Great Moments in Cinema: Solaris
Often, this column tends to focus on moments, scenes, or sequences that serve as a capsule or summation of the larger themes presented in a particular film. However, there is something to be said of moments that stand out simply because they are beautiful, touching, or powerful all on their own. These are the moments that often take our breath away or get our blood pumping, and we get lost in them simply because of how lovely or moving they are. Andrei Tarkovsky was a master at creating sequences like this, mostly because he was totally content to just let his camera linger on stunning images for long stretches at a time, sometimes upwards of five minutes. Tarkovsky rejected the montage style of his fellow Russian filmmakers, and instead presented films that were made up of images that sometimes could have passed for paintings or still photographs, thanks to the near lack of movement or sense of urgency. Tarkovsky was interested in establishing a languid, almost glacial pace in his films, a fact which leads his detractors to describe his films as boring or slow. While his films are indeed slow, they are often far from boring, at least on a purely visual level. His movies are filled with a visual beauty that is often very striking, and none more so than Solaris (1972), his first foray into cinematic science fiction.
Based on the novel by Polish author Stanislav Lem, Solaris is set in a vague future version of the Soviet Union, one that appears to be suffering from sort of environmental crisis. After a series of mishaps, widowed psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is assigned to the distant Solaris space station to assess the mental health of the three scientists who remained aboard to study the mysterious planet the station orbits. When he arrives, he discovers that one of the scientists, Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), has committed suicide, while the other two, Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), appear to be suffering from a combination of depression, paranoia, and delusion. While exploring the station, Kelvin experiences some strange phenomena, like a child’s ball appearing out of nowhere, and a little girl in a blue dress running through the halls. Kelvin demands to know what is going on, but neither of the scientists will give him a straight answer. Tired from his long journey, Kelvin retires to his quarters, only to wake up later that night to find his beloved wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) is back from the dead and lying next to him.
After launching her into space in one of the stations escape pods, he returns to his quarters, only to find her waiting for him once again. It soon becomes clear that these “visitors” have been sent by the planet as a way of communicating, but what does it want? And are the visitors human, or are they simply echoes of a past that only exists in the mind of the crew? Most importantly, does any of that matter to Kelvin, since he is at last reunited with the woman he loves? Eventually, Snaut proposes they beam Kelvin’s brainwave patterns down to the planet in the hopes that it will understand them and stop sending the visitors. Sartorius disagrees, and suggests that bombarding the planet with a heavy dose of radiation is the only way to stop the visitors from coming. Kelvin fears that if they do either of these things, Hari will disappear forever. Now Kelvin has to decide if he wants to return to Earth, or stay behind on Solaris with the memory of his dead wife.
The central theme of Tarkovsky’s Solaris is the impact of space exploration on Mankind, and how we try to change and adapt every environment, including space, to our needs and desires. Tarkovsky was very interested in Man’s relationship with nature, and he establishes that early on in the film with Kelvin’s visit to his father’s farm. The film opens with a long shot of weeds swaying in the river that runs past the farm, and then spends a lot of time luxuriating in the simple beauty of nature. Tarkovsky does this to establish the contrast between Kelvin’s bucolic childhood home, and the cold, sterile environment that exists on the Solaris station. It is so lonely and depressing that at one point, Snaut tells Kelvin he should hang a piece of paper cut into strips on the air conditioning unit, because the sound of the paper flapping in the artificial breeze is not unlike the sound of leaves rustling in the wind back on Earth. It’s a small thing, but it is indicative of the way we try to take home with us no matter where we go, even to the furthest reaches of space. It is also meant to imply that our desire for familiarity is one of the reasons we are so unprepared to deal with an alien intelligence that is so completely different from our own.
However, the scene we’re going to focus on today does not tie into the film’s overarching theme, nor does it even really further the plot. It is simply a quietly beautiful moment that gives the viewer a fleeting respite from the almost oppressive sense of unease and sadness that builds throughout the rest of the film. Shortly after the second Hari arrives on the station, Snaut and Sartorius call a meeting to discuss what they should do about these strange visitors from their pasts. The conversation quickly turns to the fact that the visitors are made of neutrinos, and that despite their appearance, they cannot be considered human. Kelvin insists that none of that matters. All he knows is that Hari has been returned to him, and this time, he’s going to make sure they stay together. Snaut and Sartorius leave, but not before informing Kris that the station’s gravity will be shut down shortly for maintenance. Kris and Hari stay behind in the meeting room, and admire the paintings hung there. The gravity unit shuts off, and Kris and Hari float languidly about the room, holding hands to stay close to one another. They drift over to a couch just as the gravity kicks back on, and Hari settles onto the cushions with Kris kneeling on the floor next to her, his head resting in her lap.
The sequence is entirely free of dialogue, which allows the viewer to simply sit back and delight in the sumptuous visuals, and savor the touching moment shared by the two tormented lead characters. Despite the low budget, Tarkovsky nonetheless manages to achieve a sense of wonder in this sequence, making the viewer believe that Kris and Hari are truly floating serenely through the air, their problems forgotten for a few brief minutes. But the technical wizardry is not why the sequence is great. It is great because of the feelings it evokes, both in the characters and the audience. Despite the lethargic pacing, there is a mounting sense of dread that builds throughout the film’s nearly three hour running time. Kelvin and the other scientists are all facing something they can’t even begin to understand, and Tarkosky conveys this by keeping the audience on edge at all times, using the sluggish pacing to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, only to shatter it a moment later by introducing some outrageous or unsettling element (such as the dwarf that comes running out of Sartorius’ quarters at one point). But this sequence is totally unencumbered by this sense of unease, and it stands as a tender and joyous moment shared by two characters whose minds are tortured by their pasts. For a few moments, at least, they can forget everything that stands between them, and just enjoy each others’ company. It is a serene oasis of calm in a film that is at once tranquil and tumultuous, and it is all the more heartbreaking when the gravity kicks back in and the sequence ends, dropping Kris and Hari right back into the reality from which they desperately want to escape.
While it’s true that this sequence doesn’t contain any trace of the themes that are explored throughout the rest of the film, it is nonetheless a standout moment in what is arguably one of the greatest movies ever made. It is a moment that sticks with the viewer long after the film has ended, and not simply because of the visual and technical trickery Tarkovsky employed when creating it. No, it is a moment that moves us, touches us on a deeply emotional level. It is the one truly genuine moment of love and affection in a film that, on the surface, appears to be somewhat cold, sterile, and distant. Thus, despite the simplicity, the sequence becomes powerful and affecting in a way that few others in the film are. That is why the sequence is so memorable, and also why it can be considered a great moment in cinema.