Solaris: A Comparison

First, I will examine the direct bridge that can be made between Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris and Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake. I will then focus my attention towards two other films, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, that, while not directly connected to Solaris, are thematically closer to Tarkovsky’s original than Soderbergh’s Solaris is. Then, I will explore Tarkovsky’s legacy, touching on those who influenced him, as well as those who he influenced. I will focus on how elements of style, rhythmic timing, and cinematography may do the same.

In 1961, Polish author Stanislaw Lem wrote the science fiction novel Solaris. Since then, it has be translated dozens of times; the most well known version is a double translation from Polish to French to English. Three film adaptations have been made, the first being a Russian TV movie by Boris Nirenburg. In 1972, Andrei Tarkovsky, the son of a celebrated poet, Arseny Tarkovsky, who’s poetry is revered in Russian society and culture, made a feature film adaptation; and, in 2002, Steven Soderbergh made a Hollywood remake.

A group of scientists study the unique physical properties of the ocean on the planet Solaris. Psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to the space station at Solaris to find out what’s going on, and determine whether the research should continue. On Solaris, he discovers that the two remaining scientists, doctors Snaut and Sartorius, have visitors. After sleeping, a visitor meets him, it’s his dead wife Rheya. Solaris explores their minds during sleep and creates physical manifestations of their conscience – their innermost thoughts, concepts and ideas – in the form of a visitor.

The book is primarily about communication barriers; specifically, the communication barrier between humans and some alien sentient being. It’s about experiencing an alien life form who’s intelligence is beyond human recognition, that works on a level that is apprehensible but not comprehensible to human consciousness. Lem stated that he wanted to create a human encounter with something that certainly exists, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.

Tarkovsky’s Solaris is about a similar communication barrier, except the alien is one’s self. It’s not about experiencing the beyond, but experiencing the beyond within. About reaching the hidden facets of one’s consciousness, and becoming perfectly aware of one’s innermost thoughts. To make conscience manifest, and to face it. Tarkovsky utilizes Solaris as a metaphor for his examination of the human condition. The visitors, who are physical manifestations of conscience, allow the characters to experience a profound insight into themselves.

Soderbourgh’s Solaris doesn’t deal with the themes of incommunicability; or at least, it explores these themes so faintly that they’re better left ignored. The whole concept of Solaris seems like filler, with the primary aspect of the film’s theme being the romantic relationship between Kelvin and his dead wife.

Tarkovsky did not mean for his film to be science fiction. He intended for it to be artistically and spiritually indefinable by genre, an achievement he found with his 1979 feature Stalker. Lem, who specifically wrote a science fiction novel, worked with Tarkovsky on his film, and said that he never liked how Tarkovsky would diverge from the original. Tarkovsky claimed that Lem did not fully appreciate cinema and that he expected the film to merely illustrate the novel without creating an original cinematic piece. While Lem’s novel is about the conflicts of mans natural condition and his place in the universe, Tarkovsky’s film uses this exposition as a starting point for exploring the inner dimensions of the characters.

Each film is a reflection of the directors’ personal and cultural identity. As such, their artistic vision is fundamentally different in character. Soderbergh’s Solaris, which focuses predominantly on the love relationship between Kris and Rheya, is so stylistically, spiritually, and artistically divergent from Tarkovsky’s that I don’t even see how it could be called a remake. Salman Rushdie, a well known author, once stated, “Solaris needs to be seen as widely as possible before it’s transformed by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron into what they ludicrously threaten will be ‘2001 meets Last Tango In Paris’. What, sex in space with floating butter? Tarkovsky must be turning over in his grave”.

The psychological and philosophical implications of Tarkovsky’s film is rather ignored by Soderbergh. They are, however, prevalent themes in the following two films: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon, and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Both of these films were made before Solaris, and, considering Tarkovsky’s personal veneration for them, it is likely that he drew some of his influence from them.

In Rashômon, the murder story, like Solaris’ space exploration story, is utilized as a means for examining the human condition. The contradictions in the four stories reveal that the human ego is responsible. As the commoner states, “it’s human to lie…most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves”. This is a fundamental notion in Solaris, as well as Stalker. In Solaris, one’s innermost thoughts are manifested in reality, while, in Stalker, one’s innermost desires are said to be fulfilled by the room in the Zone. Clearly Tarkovsky and Kurosawa are similarly attempting to find truth by exploring human consciousness – to examine the hidden facets of one’s conscience that has been repressed or disassociated by the ego.

Bergman’s Persona is cited as one of Tarkovsky’s top ten films of all time. It deals with reality, illusion, and exploration of the self. Two characters are shown, but only one identity. Bergman uses two actresses, Elizabeth, who represents the person, and Sister Alma, who represents Elizabeth’s persona. In this way, by watching the actions of Sister Alma, we are watching the profound underlying aspects of consciousness, the active inner part that guides and influences our emotions, and that our thoughts are only partially aware of. This is remarkably similar to the effect of the visitors in Solaris. Rheya, for example, is essentially an aspect of Kris’ persona. It seems that, with Solaris, Tarkovsky wanted to create a physical manifestation for consciousness to render the metaphorical power of Bergman’s film.

Tarkovsky believed that humans are spiritual beings in essence, and that art is a key for opening that door. In his book Sculpting In Time, he writes that the film-goer experiences a mosaic of time, and that the director’s job is to sculpt time into the mosaic that the audience experiences. He claims that rhythm or rhythmic timing is the “dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image, expressing the course of time within the frame”.

Of those who influenced him, Tarkovsky claims the French filmmaker Robert Bresson as the greatest. In the documentary Directed By Andrei Tarkovsky, he says that Bresson captured an incredible ‘lightness’ in his films, and that’s what influenced his own artistic direction. He modeled his rhythmic timing to Bresson’s formula. This is characterized by long takes, slow camera movements, and striking images that poetically express the film’s story. He compares this style of filmmaking with Dovzhenko, Mizoguchi, Bunuel, Kurosawa, and Bergman – all of whom influenced him.

His respect for Bergman was mutual. They even shared the same cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Bergman was especially influenced by Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, saying that his discovery of Tarkovsky was like a miracle. He states: “I found myself standing at the door of a room, the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease”. Moreover, he states that Tarkovsky “invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream”.

The validity of Bergman’s statement is illustrated by the number of filmmakers who model their style after Tarkovsky. These filmmakers, who have all expressed personal veneration for and inspiration from Tarkovsky, include Ingmar Bergman, as mentioned, Sergei Prajanov, Aleksandr Sokurov, Bela Tarr, Krystof Kieslowski, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. From France to Russia to Sweden to Germany to Poland, and even to Thailand, this demonstrates how trans-cultural exchanges may be made in respect to style, rhythmic timing, and cinematography.

In light of this, films act as a retainer for the director’s personal veneration of cinema. What they have been influenced by is held and forwarded through their own films. As a result, bridges between films are constantly being made, as film is an active, community-like system.


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Essays and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Solaris: A Comparison

  1. Pingback: Spilling over | Apples For Eyes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s