Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and co-written with Fridrikh Gorenshteyn, “Solaris” is a sci-fi film based off of the novel of the same name by Stanislav Lem. The opening of the film begins on Earth in a future where the Soviet Union (or Humanity in general) has achieved interstellar travel. Off in a faraway star system resides ‘Solaris’, the titular ocean planet, where an orbiting space station has been experiencing strange and mysterious phenomena. Our lead, the psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), is briefed on what they know about the developing situation by cosmonaut Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), at Kelvin’s father’s home in the countryside. Once aboard the station Kelvin finds Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) dead, while the other two scientists, Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), were distraught and deeply disturbed by the events unfolding on the space station.
“Solaris”, like all of Tarkovsky’s other films to some extent, is slow. Whether or not you have the patience to sit through the film’s very long shots, sometimes seemingly trying it’s very best to test your will to finish it, will inform your decision to attempt the film or not. While not the slowest pace among Tarkovsky’s films- there are several sequences that can test the rigor of any cinema-goer. Having spent the summer of 2017 getting acquainted with one of the last great American arthouse filmmakers in David Lynch’s third season of the series “Twin Peaks”, I’ve had time to digest the merit of slowness in cinema. I’m not always in the mood for such storytelling- but when I am there is hardly any greater filmmaker than Tarkovsky for such things. No one films the quiet humility of nature as he does, placing almost more emphasis on the environment than what’s happening within it.
It appears that when the station sent down X-rays to probe the planet for intelligent life, the planet responded to this by reflecting certain memories and perceptions of the remaining scientists’ minds into real physical forms. Kelvin is also quickly effected by the radiating phenomena as his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) materializes after his first night aboard the station. She is exactly as Kelvin remembers her, therefore she only has access to information that Kelvin would expect Hari to be aware of. At first he is bewildered by her presence as he expels his wife’s double into outer space in one of the escape pods. Another double of Hari appears a few hours later and Kelvin accepts this new Hari after awhile. She needs physical proximity to Kelvin’s brainwaves, and when left alone the clone punched through a steel door because she panicked and couldn’t figure out how to open the door manually. Now, that’s a bad case of monophobia!
Much like another sci-fi favorite of mine, “Blade Runner 2049”, this film debates the very notion of humanity. It asks what it means to be human, and whether or not you have to be born to be able to understand humans entirely. For Kelvin, it did not matter that this Hari was only a biological response to his literal proximity to an alien planet’s intelligence-aura. This recently formed aberration behaved as Hari would based on Kelvin’s memories of her, and the return of a departed loved one can be a powerful motivation, especially considering the circumstances of Hari’s death ten years prior. For Kelvin, this proved to be enough in the end.
After the space station goes through it’s scheduled weightlessness stage Doctors Snaut and Sartorius project Kelvin’s brainwaves towards Solaris. After awhile, the other doubles and “guests” disappear and Kelvin decides to go home. However he’s revealed to actually be on an exact copy of his father’s countryside home and estate as Solaris forms an island out of Kelvin’s memories. Now that’s a satisfactory ending!
Final Score: 2 scientists and 1 dead cosmonaut