobotomised.
With that out the way let’s take a quick look at ‘Solaris’ and I’m going to do so in the way all Tarkovsky films should be approached: with totally disrespectful and adolescent flippancy!
I’ve previously described this film as Rab C. Nesbitt in space (it is, effectively, a man stoating about a space-station in a string vest) but that’s a tad dismissive and reductive so let’s dig a little deeper and see where my issue with the movie is located.
It starts off pretty well with an intriguing set-up with Tarkovsky making great use of the current day, modern world to suggest a more futuristic one (although nowhere near as successful as in Godard’s ‘Alphaville’). There is a deftly handled motorway sequence (filmed in Japan) that substitutes a space-flight (sound and music design augmenting the effect perfectly and helping reduce budget and special effects) plus a pretty interesting video of a press conference that manages to hit that elusive sweet spot between “coolly stylish” and “fucking tedious” in a way that only Tarkovsky can manage. So there’s some good shit going on here.
Yet it is when the main character, Kelvin, reaches the space station in orbit around the planet Solaris that the wheels seem to come off this orbiting… well… wheel.
So there is A LOT of wandering around and filmed at such a slow pace it makes Rivette or Dreyer seem like Michael Bay in a washing machine as Kelvin discovers not that much about what is going on and neither do we. Ah, so this is “Tarkovsky Time” — that immersion into his way of seeing film, and the world through a deliberate and reverential slowing of the temporal. One person’s sacred is another’s tramadol, I guess.
And the space-station setting is an issue for Tarkovsky here, almost as though you can feel him struggling with the claustrophobic set. Here’s a director at his best when outside, painting on a huge canvas, and seemingly directing the very elements of Nature herself now being “reduced” to working on the scale of an episode of ‘Blake’s 7’, except without Orac (crime!). This also includes some inadvertently silly moments, such as when Kelvin survives a rocket blast from only a few feet away by hiding under a blanket. Really?! I mean, come on. And this guy is hailed as a fucking “genius”? That’s up there with the Bond surfing down a buggering tidal wave in ‘Die Another… hmmm, anyway, I slightly digress.
After our main character survives we are then furiously and breathlessly plunged back into more wandering about and you can really feel the tedium roaring off the screen as Kelvin lies down, then gets back up, then lies down again. But hang onto your space-seats! He then gets up and walks about a bit and then lies down again. Whoa!!! Slow down Andrei and you’re about to give me a fucking heart-attack from all the excitement!
Fortunately it’s not all balls to the wall, break-neck action as there is also plenty of time for literary allusions ahoy. Sometimes they are interesting (in a chin-stroking sort of way as you can feel the thoughts in your head being tentatively provoked by Tarkovsky’s lubed-up, cinematic finger) and other times they just feel like literary and philosophical padding. You’re going to reference Tolstoy AND Dostoyevsky?! Well, I mean, he is Russian so sure, why not. Knock yourself out, baby.
Where it gets interesting is the way it tackles Existentialism and the Sisyphean aspect of the Human Condition and how it allows for a sense, and capacity, for wonder. We’re never going to achieve transcendence, we’re too bound to the earth and our ever-crushing rock, but it is precisely that that allows us the chance to “see”: our existence is our futile telescope. On a serious note, some of the central messages here are genuinely touching. Plus, the moment with a character and some liquid oxygen is profound, human, deeply moving and an incredible piece of acting and directing. But is it too little, too late?
This is one of the big problems with ‘Solaris’: like a space-station altering its orbit it seems to shift with violent weightlessness from the profound to the boring to the silly and back again, almost as though someone is speed-reading Kierkegaard to you whilst you’re trying to watch ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’.
Yet, this is one of the greatest filmmakers that has ever lived that we’re talking about here so ‘Solaris’ has to have something going for it and, fortunately, it does. Once Kelvin’s wife, Hari, starts to become more independent of “husband” the film, like her, seems to become more alive and robust. It’s almost as though, like the planet itself, the more we are exposed to the movie the more our imagined “reality” becomes “real”. There becomes more of a tension — the capacity for push and pull — between realities that are exerting themselves (isn’t that what we are all attempting to do in the face of life?). By the time we get to Snaut’s birthday party the film, for me, starts gathering itself together magnificently, inexorably collecting like a swirling vortex. The ideas, all of which are now hitting with such impactful beauty, begin to coalesce, much like a 4 metre infant on the surface of an alien planet.
And the end? On its churning surface it’s still an alien contact movie (seen simply as such it might not quite work) but it also asks what is left behind of us, and what do we leave behind of us, by engaging in life. There is a sense of seeking liberation, whether that is in the stars or from our past, but is that ever possible? As humans we want to grow up, to travel beyond and into the infinite yet, in the end, sometimes we find ourselves crying at the feet of our father, whether he is real or imagined.
P.S. Final note: Needed more wise-cracking robots.