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Review: Solaris (1972)

[The following review contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

I didn’t fall in love with Solaris at first sight. Its pacing is languid and glacial even by director Andrei Tarkovsky’s usual standards; by the time the protagonist arrives at the eponymous space station, over forty minutes have elapsed—and the story doesn’t exactly pick up momentum from there. Exposition is delivered with all the urgency of a trickle of molasses and all the clarity of a technical manual that’s been printed in the wrong order.

And yet… the film lingered in my mind, gradually, seductively revealing the beauty beneath its introspective navel-gazing. Indeed, it is only appropriate that the movie continued to haunt my dreams like a cosmic phantom long after the end credits rolled, for memory is its central thematic concern.

The plot revolves around a small team of astronauts studying a seemingly sentient planet. In response to being bombarded with radiation, the intelligence governing the alien world probes each researcher’s subconscious, constructing neutrino-based doppelgängers of their friends, children, and family members in an apparent effort to communicate. But because these “Visitors” are shaped by the host’s inherently subjective personal experiences, they can only ever be shallow, two-dimensional imitations of the individuals from whom they were copied—ethereal specters torn out of a dreamlike past. Even when the simulacrum of our hero’s wife begins to develop an identity of her own, she is defined entirely by how she diverges from the original—and this uncanny dissonance between the rich complexity of life and the insubstantial hollowness of its reflection slowly drives the crew to the brink of insanity.

Solaris concludes with a visual bookend, repeating the poetic montage that served as its prologue: green reeds sway gracefully beneath a gently flowing stream, red leaves dance lazily in the breeze, sunlight glistens brilliantly on the surface of a placid lake. Replication, however, has greatly diminished the vibrancy of the imagery: the once vivid colors are now faded and muted, and a thin layer of ice creates the illusion of unnatural stillness, as though time itself has frozen.

The implication is clear: nostalgia has irreparably tarnished the characters’ perception of reality, leaving them incapable of distinguishing between an object and its shadow on the wall.

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