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July, 2009 : Criticism:

Cinemapathic Science Fiction

Tarkovsky, Solaris, and Stalker

Much has been said about the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and his films—perhaps the largest part of it by those who disliked them, found them inexplicable, or just out-and-out hated them. Curiously, this is one of the greatest witnesses to the visceral power of his work, that so many unhappy people can't stop talking about them.

It is not enough to say that Tarkovsky made films that are difficult or confusing or frustrating. This hardly begins to describe a film which lingers on a single painting for minutes on end—or spends ten minutes driving through endless tunnels, highways and underpasses.

No, Tarkovsky was a Cinemapath: he did not merely make movies, he inflicted them on people. Most directors feel some urge to meet their audiences halfway, to help them to understand what it is they have to say. Not Tarkovsky. He put his own vision up on the screen with no concessions to those unable to grasp it. Even worse, he expected his audiences to watch closely, remember what they saw, think about it all and ultimately put the pieces together for themselves.

Watching one of his films requires intense concentration, a certain amount of thought, a willingness to sit there and let it wash over you—and, with running times of close to three hours, a considerable amount of spare time. All of which sadly leaves them accessible to a very few people.

And yet despite all that (or perhaps because of all that) he made two of the best science fiction films ever made: the highly acclaimed Solaris (1971) (sometimes—rather misleadingly—described as the Russian 2001), and his lesser-known (but no less remarkable) later effort, Stalker (1979).


To understand Tarkovsky, it helps to understand a little about the times he lived in; the last, crumbling days of the Soviet Empire.

It is too easy to paint a picture of Soviet life in which the monolithic power of the State crushed down any mild deviation from Communist orthodoxy. That may have happened all too many times during the Soviet Union's brief history, but by the 70s no one believed in Communism any more. Not that that put an end to political repression, it merely took all the enthusiasm out of it. It was an era of brief bursts of ideological oppression followed by longer periods of laxity. Perhaps only a few dared speak their minds openly, but quite a few artists were willing to slip their ideas into their work sideways.

Tarkovsky first came to the attention of Western audiences with his second full-length film, Andrei Rubelev. It is a profound and deeply-moving story about the life of a great Russian religious figure—an icon painter and monk—and the atheistic Soviet state that paid Tarkovsky to make it.

Or at least, they paid all the bills, whether they knew what they were getting or not. Remember that the Russian film industry was state-run. The Soviet Union put up all the money and paid the salaries of the cast and crew. What is harder to explain is how he got it filmed without official interference. In the Stalinist era he might have gone to Siberia for such a film: as it was the Commissars refused to release it. While they did send it to the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, they tried to keep anyone from seeing it by running it at 4:00 in the morning on the last night.

It didn't help: Andrei Rubelev won the International Film Critics award.

They then released it in the West, perhaps out of sheer embarrassment. But, as with the other Tarkovsky films that followed, it had only the most limited run in the USSR.

Never again would Tarkovsky make a film that so directly challenged Soviet proprieties. Instead, for his next film, he chose a route many other Iron Curtain writers and directors had taken before him:

He made a science fiction film.


This may not seem an obvious solution. Yet in that time and place it made a lot of sense. For the directors of such films as The Planet Of Storms (Planeta Bur, 1962), SF represented an escape from most of the routine ideological demands placed on Soviet films of that era. Perhaps because of the influence of American SF film, the bureaucrats seem to have considered science fiction as nothing much more than entertainment for juvenile audiences.

Others, such as the most popular Russian SF writers of the era, the Strugatsky Brothers, found that SF gave them the freedom to satirize or criticize the society they lived in. After all, a world choked by mind-numbing bureaucracy (say) was clearly a fantasy and had nothing to do with the realities of Soviet life.

This strategy didn't always work. One film, The Andromeda Nebula, "...appeared to draw its cast entirely from the Olympic weight-lifting team, conducting their conversations while performing back-flips, diving into baroque swimming pools and absent-mindedly flexing their biceps" and "leaves little other impression than that of rude health and an identical group of characters declaiming like opera stars" (as film critic Phillip Strick described it in his book Science Fiction Movies [Octopus Books: London, 1976]). And yet something in it offended the film officials so much that they cancelled a planned sequel.

Still, it is hard not to get the impression that there might have been something willful in this convenient blindness towards SF, at least by the 70s when the Strugatskys, Stanislaw Lem, Tarkovsky and others were turning out works of science fiction at odds with the official weltanschauung.

Tarkovsky later claimed that he deliberately made Solaris boring so that the bureaucrats wouldn't be paying attention by the time he finally got around to presenting his main themes. Whether or not this is true is anyone's guess. It is almost an hour into the film before the hero leaves the Earth—and the infamous ramps and tunnels sequence occurs in that first hour.

Solaris is an adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem. Although Lem hated the film, it actually follows the original novel very closely—and many of the major departures simply help to bring some of its more difficult concepts to the screen.

The film starts with Kelvin, a psychologist who is being sent to find out what is happening on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. He has gone home to visit his father before his trip and is obviously troubled by what is happening. An astronaut who served on the station comes to visit and tells him about the strange things he saw on the planet's surface. Solaris' strange sea is somehow a living entity, although their attempts to contact it have all failed. Now the station which once held a crew of 85 is almost deserted—and the remaining three crewmen all seem to be falling apart. By the time Kelvin reaches the station, one of them, his old friend Gibarian, has committed suicide. When Kelvin wakes up on the morning of his first day aboard the station his finds his ex-wife Hari (who committed suicide some years before) in the room with him.

Kelvin shoots her into space in a rocket. But she appears again the next morning and the station's commander, Dr. Snouth, tells him that it is the living sea of Solaris which has brought her and the other crewmember's personal demons to life. While they are apparently solid and real—and can be killed—they either return to life or yet another copy gets sent in their place.

Kelvin blames himself for the real Hari's death and he becomes increasingly distraught as the artificial Hari herself, like the original, becomes suicidal. He tries to watch her every minute, but eventually collapses under the strain.

Don't be deceived by this summary. It may sound straightforward, even simple—and yet there is far more to the film than any summary can get at, no matter how detailed. As with 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film is about an attempt to contact an alien intelligence, but in Solaris the alien is truly alien; something that we really cannot understand, whose actions are mystifying and beyond comprehension—and perhaps something we don't want to understand, as we really want to find a mirror image of ourselves. In one of the major departures from Lem's novel, Solaris' attempts to communicate (if that is what it was doing) do not end with the elimination of Hari. Instead, Tarkovsky ends with the planet making a new attempt that is even stranger and more traumatic than the last.

Few people seem to agree on the meaning of the film: some of the attempts to explain it have themselves gone off in wondrously strange directions. Curiously, his main theme seems fairly clear, even if few people seem to see it. At one point, in a line of dialog not found in the original novel, one of characters muses that it would take something larger than it to love all of mankind. In context, this line might refer to the living sea, but it invites us to consider the sea itself as a metaphor for something else larger than all mankind.

Or in other words, the grueling and painful struggles his characters undergo in their efforts to make contact with Solaris serve as a metaphor for man's own struggles with God (an interpretation strengthened by the film's references to Dostoevsky, who saw man's relationship with God in much the same light.)

Once again, the film won an award at Cannes (this time the prestigious Grand Jury award, which is essentially an alternate first prize), ran in theaters and film festivals in the West, but did not get much of a run behind the Iron Curtain.


Some have suggested that Tarkovsky's fourth film, The Mirror, may have suffered at the hands of the Soviet editors. Tarkovsky's own comments in his book Sculpting In Time: Tarkovsky The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art (University Of Texas Press, 1989) make no reference to such interference—and certainly failing to understand a Tarkovsky film is no proof that someone has removed portions of it! Whatever the case, in 1979 he returned to SF with a film that echoes many of the same themes as Solaris.

What was it? A meteorite that fell to earth? Or a visitation from outer space? Whatever it was, there appeared in our small land a miracle of miracles—the ZONE.
We sent in troops. None returned. Then we surrounded the zone with police cordons... We did right... Although I'm not sure...

Even before the film starts, Stalker's written prologue establishes its mysterious nature—and gives us a glimpse of its existential uncertainties. While it claims to be an adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers' story Roadside Picnic (and the brothers actually received a screenplay credit, along with Tarkovsky) very little of the original story has survived. Many years before, something mysterious happened that created a deadly region known as the zone. At the heart of the zone is a room that supposedly has the power to grant the deepest desire of anyone who enters it. A handful of men, known as stalkers (a title apparently derived from James Fennimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales) guide people to this room (but cannot enter it themselves).

Stalker follows one of these stalkers as he guides his two clients—an enormously successful and famous author (referred to only as "Writer") and a physicist ("Professor") past the armed security guards and through a devastated, ever-changing landscape littered with abandoned tanks, discarded weapons and dead bodies.

Again, any summary cannot convey the full reality of the film. Tarkovsky created something full of the inexplicable, of raw suffering and (particularly in the grueling "meatgrinder" sequence) of an existential dread that seems far more terrifying because we never see anything frightening. At one point their path takes an impossible turn and ends up back in the place they'd just left; later a phone rings in a ruined building and the call turns out to be for Professor; near the end a sudden cloudburst takes place inside a room (an image, curiously, that also turned up in the climax of Solaris).

In the original story, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's offered the metaphor of the roadside picnic—that whatever was in the zone may have been alien garbage, like the remnants of someone's picnic tossed casually into the bushes. Tarkovsky's zone might be alien in origin, and yet it has a far more mysterious quality to it, "mysterious" in the old sense of a religious mystery: something that is ultimately rational and yet totally beyond the limits of our human reason. The room—or whatever is in it—does not merely grant our wishes like a genie from a bottle. Instead, it gives us the deepest desire of our hearts, something we may not even realize is our true desire.

Unlike Solaris, Stalker's religious themes appear far more openly: Tarkovsky quotes from both the Apocalypse and the Gospel account of the journey to Emmaus; ruined icons appear within the zone, including one on the floor of the mysterious room itself. In many ways it seems less a science fiction film than an attempt to film St. John of the Cross' spiritual classic, Ascent Of Mount Carmel.

In the end, Stalker killed Tarkovsky. He filmed it in an abandoned industrial complex, in a country whose factories did not have to meet the sort of environmental and safety restrictions ours do. He put his crew through a physically intense shoot that required them to wade through streams and work in standing water. They used the small dams in the area to flood or drain the landscape throughout the film. In some scenes you can see chemical foam piling up under small waterfalls. Even worse, Tarkovsky had to film Stalker twice: Eastman Kodak gave him some special high-quality color film that required very particular handling. When they developed it, they found it all ruined. Tarkovsky suspected that the film bureau had taken his film and given it to one of their favorites, replacing it with standard film stock. His careful handling of the film, according to the special instructions, had destroyed his work, forcing him to spend even more time in the contaminated site.

Not long afterwards, he developed leukemia. Tarkovsky, most of his crew, his wife, and his three stars would all die of cancer within a few years.


Cinematic science fiction has frequently attracted fans drawn mostly by its visual splendor—which is a nice way of saying special effects, explosions, and spaceships. On the other hand, a sizeable contingent of print science fiction fans watch SF films, although sometimes one might get the impression that they do so for no other reason than to complain about how these films have failed to present worthwhile SF ideas. Unfortunately Tarkovsky's films will please neither group: while the interior of the Solaris station is beautiful and well thought out, Tarkovsky kept his effects shots to a bare minimum—by choice, one suspects, as the Soviet film industry had made quite a few effects-heavy films. On the other hand, print SF fans are not likely to embrace his religious themes and mystical moods. Nor will they notice the off-hand way in which he integrated some SF ideas from the original stories—as in Solaris where the changing colors of the light in a sunrise sequence suggest the presence of Lem's two sun system; or in one of the few ideas in Roadside Picnic to make it into Stalker (although without any explanation): the use of weighted handkerchiefs to check for deadly pockets of high gravity.

Tarkovsky's films are either beautiful, disturbing, and deeply moving—or boring, bombastic, and pointless. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. No one watches them and walks away saying they're just okay science fiction films. Such a banal response doesn't even seem possible. Unfortunately, it all depends on what the viewer brings into the experience. Those willing to invest themselves in his work, those willing to sit there, wait, and watch—and perhaps think a little bit about it all—will gain far more than they put into it.

And those who aren't?

They'd probably be better off avoiding them.

Which is a shame. They truly can't imagine what they're missing.


Copyright © 2009, Mark Cole. All Rights Reserved.

About Mark Cole

Mark Cole writes from Warren, Pa.

You can read his short story, "Reverse Engineering" at Flash Fiction Online.

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