Solaris: a philosophical science fiction film investigates the nature of reality and humans’ relationship with the cosmos

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Solaris” (1972)

The great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky was nothing if not consistent: he made beautiful, artistic, slow-burning films that are an immersive experience for viewers. We may not ever see his like again. “Solaris” is one such film but for its subject matter and themes of memory, guilt, the nature of reality as opposed to hallucination and the power of the human unconscious and how it may guide one to redemption. Psychiatrist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), in a morose mood and not on good terms with his father and aunt, is called by his superiors to travel to a far distant planet, Solaris, around which revolves a space station. It seems something mysterious has occurred to all the humans working there and he must investigate. Kelvin duly flies out there and finds only two survivors, Straud and Sartorius. It seems that the other crew members succumbed to hallucinations and other phenomena of a paranormal nature generated apparently by the station’s close proximity to the planet which is completely surrounded by an ocean.

Surprise, Kelvin himself finds himself affected by the planet in the shape of his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), an emanation extracted by the forces of the planet from his memory, which has repressed all conscious reminders of her as a result of the guilt he continues to feel over her poison suicide in the distant past. Initially Kelvin tries to get rid of Kari by sending her off in a rocket away from the station – but she resurrects from nowhere. Again he rejects her, she becomes despondent and commits suicide – again she comes back to life. She clings to him; gradually Kelvin’s guilt and reawakened love for his wife change his attitude towards the phantom. Straud periodically challenges Kelvin’s decisions and attitudes regarding Hari. Eventually Kelvin must decide whether to leave Solaris, having experienced for himself what the disappeared crew members endured, or to travel to the planet itself to discover more and communicate directly with the planet’s ocean which turns out to be a sentient life-form.

The pace is glacial, allowing viewers to absorb the film’s themes and issues concerning the way in which we perceive reality and how we decide who or what is real for us; the limits of scientific investigation, reason and rationality; and the incomprehensible nature of the universe. However far humans search for answers to the meaning of life and other major questions of existence, the truth, whatever it is, always remains out of reach and ultimately we must decide whether to continue searching or come to terms with what we can know and accept that we will never fully know.

Tarkovsky’s particular filming technique emphasises long slow panning and close-ups of still life, including nature and inanimate objects: this gives “Solaris” an epic quality appropriate to the conundrums it deals with. Judicious use of animation and sets – the film’s budget was small for its ambitions – manages to convey impressions of the planet’s giant, moody-looking ocean as its thick magma surface swirls slowly. The film is rather dated in its look but once Tarkovsky starts delving into Kelvin’s mind and repressed memories, the movie becomes absorbing. The cinematography is often very graceful and visually rich; characters sometimes appear as statues and scenes may be set up like dioramas.

Minimal acting is required but Banionas and Bondarchuk play their roles capably. Yes, there is a lot of talk and no action. The plot is threadbare with big narrative holes and at the end of the film, Kelvin is no closer to finding out what happened to all the crew than he was when he first landed on the station. Instead he finds new hope for living and has a chance to reform his relationship with his father in an unexpected way: the resolution has a religious connotation of a human rediscovering his/her faith and being reunited with God.

The film can be very pretentious: the science fiction aspects exist mainly as a setting for Tarkovsky’s investigations into human nature, feelings and motivations, and how humans might reconcile their reason with their emotion. The stretch can be tedious and over-long for many, and the narrative is chaotic at times. Viewers will often have to fill in narrative gaps – and there are several – with their own imaginations to make sense of the film. For all its imperfections, “Solaris” is not a bad film to watch.


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