Appreciating the work of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky is something of a badge of courage among film snobs, not only because his movies are so unfamiliar to mainstream audiences but also because his style is deeply challenging. Tarkovsky movies are generally cerebral, quiet, slow, and very long, with Andrei Rublev (1966) clocking in at nearly four hours and this sci-fi drama running nearly three. In fact, Solaris all but dares the viewer to pay sustained attention, because the film features myriad seemingly aimless shots of empty rooms. There’s a heavy element of art-school theory in Tarkovsky’s approach, so those uninterested in wrestling with such concepts as negative space and parallelism need not apply. For the adventurous, however, Solaris offers interesting rewards—the movie’s deepest ideas have a way of worming themselves into the viewer’s brain. After all, there’s a reason why two of Hollywood’s smartest professionals, actor George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh, mounted an American quasi-remake in 2002, although Soderbergh described his film as a fresh and separate adaptation of the underlying material that Tarkovsky employed.
That underlying material is a novel by sci-fi scribe Stanislaw Lem, which takes place almost entirely on a space station orbiting the ocean planet Solaris. Tarkovsky’s movie begins on Earth, where protagonist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) mourns the death of his wife, Kari, as he prepares for a mission to Solaris. It seems one of the three astronauts occupying the space station has committed suicide, so Kris—a psychologist—has been assigned to determine why the astronauts are experiencing mental problems. The first 45 minutes of the picture are slow going, with lots of ruminative dialogue and symbolic imagery, but once Kris reaches the space station, things get weird very quickly. The surviving occupants of the station are deranged and paranoid, hiding in their cabins while the station degrades into the outer-space equivalent of a haunted house. Meanwhile, Kris succumbs to the same malady as the others, seeing lifelike hallucinations of his dead wife (Natalya Bondarchuk).
Eventually, the strange Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) diagnoses the phenomenon. The planet Solaris, which is sentient, has caused the hallucinations by probing the minds of the earthmen in order to replicate beloved images. The problem is that because the earthmen cannot respond in kind, they have no means of stopping the planet’s unintentionally destructive endeavors. Tarkovsky and co-screenwriter Fridrikh Gorenshteyn fully engage the myriad themes raised by this scenario, which means that Solaris is a philosophical gabfest in the Bergman tradition. And while taking that narrative approach results in many static scenes of excessive length, the prize is a series of provocative assertions—for instance, Dr. Snaut cynically questions the very nature of pursuing knowledge in a universe that contains unknowable things.
Compensating for the inert nature of extended dialogue exchanges, Tarkovsky conjures a number of disturbing scenes that are purely visual. The hallways of the space station have an ominous quality, presumably influencing the style that English director Ridley Scott employed a few years later in Alien (1979), and scenes of Kris’ dead wife repeatedly “resurrecting” contain a visceral charge. Underlying any discussion of Solaris, of course, is the question of whether Tarkovsky could have achieved similar or even greater effects with less bloat. Advocates might argue that the film needs its 167-minute runtime to cast a hypnotic spell, while critics can make a convincing case that less would have been more. Whether the movie is the “right” size or not, Solaris unquestionably occupies the highest strata of science-fiction cinema in that the film’s spectacle exists only to serve mind-expanding concepts.