A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Today marks the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight by a human –a “man” back then – into space and the first orbital flight of a manned (humanned?) vehicle, on 12 April 1961, on board the Soviet spaceship Vostok 1.
It is celebrated across the world as Yuri’s Night, in the astronaut’s honour. It’s also used to applaud similarly momentous space exploration milestones. Yuri’s Night was first held in 2001, on the 40th anniversary of human spaceflight, though the Soviet Union had been honouring Cosmonautics Day since 1962, which since 2011 has been called the International Day of Human Space Flight.
12 April was also the day in 1981 when Nasa made the inaugural launch of the Space Shuttle, possibly just coincidentally.
The first Yuri’s Night was masterminded from Los Angeles but featured events and parties globally, from Australia and the South Pole to Dublin and even Houston, home of Nasa.
Solaris (1972, dir: Andrei Tarkovsky)
Solaris, and in particular this original adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel by Andrei Tarkovsky, is one of the films it is essential to namecheck as a wannabe cinephile. That’s because it is long and slow and Russian and boring. At first glance anyway.
Solaris is a meditation on the nature of the soul as much as a sci-fi film. Hard work in other words. It’s been called Tarkovsky’s riposte to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (also long and slow, though metaphysical only flirtatiously).
The plot concerns the journey of a psychologist called Dr Kelvin to a space station where he finds mayhem, death and an alien intelligence capable of reading minds and putting flesh on the thoughts. Soon, Dr Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) has been confronted by a figure who is the spit of his dead wife, except she doesn’t have any of her memories, nor is she any more than Kelvin knows about her.
Here we enter the bit that Tarkovsky is interested in (he later admitted he wasn’t interested in the sci-fi bit at all): the spiritual essence of humanity, the specificity of love, the possibility that we’re all constantly duping ourselves.
Many of the same ideas crop up in a more digestible form in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, ten years later, a film which jogs along compared to Tarkovsky’s dawdle. Steven Soderbergh had a go at a Solaris remake 30 years later, and even his film, an hour shorter, with George Clooney as its star, put an impenetrable force field around the box office.
So don’t attempt the original unless you’ve got the time to stretch out with Tarkovsky and to embrace his poetics and his rambling philosophising. The rewards include some spectacular isolated scenes – the opening shots of our cosmonaut staring at reeds on earth, the exquisite “floating candles” in space later on.
Tarkovsky also throws in a few stunts that look positively Lynchian – where did that dwarf come from? And, of course, as a cinephile keen on clocking up “cool” points, you get to wear the Solaris T shirt.
- Sci-fi, Tarkovsky style
- Hugely influential in terms of tone
- Tarkovsky’s most accessible film
- Another great adaptation of Stanislaw Lem (Icarus XB 1, The Congress)
© Steve Morrissey 2014