There was a time in the 1970’s when Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem was the most identifiable author in the science fiction universe being translated into English from another language. Solaris (arguably his most famous book) took about a decade to come to America, having been published in 1961 and being translated into English via a French translation in the early 1970’s. Lem was not a big fan of Tarkovsky’s film version, and he was looking forward to Steven Soderbergh’s American version starring George Clooney, when sadly, he died without ever seeing the remake. I read the book sometime before 1980, and I distinctly remember it as a different breed of science fiction novel than most, more concerned with the intrapsychic landscape of the main character (rather than the usual science fiction tropes about technology and adventure), and very much imbued by sadness and grief.
Andrei Tarkovsky is a giant among world film-makers. I think of him as the Russian version of Stanley Kubrick, and nowhere is the comparison/contrast of two directors more apparent than in comparing Tarkovsky’s Solaris with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Story has it that Tarkovsky had seen 2001 and found it remote and sterile, so he set out to inject his science fiction film with more emotion and humanity. Tarkovsky turned to science fiction as a way of getting a film past the Soviet censors. They had meddled with his masterpiece Andrei Rublev (1966) and kept it out of wide release, although it won a major prize at the Cannes Film Festival and slowly gained recognition in the rest of the world as one of the greatest films ever made. In Solaris, Tarkovsky produced a film that was styled as the anti-2001, but much critical re-evaluation has declared the two films to be more like cousins than opposites.
Watching Tarkovsky can be an exercise in patience as he slowly reveals his meaning through long ruminative takes and philosophical dialogue. As a film-maker, Tarkovsky is a breed unto himself. Tarkovsky is a rule-breaker. One of the great contributions of Russian films to the world theory of cinema is the concept of “montage” as espoused by the ultimate Russian pioneer of cinema, Sergei Eisenstein. Basically, montage theory says that the meaning of a film is conveyed by the editing. Hitchcock, for instance was a great believer in montage. But Tarkovsky dispenses with most of that. Thus, his films are more challenging than some, because they use a different cinematic language. Solaris shares a lot of the slow and reflective Tarkovskian pacing with the previous Andrei Rublev, but the former film was actually more visually arresting and kinematically exciting with its famous nude scene, war scene, and the gritty violence of its medieval setting. Solaris is a film preoccupied with self-examination and reflection, and all of its drama happens more or less inside the mind. While it is the most cerebral science fiction of its era, second only to Kubrick’s 2001, it will be a long slog for a generation raised on Star Wars.
Be ready to be challenged by one of the world’s greatest directors as he tells Stanislaw Lem’s story about a strange world with a sentient ocean and its psychic interactions with the astronauts who go there.