Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk in Solyaris (1972)
I can only imagine what 1968 must have been like. From that opening match cut to the starchild finale, Stanley Kubrick revolutionized sci-fi with his mind-bending masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where else could the genre possibly go? After all, it had been stuck in a rut for years. The only other notable sci-fi of 1968 was Planet Of The Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner) - Barbarella (Roger Vadim) and Destroy All Monsters (Ishirô Honda) don't quite make the cut. It would take a while for the effect to sink in, too, as cerebral sci-fi such as THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971) didn't appear until three years later. Sure Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971) was still doing the rounds, but the possibilities of contemporary cinema were allowing artists to embrace a brave new world and experiment with themes and ideas. One of the best examples of this embrace is Solyaris, a Soviet drama about human existence, regret and reconciliation. It's a challenging vision of defining restraint, and one of the most profoundly emotional films ever made.
But it doesn't necessarily benefit from comparison with 2001, which is as much a fantastical envisioning of the future as Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) - all high-tech interiors, sliding doors, interstellar light-shows and artificial intelligence in direct correspondence with the crew, who all wear new-age suits. Of course it's nothing like Lucas' box office smash in terms of form and content either; about as far away from an actioner as you can get, it's a thematic exploration of metaphysics. Solyaris deals with big ideas, sure, but in an intimate way - and within the confines of a metallic grey station. Empire's David Parkinson notes that Kubrick's interiors are "fetishistically futuristic", but Tarkovsky's are bleakly evocative and recognizably dulled, while retaining a sense of the future in the huge widescreen televisions, wired panelling and windows overlooking the shapeshifting, existential ocean that surrounds Solaris. The photography by Vadim Yusov also contributes to the feeling, by alternating between colour, black and white, and sepia images, which shift almost by the degree of feeling in the present scene.
As with all Tarkovsky the pace is terminally slow, but there's so much environment and atmosphere to soak up that it hardly matters. Unlike Zerkalo (1975) and Stalker (1979) there is an actual sense of narrative working within a timeframe, a trajectory to the character arcs and roots in naturally evocative and interesting surrounding. Zerkalo is an exhaustively tedious experience, but Stalker has some stunning visuals and interesting thematic questions. But they were cold, detached experiences, unlike Solyaris, which is surprisingly alive. That's mostly down to the unsung work of Natalya Bondarchuk, who turns in one of the greatest performances I've ever seen. Naturalistic and nuanced, it's a subtle portrait of affection and understanding, a spiritual presence so softly spoken and frail she's hardly there - yet makes an unforgettable impact. She allows something to happen that I never thought I'd say in reference to a Tarkovsky film - she allows you to fall in love with her. That was the one thing sorely missing from Soderbergh's underrated remake (2002). Even though more time was invested in the backstory of Chris (George Clooney) and Rheya (Natasha McElhone), neither actor truly embodied the lonely state that Tarkovsky spends a full 90 minutes setting up. McElhone especially just doesn't have the skill to portray a woman so lost in terms of space, time and love. That relationship never had the quietness or awkwardness to make it feel truly lived in, but in Solyaris the ten years Chris and Hari have spent apart is etched on both of their faces. Her speech about Chris' humanity and the subsequent retort from Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) that she is "a matrix" is shockingly powerful, as is her physical embodiment of a woman being reborn after drinking liquid oxygen.
The minimal score by Eduard Artemiev perfectly complements Tarkovsky's fluid, expansive direction, and the evocative imagery that absorbs the viewer into every frame of the world. By setting his tale in the most isolated landscape possible Tarkovsky is able to penetrate deeper into his characters psyche, revealing that the most terrifying thing in the world can often be ourselves; our memories and desires. Solaris is a place where they can be addressed physically, which is likely most dangerous of all. I can't pretend to understand every shade and thesis that the film presents; it's a deeply complex work. But it has left me with much food for thought, and questions to be answered upon re-watches. It's a deeply emotional experience, and a true work of art.