Director: Andre Tarkovsky
Writers: Andrei Tarkovsky and Fridrikh Gorenshtein (screenplay), Stanislav Lem (novel)
Cinematographer: Vadim Yusov
Stars: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Yuri Yarvet
Studio/Running Time: Criterion, 166 min.
When Solaris was released in the United States at the end of 1976 critics frequently compared it with our own, somewhat more famous science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The reasoning for this is obvious: both are long, slow pictures by difficult auteurs that forsake a conventional narrative. But more than that there was also a sort of implicit competition critics brought to the movie’s interpretation as part of the cold war. A sense of “our sci-fi film is better than your sci-fi film” that was childish and more importantly really missed the point of what Solaris achieves.
This is signaled by the first 45 minutes of Solaris, which stay away from space entirely, grounding us in a futuristic reality that looks and sounds exactly like the world around us. While humans are now traveling to new planets, Andrei Tarkovsky is barely interested in the exposition of what’s happening in space and instead spends his time languorously filming plants and water. He drifts around an idyllic cabin filled with mementos and photographs of loved ones in order to get a sense for what it is to be human. The picture is inundated with memories and emotions before shooting off into space and questioning everything taken for granted about the world, but it’s important to note that this introduction is the part of Solaris that wasn’t adapted from the original novel it’s adapted from, instead it’s something that’s entirely Tarkovsky’s and central to what he achieves, awe at the mysteries of life whatever form they may take.
At this point the film head to the planet Solaris and the space station floating over it where strange anomalies are said to be occurring. It turns out these are people who, while given physical form through memories and dreams, are not hallucinations. The second and much longer half of the film focuses on how the ship’s skeleton crew takes in these manifestations and what this says about humanity. The main character, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is haunted by his dead wife and is unable to come to terms with his feelings about her. After all, he still loves the woman, but she’s dead. Then again, she has memories, thoughts, feelings and eventually even dreams, so what’s to separate her from being a human? Unsurprisingly, the crew stationed on Solaris has largely gone mad.
What keeps Solaris from being a simple epistemological fable are the emotions involved. It’s also what keeps the film from becoming didactic, such that the points Tarkovsky’s obviously trying to make with Solaris never become a lecture but remain a sort of exploration. Characters’ moral doubts in this odd situation are never really answered and while the director’s ideas on this matter are made clear, the film never gives a sense that this the “right” choice, simply that it’s one way of viewing things. Tarkovsky clearly feels that these questions are too difficult to be given a traditional answer. In this way the film follows the path of other great Russian moralists and offers endlessly strange questions about the assumptions we make about life.
Solaris isn’t a flawless picture, and parts of it feel weirdly dated in contrast to the timelessness of of the rest. It’s a film of mysteries and some of them distract from the more important parts of what’s going on. Tarkovsky himself considered it to be a bit of a failure, but I suspect that’s simply because what it attempts to illustrate is so broad that it couldn’t help but fail in some respects (that his prior feature, the absolute masterpiece Andrei Rublev, somehow managed to evade this problem may also factor into things). Taken on its own terms, though, it remains a fascinating work and its deep questioning of what makes us human when faced with simulacrums feels if anything more relevant today than when it was made.