Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS is not for everybody. It’s slow and brooding and deals with some very heady themes that are not readily obvious at times. But I love this movie, as I love the Stanislaw Lem book of the same name that it’s based on.
As with all great books, I remember reading SOLARIS for the first time. I was working on BATMAN & ROBIN as one of the puppeteers of Poison Ivy’s flower bed (which I also helped build) and would read it obsessively during the downtime between shots. One of the guys I was working with asked me if I had ever seen the film and, at the time, I had no idea that there was one.
As soon as I finished the book, with great reticence I tracked down a video copy of the Russian movie. I had heard of Tarkovsky, but knew that he made very arty films and couldn’t conceive how he might realize the amazing visual aspects that captured my imagination in the book.
The book concerns Kris Kelvin, a widowed psychologist sent to the space station orbiting the mysterious living planet Solaris. It seems that the crew has gone mad and Kris is there to figure out what has gone wrong. Upon arrival, he finds the station a mess and the two remaining crew members have isolated themselves from each other. He soon discovers other “people” aboard the station that shouldn’t be there. It’s not until an exact duplicate of Kris’ long dead wife appears on the Solaris station that he realizes the full ramifications of what’s going on.
On the surface, it may sound like a sci-fi/horror story but it is anything but. At its core, SOLARIS is a love story that deals with themes of loss and grief and most importantly, letting go of the past. It also deals with human hubris and our inability to admit that there are things beyond our understanding. Are these visitors a communication from Solaris itself or are they simply a natural process with no intentions; good or bad? It’s a haunting story and exemplifies the very best of science fiction.
Watching the film for the first time was a challenging experience as Tarkovsky has his own thematic agendas, most specifically his infatuation with the Earth itself and his philosophy on woman as nurturers. The book begins with Kris traveling to Solaris, while the first 45 minutes of the 2hr and 46min film takes place on Earth and concerns Kris’ family life and his connection with nature. It’s reminiscent of a Terrance Malick film with long slow shots of nature or ponderous conversations between individuals with no regard for pacing. It’s interesting but at first seems irrelevant.
Once the action moves to the Solaris station, the story moves at a more brisk pace (for a Tarkovsky film) and becomes one of his most accessible films, following the plot of the book fairly faithfully. From a visual aspect, great care has been taken in the production design and art direction. The space station itself has a very lived in feel and predates the same aesthetic seen in STAR WARS and ALIEN. The only disappointment is the portrayal of the planet Solaris itself. Rectified in the 2002 Soderbergh version, the depiction of the living planet leaves a little to be desired and is mostly just altered footage of swirling oceans.
What SOLARIS lacks in Special FX it makes up for in spades with the love story between Kris Donatas Banionis) and his visitor Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). The performances are truthful and the tragedy that is their failed relationship is painful to consider at times. Kris knows that Hari is not his ex-wife, but she also is; An exact doppleganger and one who in theory will never leave him.
SOLARIS is one of those movies that needs to be experienced as much as watched. Most may find it too slow for their tastes, but those who do choose to give it their full-undivided attention will be rewarded. I have seen the movie at least 5 or 6 times at this point and it becomes more cherished every time. This is a very personal MUST SEE MOVIE for me. I hope it will be for you as well.