Movie poster Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972. Found in the collection of the Russian State Library, Moscow. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Two philosophical epics loom over 20th century sci-fi. The first is Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking, mind-bending 2001: A Space Odyssey. The second, less well known but no less influential, is Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 masterpiece, Solaris. Both films are visually and conceptually rich works of contemplative science fiction. Both see cosmonauts confront the bewildering limits of human understanding. But in many ways the two are perfect counterpoints.
While Kubrick admired Solaris, Tarkovsky brutally dismissed 2001, and its preoccupation with technological progress, as “cold and sterile, with only pretensions to truth”. Tarkovsky ensures that in Solaris – often viewed as a Soviet riposte to 2001 – passionate human drama takes centre stage. His film shuns the future in favour of the past and offers a mesmerising commentary on humanity’s neglected voyage of self-discovery.
The story begins on Earth. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is about to be sent to a space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris to assess the mental health of a depleted and erratic crew. Kris spends his last days on Earth wandering around his family home in conversation with his father and a cosmonaut, Burton, who recounts the strange visions that plagued him while on Solaris. The grounds of Kris’s home provide the setting for Tarkovsky’s first visual flourishes – the camera lingers on the bucolic tranquillity of a Russian meadow and the gently billowing reeds in a misty lake.
On board the lonely station – all curved chrome corridors and white-padded bedrooms – Kris finds the two surviving crew members, Sartorius and Snaut, who have been driven close to madness by the appearance of human figures. These “guests”, we discover, are immortal projections of consciousness, assembled from the contents of the cosmonauts’ memories by the seemingly sentient ocean covering Solaris’s surface. Soon, Kelvin is joined by the living phantom of his former wife, Khari (Natalya Bondarchuck), who killed herself ten years before after their tempestuous marriage deteriorated.
Tarkovsky uses these apparitions to pose questions about the essence of human relationships. How should we treat something that is human but we know cannot be? When we love someone, is it just the idea of them that we love? The coldly cynical Sartorius dismisses Khari as a simulacrum, a matrix. For Kris, she is real enough in the ways that matter. He can hold her and speak to her, although he chooses not to tell her how and why she died. Khari knows she loves Kris, the author of her existence. But she cannot remember anything of her past life and begins to realise that she is an empty memory.
Tarkovsky delicately develops this grief-stricken love story. In one stunning set piece, as the station changes orbit, Kris and Khari gently turn in a zero-gravity waltz in the wood-panelled library. Outside, beyond the jet-black voids of the station’s windows are the roiling, oily waves of a sentient sea. It’s poetic stuff, masterfully executed.
The backdrop to this cosmic drama is an exquisite tension kept alive by a series of peculiar events. A young girl dressed in blue slips around a corner, just out of reach. A dwarf escapes Sartorius’s laboratory, only to be hauled back in. And as Kris walks past a door, we see Snaut peering through the crack. But Kris doesn’t, and this wicked detail drips a creeping paranoia into the film.
Tarkovsky is never afraid to put the narrative on hold and slip into unhurried explorations of landscape and detail. In one compelling arrangement, a camera is mounted on the front of Burton’s car as it sweeps along an eerie motorway. There’s silence at first. But then a wind starts to blow, gradually rising in volume as the shots of an oriental future city become increasingly short and disjointed. When the wind reaches its all-engulfing crescendo, the chaotic neon cityscape cuts back to the twilight stillness of the lake in Kris’s garden.
The extended prologue on Earth is one of the big departures from Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel on which the film is based. By lingering on homely, terrestrial affairs, Tarkovsky draws attention to humanity’s misplaced emphasis on acquiring knowledge of the universe rather than of itself. As the disillusioned Snaut puts it in his drunken speech: “Humankind has no interest in conquering the cosmos. We want to extend the Earth. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We don’t need them. We need a mirror. Man needs man.”
Just as outer space seems incidental, so does the film’s futuristic setting. The space station interior is beautifully modernistic but restrained. Technology lurks in the background but never becomes the focal point. Instead, the film is deeply nostalgic. A bust of Socrates sits in the station library where the cosmonauts quote Don Quixote and discuss Dostoevsky. On the wall hangs Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, a 16th century painting of weary men returning over the hills to their snow-swept village where peasants play on icy ponds. Even Kris’s house is a replica his father built of his own childhood home. “I don’t like anything new,” says his father.
As the film reaches its climax it collapses into a fever dream and the increasingly dishevelled Kris staggers about the dilapidated station in a hazy stupor, unable to reconcile his reason with his experience. The disorienting final shot sweeps the rug from under your feet, forcing you to reassess everything that’s come before. The result is a majestic, emotionally charged meditation on love, grief and humanity in sumptuous sci-fi packaging.