#6 in my ranking of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films.
Fresh off the uncomfortable release of Andrei Rublev (actually, in the middle of it since it didn’t actually get an official Soviet release until 1973), Andrei Tarkovsky went safe. He chose to adapt the work of a popular Polish Soviet science fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, and hoped that it would help his career. Despite working closely with Lem, Tarkovsky ended up making a work that Lem hated, saying that the adaptation missed the point and that his novel wasn’t about the erotic problems of astronauts. His book was about the limits of human reason, an idea that Tarkovsky certainly does touch on, but the emphasis seems to be more about the struggles of communication with a superior force. I think it’s easy to see why, even if the film is great in its own right, Lem would reject it ultimately (as well as the Soderbergh film from 2002).
At some point in the future, a field of study called Solaristics has become moribund. The science is the study of the planet Solaris, a living planet with oceans and an atmosphere that defies explanation. The effort to study it came to a halt some decades before when a pilot, Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) saw things on a flight through the atmosphere that sounded absolutely insane. He saw giant children without spacesuits, and islands that appeared and disappeared. Funding got pulled, but the space station in orbit remained. Into the story comes Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist being sent to Solaris to speak with the final three residents of the station and make a judgment about whether to remove the station from orbit or allow it to stay.
The first forty-five minutes of this film are set firmly on Earth as Berton comes to Kelvin’s remote country home to show him video of his testimony, and it’s very important to the film. The film gives us a very firm grounding emotionally, visually, and aesthetically that makes the alien world of Solaris and the metallic interior of the station all the more foreign to our senses. The most important visual is of reeds underneath the surface of the small pond behind the house, flowing with the motion of the water. This comes back later when Kelvin puts up a paper with cuts in it against an air vent in the station to replicate the sound of nature in the stolid environment, and it provides a visual link to his home back on Earth at the same time.
The narrative importance of the early scenes are around establishing the history of Solaris and the science but also to give Kelvin time with Berton who insists that the things he saw were truly there. Kelvin, the sceptic, is completely unopen to hearing it. There’s no way that the things Berton saw could be true.
The station itself is an incredible product of design with red walls, steely floors, and an abandoned look that feels authentic. Upon arriving, Kris discovers that the one of the three that he actually knew, Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), has committed suicide, and the other two, Dr. Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and Dr. Snaut (Juri Jarvet) won’t really talk about it. Also, there seem to be other people on the station, especially a young woman who flits around corners just outside of Kris’ view. He quickly learns that these visions of other people are “guests”, manifestations of the dead from the subconscious of the scientists. Dr. Snaut calmly informs Kris that he will receive one as well once he goes to sleep. That prediction comes true, and it’s Kris’ dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk).
Kris is so terrified of the vision, that he quite literally immediately tricks this resurrected version of his wife into climbing into a rocket on the station and launching her into space. It’s no use since she comes back, appearing fully formed with a new shawl to match the one Hari I left behind, the next night when he goes to sleep. Realizing that he can’t get rid of her, Kris accepts her presence to a certain extent, and tries to go on with his work. Hari II, though, is so intimately tied to Kris that she can’t stand being outside of his presence, going so far as to break through the door to the quarters when he leaves for just a moment.
Is Hari II human? Is she just a manifestation? Is she real? As she lives longer, she becomes more independent and thoughtful, but ultimately this is Kris’ journey. His is about connecting with Hari II as much as he would connect with the original, his real wife, ultimately saying that Hari II is as real as the original ever was. I can see how Lem might find that this goes too far in a direction he didn’t intend. And yet, it’s not really about Kris reconnecting with his dead wife. Hari II is a manifestation of Solaris, and ultimately it’s about a higher level of intelligence learning to communicate with a lower one, digging into the subconscious of Kris and finding the woman he had loved as the most appropriate conduit. And yet, the communication remains incomplete. What one wants from the other gets lost in emotion, creating imprecision rather than clarity.
Hari II represents Kris’ past, and he ultimately doesn’t want to part from it. Instead of focusing on his mission, he decides to stay on the station forever with Hari II. It’s a regression for him. Everything comes to a sudden end when Dr. Sartorius beams Kris’s brain pattern down to Solaris, providing the most direct communication possible, and Hari II leaves a note filled with mournful sadness at the necessary parting between her and Kris, in no small part because Solaris is realizing how much it’s hurting the humans made all the worse by Hari II’s insistence at her own reality (made all the worse by a suicide attempt that kills her but she recovers from because she’s not actually human but an extension of Solaris).
Being an extremely Russian movie, the film occasionally moves into philosophical discussions between the characters about the nature of reality. The central occasion of this happens in the station’s library, the only room that feels like something back on earth with deep mahogany shelves, tables, and chairs stuffed with books and several paintings, most notably The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. These kinds of sequences work to help enhance the film because Tarkovsky uses them as extensions of themes and characters. It’s how his intelligent characters often communicate, and at the heart of the discussion is Hari II, before her suicide attempt. There’s acrimony especially from Dr. Sartorius while Dr. Snaut has a more laid back attitude to the guests, having found an uneasy kind of peace with the invasion.
There are also moments that presage what Tarkovsky would end up doing in the entirety of his next film, Mirror, moments of disconnected imagery designed to help illuminate the inner life of Kris. Late in the film, while regarding The Hunters in the Snow, he thinks back to his life on Earth, especially centered around his mother who seems to have died young, and this sort of intimate connection that he had left behind, made worse by the reality of how his relationship with the original Hari had ended with her suicide after a fight with Kris’ mother, eats at him on the inside.
For a slow-moving movie, Solaris has a lot going on. It’s a dense, intelligent film that uses emotional storytelling to explore a more intellectual concept. It’s also a film really designed for a certain set of cinematic tastebuds. Yes, it’s science-fiction, but it’s so far from what most people think of science fiction as to essentially be another genre. I don’t enjoy playing genre labeling games, so it’s existence somewhere between drama, fantasy, science-fiction, and Russian epic doesn’t bother me. I find Solaris a hypnotic voyage into the unknown where man meets something far larger than himself and simply does not know how to communicate with it, his own concerns ultimately preventing him from understanding that which is so much more. In some ways it reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s “child race” motif from his science-fiction novels, but told in a much more humane manner, finding empathy with Kris where Clarke would likely have found scorn.