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Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative, deeply humanistic Solaris stands as an answer to Stanley Kubrick’s mechanical 2001: A Space Odyssey in the way it pushes the scientific intrigues of its subject matter to the background, bringing the characters and their internal human drama to the forefront.  Tarkovsky’s overlong, indulgent treatise on humanism within the science fiction realm treats its characters with loving graces and spends so much time with them that the sci-fi artifice that surrounds them seems almost inconsequential.

Donatas Banionis plays Kris Kelvin, a psychologist sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris (not so much a planet as possibly a whole new alien intelligence) after one of the astronauts stationed there is killed.  Sent to examine the surviving pair, Kelvin is drawn into the madness when he begins seeing his long deceased wife and the mysteries of what Solaris is and what has happened on the station begin to reveal themselves.  Much of the film deals with Kelvin’s past relationship with his dead wife with the rest feeling more like lip service.  Rather than living within the realm of its science fiction roots, Tarkovsky uses the form to tell an indulgent, somber story of one’s man’s longings and grief.

Tarkovsky, it has been said, made this film as a rebuke to Kubrick’s more dryly told 2001: A Space Odyssey where its characters are treated as mere after-thoughts.  Here, Tarkovsky runs the complete other direction treating the science fiction genre as mere artifice while telling a deeply human story.  It’s both a strength and a weakness in some respects.  Tarkovsky finds ways to allow the audience to sink in the character stories without forgetting the space station setting using the fluid motion of the camera through the station to disorient the spatial reasoning of both its audience and the characters and switching film stocks, seemingly at random at first, but with a clear motive behind each stroke.

The film’s hauntingly beautiful images and the deeply felt relationship between Kelvin and his dead wife provide a heart to the film that Kubrick’s film certainly lacks but Solaris often drags with a flaccid pacing.  The first half hour or so spent on Earth could have been easily excised and there is much in the way of over-indulgence on part of the filmmaker throughout.  However, between the dull and inane parts of the film, the film works due to the poignant performance of Banionis and Tarkovsky’s expert use of camera and space.  The filmmaker seems to be saying with this film that science fiction as a genre cannot sustain itself if not for the human stories and characters that we choose to imbue it with.  Tarkovsky has taken what could have been another dry, mechanical story of an adventure in space and transforms it into a deeply moving story of loss, love, and actions we will take to hide from our own grief.




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