PrintE-mail Written by Robert Martin

As the reputation of this Russian drama from 1972 wavers from 'the masterpiece of a genius' to 'unintelligible pyscho-babble', viewing it for the first time is an experience steeped in expectation.

Like so many things, films can fall in and out of favour, but some are considered to be classics beyond such fickle notions of time and changing tastes. Older films seen for the first time are best viewed through the prism of the society and politics of their era but, try as you might, you'll never be able to put yourself fully into that context and all you have left is the actual film.

When a Russian mission to the planet Solaris falls apart, a psychologist is sent to the few remaining scientists still occupying the space station, only to find them in varying degrees of mental disintegration. Are they going mad? What is the influence of the planet Solaris? And why does his dead wife suddenly appear as if from a dream? Is the liquidy planet Solaris just one big brain, able to extract thoughts and make them manifest?

Solaris is a big film. It's long. It's about matters of life and death, memory and reality. It questions what it is to be human. It is steeped in psychology and filmed in Tarkovsky's poetic, slow, dialogue light style. Some of it is achingly beautiful.

The central relationship between the psychologist and the Solaris version of his dead wife is fascinating. Her increasing awareness that she's not 'real' is countered by his increasing denial that she isn't, Solaris having taken his idealised version of her from his brain. Does it matter that she isn't human? What is she? It's her, the non-human, that needs to know. There's a stunning scene where the couple embrace in a brief moment of zero gravity, giving the film, and the viewer, some much needed respite from the distance the intellectual tone results in.

It isn't an easy film. You know what's happening, it's not elusive in that sense, but a degree in psychology would be a helpful viewing tool. It's telling that the blu-ray extras offer nothing to fans of cinema, concentrating on the psychological aspects of the film via several ludicrously pompous academic spoken essays.

Neither is it a film inciting deep emotion, excitement or tension. Its intent is to provoke thought to have a longer lasting effect on the viewer. Some think it rife with fascinating ambiguity, especially at its conclusion, one which seems, to me anyway, to be very unambiguous and clearly stated.

It's an important film, we're told, highly regarded (although it's true that many think it's all Emperor's new clothes). Comparisons to 2001:A Space Odyssey don't do it any favours, and its importance is hard to gauge from the here and now. Tarkovsky himself considered it to be his least effective film and, as you watch, hoping for some way into the mind that created it, one of the big questions you might ask is, 'what's all the fuss about?'

Steven Soderergh remade it with George Clooney, pushing the emotion and tension of the piece to the fore whilst still asking some hefty questions. Whilst the 1972 Solaris scores points for its impact then, it's the 2002 version I'd pick up and watch again, without question.


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