Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris presented a completely different kind of science fiction. It doesn’t center on the battle of good vs. evil as usual sci-fi fare does. Instead it’s a psychological drama like no other I’ve seen. It is bizarre and breaks the sci-fi mold. It breaks all molds I know of.
First off there’s a lot of time spent on earth as astro-psychologist Kris Kelvin prepares to leave for the planet Solaris where the crew of this space ship are experiencing mysterious troubles. Kris visits his father’s summer house, located in an Arcadia. Here Kris has visions of his mother and some other woman, who turns out to be his dead wife Hari, An earlier scientist who was on Solaris and knows the secrets of the project comes and tries to warn Kris that there’s a lot of bizarre stuff going on so he should be cautious if not fearful. But Kris dismisses the man.
Once he gets to Solaris, the two remaining cosmonauts are strangely affected by their “guests.” Solaris is an ocean planet that they say can tap into people’s consciousness. Once that happens, the crew start getting guests who were people in their earth lives who’re absolutely maddening. The space ship itself is not what you’d expect. For one thing a lot of the rooms and corridors are filthy, filled will all sorts of debris. The library is a hodgepodge of earthly decorations like Greek busts, a print of a Bruegel painting, knick knacks of various sorts in a wood paneled room. All these things start to levitate at one point. It’s just so weird, but also intriguing.
Kris chooses a clean room of pure white and no mess. Yet as the film progresses his room changes and starts looking like the wreck of the Hesparus. Kris quickly learns that one of the cosmonauts, Dr. Gibaryana has died mysteriously. The remaining scientists are hard to read. Angry and opinionated, Dr. Sartorius can’t be bothered with anyone. He clearly wants nothing to do with Kris. Dr. Snaut is cagey and cryptic, but a bit more helpful. Snaut hides his guest, and evades Kris’ questions, but later waxes philosophic as it’s clear that Kris is part of the Solaris station and needs information on what to expect and how to deal with having a “guest.”
Hari, Kris’ former wife, whom he left which contributed to her committing suicide appears. Snaut has explained that these “guests” aren’t human. They’re real, but it’s hard to understand exactly what they are. They have physicality, but no soul it seems. Terrified by her presence, Kris forces her into a rocket and launches her into space and to her death. But the uncanny thing, is that Hari #2 is soon “resurrected” and replaced with a new Hari.
Kris must deal with his feelings about all these Hari’s who are not all the same and thus his relationships with them differ. As a psychologist he’s supposed to assess the state of the Solaris crew and determine whether the experiment should be end. It’s an incredibly bizarre and dangerous place, but could there be some benefit to it? It’s just so weird, but shutting things down seems wrong or impossible.
Solaris takes viewers on a strange, entrancing journey like few films do. It takes its time and that’s hard for modern viewers, but Roger Ebert points out that Tarkovsky deliberately slows things down and makes things surreal so that the film affects audiences like few others (Ebert. 2003). I’ll say.
Since I had the subtitles on and don’t speak Russian, I watched with the commentary going so I had the benefit of two experts’ commentary. They explained a lot and enhanced my viewing. I learned that the actress who plays Hari gave Tarkovsky the book its based on when she was just 13 (so 6 years before the film was made). The government slashed the film’s budget significantly and Tarkovsky had to cut back on Kodak color film and use black and white and Russian stock. This handicap made the film more interesting as the switches between black and white and color add to the film’s depth. As the film focuses on Kris’ relationship with his former wife/current “guest” there’s some intimacy that the censors kept wanting to cut. (By today’s standards, it’s nothing.) The arguments with censors delayed the film’s release. The DVD also includes interviews with actors, which you’ll probably want to see as it’s a film that sticks with you, just as Stalker does.
Steven Soderberg remade Solaris in 2002. It’s hard to envision an American version, but I’ve ordered it from the library so I’ll let you know what that’s like. I’ve also put the novel it was based on on hold from the library. It is an intriguing story that you won’t master in one viewing.