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.