Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Maggie 2010: Criterion'd, Part III

#96. Solaris (1972)

I write a lot, and as anyone who writes a lot will tell you, the more you write the easier it is to write about a wide range of topics; and the more those topics don't seem so far removed after all. Which is why I sympathize with Andrei Tarkovsky, who truly hated 2001: A Space Odyssey for what he considered its coldness, its lack of humanity, and was adamant about creating, in Solaris, a work of science fiction that drew on the underlying threads of all great art--the universal human truths. Predictably, the situation was spun as a US versus Russia stand-off of epic, artistic Cold War proportions; but let's face it: "man versus himself" is a thematic latecomer to Western sci-fi. (Ironically, in part due to the Cold War itself, as robots and aliens were time and again allowed to represent the Communist threat.) The Russian tradition was of course also not an easy one to imbue with these humanistic themes, but it's easy to see why fighting that trend towards coldness would be so much on Tarkovsky's mind.

You might know Solaris already from Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake. A psychologist is sent to a space ship orbiting around a strange planet for the purpose of investigating the death of one of three scientists. What he discovers is the presence of his wife, who had committed suicide not long before, and who joins a series of loved ones that mysteriously exist on the space station with the scientists. It later develops that this woman is an imprint created by the planet; and the psychological implications of this occurrence propel the film from then on out.

If you've only seen the North American remake, however, you're missing the full force of Tarkovsky's yang to Kubrick's yin: Tarkovsky's original features a slow, long-take build-up to the psychologist's emergence on the space station to rival the languid visuals and pacing in 2001. Both are, quite decidedly, space epics, and in Tarkovsky's version, so unlike the remake, the facts of his space station, the versions of loved ones that arise out of the planet's consciousness for all crew members aboard, are not a secret slowly unwound, but an immediate truth with immediate consequences for the central protagonist. This allows Tarkovsky to cover a lot more thematic ground in his piece than Soderbergh ever could, with the characters more matter-of-factly and cohesively working through various options and personal crises toward a greater, rarer thread in science fiction: a treatise on grief, on loneliness, and the long, painful road to recovery.

Tarkovsky's version is also the far more stylistically arresting -- everything from his carefully developed long-take technique, to the startling slips from colour to black-and-white, to the very modest sets of the space station against an expansive cerebral terrain (much like Alphaville in that juxtaposition, actually). While Soderbergh invites viewers to regard his film as a thriller, a monster film, through the more typical Western choices he makes with his environment and cinematography, what Tarkovsky's 1972 masterpiece foregrounds is clearly the idea, with all its consequences, of an emotional memory's endurance in physical form. In short, for Soderbergh science fiction is both the means and the end: but for Tarkovsky, in this 165 minute epic, form proves to be just the beginning.

1 comment:

madkevin said...

Outstanding review, Maggie. I have nothing to add except you should totally watch Stalker next.