Sometimes described as the Soviet answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris is more like a psychological poem masquerading as science fiction. It is just as imaginative as Kubrick’s film, but focused more on emotional expression than on the technological display and potential usually associated with the genre.
Presumably some of the emotional content originates in Lem’s story. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to ascertain why “Solaris,” a space station orbiting another world, has lost touch with Earth. Almost immediately upon Kelvin’s arrival, it is clear that something has gone seriously wrong. Without knowing it, the scientists on board have successfully established contact with aliens, but with a result no one anticipated. The aliens do not attempt to communicate with the explorers. Instead, they bring to life figures stolen from the scientists’ memories and dreams. The resulting “Visitors” are indistinguishable from the people who inspired the recollections, with inevitable complications.
The first time Kelvin falls asleep, he awakens to the presence of Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his abandoned wife. The action then proceeds as they struggle to come to terms with a potentially dangerous but almost irresistible opportunity to address the mistakes we have made in life. The other scientists, Drs. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) have their own ghosts to exorcise and can offer little guidance for dealing with the resulting emotional turmoil. Kelvin surrenders to the desire that he and Khari can remain together, despite the fact that she “dies” more than once, only to be resurrected each time with increasing violence. Worse, she becomes ever more human the longer she interacts with Kelvin, who nonetheless refuses to share her tragic awareness that their relationship is impossible.
This subject does not lend itself to elaborate technical effects. Tarkovsky maintains his familiar, slow pace, and there are moments of visual poetry, such as a brief sequence when the characters float in weightlessness, or shots of the roiling surface of the world below the station that express his unique vision. The most typical moments, however, are the early sequences on Earth before Kelvin departs for Solaris, as the woods and streams of his childhood home flow and sparkle with characteristic freshness and understated lyricism. The space station’s plastic and metal surroundings, on the other hand, offer little opportunity for Tarkovsky’s vision beyond a believably run-down, “lived in” look.
In short, for all the emotional intensity, the director seems slightly miscast, even if he initiated the project. That slight but pervasive tension between content and execution comes to a head in the film’s ending. Tarkovsky does not indulge the cheap explanation that everything we have seen has been a dream, but the hint that Kelvin himself may be a Visitor without knowing it is only slightly less banal. It’s a clever substitute for the ending which was never found that could resolve the director’s own mixed feelings.