Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Solaris



USSR 1972
Andrei Tarkovsky
165 minutes

Yes, 165 minutes. 21 minutes longer than 2001 : A Space Odyssey, to which it was intended as a Soviet response. And there are moments when it feels like 165 hours, when it seems to be taking pride in being as aggressively nebulous as possible. But with Tarkovsky, you give the benefit of the doubt. The opening section is stunning. A man stands in a field near a dacha in the Russian countryside, watching the reeds in the water. He ’s an astronaut, and this is what it looks like when it ’s your last day on Earth. The images are so eerily beautiful, so powerful, youre hooked – you know youll stay the course. You trust this movie.

Soon, the story proper – loosely based on Stanislaw Lems novel – starts. The man, Kris Kelvin (solid Donatas Banionis) travels to a space station circling the distant planet Solaris. Only two of the original eighty-five crew survive. It has been established that the vast ocean covering the planets surface is a single, sentient creature – a vast, mysterious alien brain, with the power to conjure up simulacra of people from the cosmonauts memories. Kelvin is thus visited by his wife Hari (top-billed Natalya Bondarchuk) whose suicide 10 years before he never quite managed to get over. Bondarchuk is phenomenal in a uniquely difficult role – she’s heartbreaking in her vulnerability, but as soon as she arrives on the scene things start to get really slow.

At key points in Solaris, just as you start to bog down in the static story and rambling philosophising, Tarkovsky pulls some audacious stunt that keeps you glued to the screen: at the one-hour stage a dwarf suddenly, absurdly, appears in the spaceship, then he’s gone, never to be seen again. An hour later the characters experience an unexplained thirty seconds of weightlessness that’s one of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenes ever filmed. Then, just as the pace slows even further, just as you think no ending can possibly be justify trudging through this static swamp, Tarkovsky proves you dead wrong.

Solaris has been attacked for its kindergarten philosophy, and that’s fair comment. Its hard to disagree with the sniffy verdict of the Communist apparatchik at the Mosfilm studio: Take-home message: there’s no point in humanity dragging its shit from one end of the galaxy to the other. And the skimpy English subtitling on some prints doesn’t help. But there is something glorious about the way Tarkovsky steers what the Party obviously intended as a massively big-budget space epic into his own idiosyncratic territory, making it into a crazy rumination on memory, art and family.

Yes, some of the shots and scenes are ridiculously long, but this is a price worth paying for the chance to see things unlike anything else in cinema: a silent ten-minute drive through what looks like Osaka; an intimate inspection of Brueghels Return of the Hunters; a glass doorhandle slowly rocking to a stop on a wooden chair. At one stage David Lynch was being lined up to do Return of the Jedi instead of Dune, and perhaps his take on Star Wars might have turned out like Solaris – nonsensical and borderline unwatchable as a science-fiction movie, but dazzling as a grand, visionary statement of maddening artistic genius.

15th January 2001

by Neil Young
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