Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris vs the Steven Soderbergh version, plus a diss about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

One of my favourite disses in cinema history is Andrei Tarkovsky calling 2001: A Space Odyssey a “comic book”. It can be found in Naum Abramov’s interview — catalogued in Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews, in the chapter “Dialogue with Andrei Tarkovsky about Science Fiction on the Screen” — from 1970. That was during the time Tarkovsky was adapting Stanisław Lem’s novel, Solaris, into a film. (The film came out in 1972.)

Abramov mentions that most sci-fi directors focus less on the central idea of the film than on impressing the viewer with art direction: the details of everyday life on other worlds, or the details of a spacecraft’s construction. “I think Kubrick’s Space Odyssey is guilty of that,” he says, leadingly. We can practically hear his whispered prayer that Tarkovsky will pick up the cue and respond with a quote for the ages.

 Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris vs the Steven Soderbergh version, plus a diss about Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey

A still from 2001: A Space Odyssey

And boy, he does. “Design is design. Painting is painting. And a film is a film. One should ‘separate the firmament from the waters’ and not engage in making comic books.” In all the science-fiction films he’s seen, Tarkovsky says, the filmmakers force the viewer to examine the material structure of the future. “More than that, sometimes, like Kubrick, they call their own films premonitions. It’s unbelievable! Let alone that 2001: A Space Odyssey is phoney on many points even for specialists. For a true work of art, the fake must be eliminated. I would like to shoot Solaris in a way that the viewer would be unaware of any exoticism. Of course, I’m referring to the exoticism of technology.”

Can you imagine the clickbait value of this statement in this digital age? Sample headline: “Tarkovsky says ‘2001’ is ‘phoney’ and just a ‘comic book’!” But what he means is this. The moon landing in 2001 is staged like an “event”. In Tarkovsky’s view, it should be staged like a bus arriving at a stop, because that would be the drab reality — the everyday environment — of the situation in the future.

In other words, the event should not be exoticised, but “conveyed to the viewer through the perception of the film’s characters”. (And to these characters, this event would not be the “event” it is to us, the audience.)

In Tarkovsky’s view, the detailed ‘examination’ of the technological processes of the future transforms the emotional foundation of a film into a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth.

I wonder if Tarkovsky would be singing a slightly different tune if he’d been born in a capitalist country, with a Hollywood budget to spend on his movie. I also disagree with his contention that 2001 is just “lifeless schema.” The death of HAL 9000 is one of the most emotional set pieces in cinema history, plus it’s backed by the man/machine philosophy that runs through the film, right from the time the apes made their first “machine”. But generally speaking, I am with Tarkovsky. All he’s really saying is that the world should not be laid down for us like a high-school presentation. We should feel that the world already exists, that it has existed even before we stepped into the theatre.

A still from Andrei Tarkvosky's Solaris

A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris

This world, in Solaris, is a planet apparently capable of reaching into the recesses of your mind, the places where you’ve tucked away your most painful memories. In the case of the psychologist, Kris Kelvin, these memories are of his wife, Hari. Solaris creates a replica of her and sends her/it to the space station he’s in, orbiting the planet. The thing that looks and walks and talks like Kris Kelvin’s wife back on earth, who killed herself, is simply a repository of alien intelligence.

The most touching — most emotional — aspect of the story is that this replica is a blank slate, which is slowly filled with knowledge of what happened back to the original Hari. The supreme irony for me, given Tarkovsky’s dismissal of 2001, is that Hari is a lot like HAL 9000. She has been “programmed” with a semblance of what it means to be human, but she has never led a life that’s allowed her to actually experience these emotions.

The Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris (2002) — which was truer to the spirit of the novel than to Tarkovsky’s film — made these emotions its focus. We get more flashbacks of the woman’s earlier life, before she died. The man ends up in space, and he’s revisited by replicas of this woman created by the planet — this much is similar in both films. But Soderbergh looks at the situation as an opportunity for some sort of couple’s therapy.

A still from Steven Sodenbergh's Solaris

A still from Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris

Stanisław Lem did not mind this adaptation, but he said, “I am not delighted with the prominence of love. Solaris may be perceived as a river basin — and Soderbergh chose only one of its tributaries.” Is that wrong? Is a creator not allowed to take only the parts of a book that interest him, and not feel obliged to “represent” the entire book?

Tarkovsky would have hated Soderbergh’s version. He died in 1986, but it’s almost as though he anticipated a narrower, love-centric adaptation in the future, and therefore embedded a critique in his film.

When yet another incarnation of Hari dies, Kris Kelvin is distraught. But a colleague tells him, “Don’t turn a scientific problem into a common love story.” You could call the Tarkovsky film an uncommon love story, a love story that’s just one of the many facets of an inscrutable prism. It’s not just about man and woman. It’s about life itself.

Near the end, Kris Kelvin asks his colleague, “Listen, having spent so many years here on the station, do you still feel a clear connection to your life down there?” The colleague is dismissive. He replies, “When man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal themes rarely interest him. These questions should be asked at the end of one’s life.” And the camera’s focus slowly drifts to the shawl Hari used to wear, now draped on a chair. Tarkovsky’s film could be described with a line from Soderbergh’s: “There are no answers, only choices.”

You could argue that this is true about any difficult film. We choose one interpretation over another, the one that makes most sense to us. But one thing is certain. Tarkovsky was serious about that Kubrick diss. He was serious when he said, in that interview, that he wanted his film to be free of “the exoticism of technology.” The space station feels lived in and dingy, unlike the clinically cool interiors of Kubrick’s film. When Kris Kelvin asks his colleague that question, we really feel the weight of these words: “having spent so many years here on the station…” The premise may be new, but it unfolds in a world that existed (convincingly) long before we enter the theatre, or sit before a smaller screen.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

All images from Twitter.

Updated Date: May 14, 2020 10:55:43 IST

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