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Solaris, written by Andrei Tarkovsky and Friedrich Gorenstein from the novel by Stanislaw Lem, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972, 165 min.

Solaris, the remarkable science fiction book by Stanislaw Lem (see my review), was adapted by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. Tarkovsky's fame rests on only a handful of films, two of which were science fiction, this film and Stalker, based on a story by the Strugatski brothers and made in 1979. Tarkovsky was well known for his love of lingering images and slow panning shots, forcing the audience to meditate on what's onscreen (even if they didn't want to). This kind of pacing is a double-edged sword -- in some films, room for the story to breathe is a blessing and demonstrates absolute trust in the material. But Tarkovsky's general worldview is at odds with Lem's, as becomes obvious during the course of the movie. This contrast is also evident with 2001; at the time of its release, Solaris was touted to be Russia's answer to Kubrick's famous film, but the aims are entirely different. Solaris has beautiful images, moments of drama, but as much as it's an intelligent movie that's well cast and has many clever touches, it's more of a Tarkovsky movie than a science fiction movie.

The film opens with gorgeous images of Earth, running water, and a contemplative man. Why is he so pensive? Kris Kelvin is about to leave his parents' dacha on a trip to the planet Solaris on a scientific task: to judge whether Solaris Station, the research station in orbit around the planet, has any continuing scientific value. The opening scenes of nature, lyrical and deliberately paced, set the tone of what follows in the movie, with the meaning of the images ultimately left up to the viewer (and I'll talk more about this ambiguity with reference to the ending). Kelvin talks with his mostly-estranged parents and a visitor named Burton, who shows them an interesting video -- Burton encountered something strange on Solaris and was judged insane by the authorities. Burton seems to be angry with Kelvin, and at one point shouts at him, "Knowledge is only valid when it's based on morality!" Kelvin leaves without answering Burton's warning.

It takes the movie 45 minutes for Kelvin to leave Earth, and his trip through the galaxy is a masterpiece of low-budget film-making, suggesting the voyage by way of a few obscure effects. Once Kelvin reaches Solaris Station, he finds that the place is a shambles, one of the three remaining scientists has committed suicide, and the other two are anti-social and barely functioning. It takes the movie another 30 minutes to explain what has been happening, and Part One ends just after a scene where Kelvin has his first inkling of what Solaris is doing.

For some unexplainable reason, Solaris is sending physical avatars based on memories or the subconscious to visit the scientists. Kelvin's dead wife Hari comes back to him, and he has to work out some painful personal issues, at the same time as he discusses what it means to be human with the two surviving scientists, Snaut and Sartorius. The characters are generally well-portrayed, with an excellent job by Donatas Banionis who invests the main character Kelvin with dignity and believable motives, for the most part. Natalya Bondarchuk as Hari gives eerie life to a role that is essentially a reflection of Kelvin's subconscious. Burton's despair, Kelvin's parents' love, Snaut's rational madness -- while these other characters are mostly functional and serve the plot well enough, we are also distressed by their dilemmas and grabbed by their concerns.

The near absence of special effects doesn't affect the movie -- Tarkovsky uses many tricks of design, lighting, and so on with the tiny budget that the Soviet authorities gave him (and were continually reducing). The images onboard Solaris Station are beautifully composed and often work subtly to remind us that this is indeed the far future.

Tarkovsky's Solaris is much more focused on Earth and nostalgia for Earth than Lem's book. Lem complained about the adaptation of his book, as the book argues strongly that it's this exact impulse, of nostalgia, of anthropocentrism, that will prevent us from ever making true contact with other forms of life. The screenplay fools with the narrative structure (Lem's story began with Kelvin's trip to Solaris, and used Burton as an example in an argument much later in the story), adds a few characters, and ends with a surprise, which are all fine. But in spirit, Solaris nearly worships its source material, then begins to diverge more and more fully especially as the flaws in logic accumulate -- Lem's book is much more clear in its chronology and its explanations for each step of the story. As for the ending, Tarkovsky, in perfect control of his camera, slowly reveals an ambiguous image of some kind of contact. Viewed either way, as a stunning story of contact or of the essential isolation of humanity, Solaris has a powerful impact. Even though this impact is diluted by Tarkovsky's rhythm of film-making, relentlessly slow to the tastes of most modern audiences, the movie is an interesting achievement.

DVD Note: Solaris is now available on DVD from Criterion. Criterion, as usual, does a superb job of restoring an older film in both the visual and audio elements. Also included on the DVD is a commentary track by Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, co-authors of a book about Tarkovsky. The commentary track often describes what we are looking at, but is sometimes more insightful, such as the many comparisons to Tarkovsky's other movies. Johnson and Petrie also point out some autobiographical details that Tarkovsky included and some of the plot problems introduced by changes to Lem's material. They also relate how Tarkovsky's first draft of the movie had almost all the action set on Earth and very few elements of science fiction, but apparently Lem had some clout as the author and, in a happy coincidence, science fiction movies were sometimes easier to slip past the Soviet censors. The second Criterion DVD has a handful of deleted and alternate scenes; interviews with Natalya Bondarchuk (the main character Hari), Vadim Yusov (Tarkovsky's cinematographer), Mikhail Romadin (art director for the film), and Eduard Artemyev (music); and an unfulfilling excerpt from a Polish TV documentary about Stanislaw Lem. The interviews range in length from 15 to 35 minutes.

See the reviews of the book and the recent remake.

First posted: May 17, 1998; Last modified: March 2, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #3 | Reviews | Columns | Stanislaw Lem

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