If human beings ever encountered an alien life form, would they be able to make meaningful contact with it? Would they be able to understand it? Would it be able to understand them? How might human foibles and frailties get in the way of mutual communication and understanding, especially if the alien life form is more advanced in its development than human beings are? These are some of the questions that famed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic “Solaris” (1972) seems to be asking, at least on the surface and from the point-of-view of this reviewer. The answers suggest deeper questions that have as much to do with the present as with the past.
I viewed the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD edition of “Solaris” (“Солярис” in the original Russian, translated literally as “Solyaris”) which is the original Mosfilm production (with dialogue in Russian) with English subtitles added. It is an adaptation of Polish science-fiction author Stanisław Lem’s novel of the same title. Tarkovsky co-wrote the screenplay with Fridrikh Gorenshtein. The cinematography was done by Vadim Yusov.
The film stars Donatas Banionis as Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who is sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Scientists have been there for some time studying the planet’s ocean, which appears to be a sentient life form. Kelvin is sent to investigate reports of chaos and possible madness that appears to be affecting the space station’s crew. Originally housing 85, the station at last report has only a skeleton crew of three scientists: Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet), Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn), and Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan). When Kelvin arrives at the space station (which is in disarray), he finds that Gibarian is dead, a victim of suicide. Snaut and Sartorius are paranoid, aloof, and somewhat bizarre in speech and behavior. They warn Kelvin that he will see others aboard the station, but not to become too upset about it.
Later, Kelvin is told that these “Visitors” are reproductions, generated by the Solaris’ ocean, of figures from the scientists’ memories. Are they real or merely hallucinations caused by the mysterious influence of Solaris? Soon Kelvin comes under the sway of the mysterious ocean’s powers when his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who died years ago, appears onboard the station, apparently alive once again. Although he knows that she is not the same woman from his past, her presence forces Kelvin to have to deal his own emotional crisis while at the same time trying to carry out his mission, which is to decide whether to stop all research in Solaristics (as the study of the planet and its ocean is called) or to accelerate it in an aggressive manner.
The 167-minute film is divided into two parts. The first part begins with long scenes of Kelvin exploring the natural world around his parents’ home on Earth. The first-time viewer will wonder why a science-fiction film about a life-form on a distant planet would include such footage, even given its high artistic merit (the cinematography is excellent). By the end of the second part of the film, however, he or she will understand why Tarkovsky did so — it is essential to the film’s ending, although an explanation of why this is so would be a major spoiler.
Other excellent artistic choices made by Tarkovsky and his crew involve the production design and the choice of locations. For the early 1970s, the space station set is very sophisticated in its design (and apparently also was quite an expense to construct). In order to establish even more strongly that the film is set in the future, Tarkovsky used footage he shot in Tokyo, Japan, to create a vision of an Earth city of the future. Superimposed upon and in deliberate contrast to this futuristic vision are props from the past, such as paintings by the Old Masters, and a musical score that includes the chorale prelude for organ, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639), by Johann Sebastian Bach (which contrasts with electronic music composed by Eduard Artemyev, which is used mainly during scenes set on Solaris Station).
The contrast between old and new that is set up by these choices highlights the clash between the past and present that pervades this film. Although Kelvin goes to Solaris Station to address a dilemma caused by contact with a newly discovered life-form, the mission itself brings up philosophical dilemmas that have puzzled humankind for millennia. For example, what is the nature of reality (i.e., metaphysics)? How do we know what is real (i.e., epistemology)? How does one live a moral life (i.e., ethics)? How does one come to terms with his or her past, especially its inevitable mistakes and regrets? Despite its genre status as a science-fiction film, “Solaris” is as much about the present as it is about the future. That, according to contemporary science-fiction author William Gibson, is exactly the purpose of science fiction.