Based on the novel of the same name by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 science-fiction epic Solaris engages with some of the most elemental aspects of life. With incredible comprehensiveness and clarity, the film addresses issues of faith, love, loss, memory, grief, anguish, and reality itself. Tarkovsky even includes an especially timely meditation on the rather unnerving possibility that science might not be able to deal constructively with the issues to which science has brought us. This paradox is the deep theme of Solaris; a film, its essence, about a man who travels to the farthest reaches of space and encounters himself.
The man in question is Kris Kelvin, played by Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis, a “space psychologist,” whom Tarkovsky introduces in the opening shots of water weeds beneath the surface of clear undulating water. A leaf glides gently across the surface, setting a tone of softness. Solaris moves in such slow tracking shots throughout its duration. Indeed, it is one of the stylistic cornerstones of Tarkovsky’s filmmaking. The camera gradually moves up to show Kris, whose visage is inexplicably grief-stricken. It then cuts back to the weeds waving in the current, an image to which the film will return in its closing sequence, and finally the film zooms in on the weeds that seem to be moving in slow motion. As the weeds move underwater, they take on the appearance of human arms or fingers, almost longing to express something but hindered by the water. Now in a field of wildflowers with a low fog hanging over it, we see Kris again. While the tenderness of the camerawork emphasizes the beauty of the natural world, the landscape takes on an otherworldliness, as though Kris were on a foreign planet. This tension is driven further by an aura of alienation and detachment that Kris emanates into his surroundings. Banionis’ enigmatically stoic expression transmits loneliness beyond the frame.
We soon learn that Kris is saying farewell to Earth, which accounts for the opening scene’s grief-stricken sort of splendor. The crew of the Solaris space station has been sending strange, garbled messages to Earth, and Kris is being sent to investigate. Before Kris leaves, he hears a testimony from a scientist named Berton, who has recently returned from a mission to Solaris. Berton reports seeing a child four meters tall looming over the ocean of Solaris, but his colleagues brush off his story as a hallucination. Later, Berton realizes that what he saw was the child of a lost pilot the search for whom had been the original intention of his trip to Solaris.
When Kris arrives at the space station, he learns that his friend and colleague Gibarian has committed suicide, leaving only Drs. Snaut and Sartorius, both surly to the point of dishevelment, alone on a space station designed for 85 people. The emptiness of the space station, and its ensuing feeling of loneliness, is a character in itself. Not long after Kris arrives, he is visited by his dead wife Hari, who took her own life after Kris left her ten years earlier. In Snaut and Sartorius’ words, Hari is a “visitor”, a nonhuman apparition that the ocean of Solaris generates from Kris’ memories. The arc of the second half of the film traces Kris’ agonized struggles to reconcile his newfound love for the unreal Hari—who repeatedly takes her own life as a response to the unbearable psychic pain of being confronted with her unreality—with his inability to love her while she was still alive. Snaut and Sartorius’ also try to rid themselves of the visitors by projecting Kris’ brainwaves into the Solaris ocean.
As the film draws to its puzzling close, islands begin appearing in the ocean of Solaris, and Kris returns to the idyllic landscape where the film begins. He appears outside his dacha, or country home, also part of the opening sequence of the film, in a sequence that defies neat, logical interpretation. Kris’ father, introduced at the beginning of Solaris as a thorny figure in Kris’ life, is seen inside the dacha. It is raining in the house directly on Kris’ father’s back but he remains completely unfazed. Significant objects, including a metal box containing a plant that Kris carries around during the opening sequence of the film and brings with him to the space station, and the image of the water weeds, recur as well. The shot of the water weeds has a grounding effect. Their slow organic movement against the earth tone backdrop of the riverbed offers a counterpoint to the cold white and metallic interior of the space station in which the majority of the film takes place. In the final shots of the film, Kris and his father meet on the step of the dacha, with Kris taking a somewhat regressive stance by kneeling and his father’s feet and wrapping his arms around his father’s waist. The camera pulls away from the scene, literally ascending towards space as Kris did when he went to Solaris, passing through a veil of fog to show the dacha in the middle of a small island in the middle of the ocean. Tarkovsky confidently and subtly dismantles typical causal narrative logic, and here he takes this tactic to the extreme by making us wonder whether Kris has in fact returned from Solaris or is still there, just on one of the islands formed by its ocean.
One of Tarkovsky’s many achievements in Solaris is the way he presents a possible schematic for the messy workings of memory. The ocean of Solaris probes into human thoughts to manifest their memories in physical form, and it seems to have an agenda as well. In the case of Kris and Hari, Hari’s return teaches Kris, the initially emotionless man unmoved by the staggering beauty of his surroundings, how to feel and to love. In the process, he discovers that the greatest unknown in outer space is himself.