Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris is a film that takes on some very big issues: the nature of self-awareness, knowledge and perception.
In an era of space epics that were strong on special effects but weak on content – from Star Wars (1977) to The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Solaris served as a reminder that the science fiction genre has its roots in philosophical speculation.
The opening shots of the film are long and slow, idyllic images of the natural world: grass waving softly in the waters of a lake, trees, fog, a solitary horse. In the background, we hear birdsong, frogs croaking, and the soft rustle of flowing water.
From beginning to end, Solaris maintains this meditative tempo, and it’s one of the film’s greatest strengths. With a confident minimalist use of cinematic means, director Andrei Tarkovsky presents a maximum of disturbing effects.
The world he creates is a kind of Utopia – highly idiosyncratic, familiar and yet strange. But Tarkovsky is only marginally interested in doing justice to the conventions of the sci-fi film. Indeed, his almost provocative refusal to serve up the special effects expected of the genre gives him more space to follow the development of the characters as they travel in search of themselves.
The centre of attention is psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), whose task is to examine the crew of a space station in orbit around the planet Solaris – an all-ocean, possibly sentient, planet – and to find out the reasons for their strange behaviour.
Before he departs from the Earth, however, he has to order his personal affairs, which means, above all, his relationship with his father (Nikolai Grinko). Kelvin’s farewell is also overshadowed by the still-raw memory of his wife, Hari, who took her own life.
Against this background, the voyage to the space station seems like a welcome departure to a new life.
Upon arriving, Kelvin finds the two astronauts Snaut (Yuri Jarvet) and Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) in a strangely nervous and preoccupied state. Their peculiar behaviour appears to have something to do with the ocean of Solaris, whose biostreams are somehow affecting the psychic wellbeing of the crew.
It becomes apparent that the planet itself is capable of turning private thoughts and wishes into three-dimensional reality.
Kelvin himself is not spared the experience. Soon he is faced with a materialised copy of his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), and is drawn into a series of mysterious encounters with this phantom creature – and confronted with the power of his own memories.
Kelvin ultimately attains a new level of consciousness.
An American 2002 remake starred George Clooney in the role of Kelvin.