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Odds are, one of your favorite movies is a “Space Madness” movie. It’s a familiar trope by now (the phrase originates, I think, from a decades-old “Ren & Stimpy” cartoon spoofing the genre), but Space Madness is perfectly suited for film. That’s why, when a claustrophobic plot unfolds in the heady regions of outer space, you get 2001 or ALIEN or GRAVITY. Hell, even at its worst, you get EVENT HORIZON, and that ain’t bad. In the grand pantheon of Space Madness movies, though, none come more cerebral than Tarkovsky’s slow-and-heavy trip into memory and consciousness, SOLARIS.

In 1972, securing financing for a sweeping science-fiction epic was easy. Tarkovsky’s previous picture was a sprawling period piece (ANDREI RUBLEV, also screening at HFA Jan. 25th) that still hadn’t been released, and the Soviet Union was space-crazed. Perhaps his financiers didn’t know what they were in for. SOLARIS is moody and meditative, an epic only in its emotional depth, a romantic adventure of scientific detachment. Despite its coldness and density—assets both, to be sure—SOLARIS achieves a level of cinematic immersion that could only be described as hypnotic. You watch entrapped by its hard questions and curved, stainless-steel hallways, its sense of natural serenity amidst human fallacy.

Brooding psychologist Kris Klavin (Donatas Banionis) gets tapped to leave Earth to investigate the bizarre happenings aboard a failed research station. For decades, the station has been orbiting the mysterious ocean-planet Solaris, and crew members keep coming back scarred by terrifying hallucinations. The planet, it seems, can bring to life a human’s innermost thoughts and memories, be they an orphaned child or, in the case of our doomed hero Klavin, a long-dead wife (Natalya Bondarchuk) who wants to start over. She materializes almost instantly, and remains enamored of Klavin, but is she the real thing? Or just a version of the real thing Klavin so fondly remembers?

Also onboard are Doctors Snaut (Juri Jarvet) and Sartorius (Anatoly Solonsitsyn), marooned and mad. They represent the varying degrees of insanity Klavin must consider to possibly explain the unsettling phenomenon. Snaut continues at the planet’s mercy, as if it were a drug; Sartorius wants to study these “guest” beings, considering them completely un-human. The questions this difficult film poses are cornerstones of speculative fiction, and its visual style is still referenced today (especially in the aforementioned GRAVITY). One is tempted to think of SOLARIS as a Soviet response to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, the harsh reality of boundless knowledge versus the almost spiritual anthropology presented in Kubrik’s film. Really, they exist as suitably different approaches to similar subject matter. Supposedly, Tarkovsky claims to have not seen 2001 prior to the completion of SOLARIS. A little hard to believe, but the claim still holds water. In the world of SOLARIS, such a memory would bear little consequence.

SOLARIS (Time Within Time – the Films of Andrei Tarkovsky)

Sunday, January 19th, 7:00pm

Harvard Film Archive (Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, MA 02138)

$9 admission


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