(director/writer: Andrei Tarkovsky; screenwriters: from the novel by Stanislav Lem/Friedrich Gorenstein; cinematographer: Vadim Yusov; editor: Lyuba Fejginova; music: Eduard Artemyev; cast: Donatis Banionis (Chris Kelvin), Natalya Bondarchuk (Hari), Yuri Jarvet (Snauth), Anatoli Solinstin (Sartorius), Sos Sarkissian (Gibarian), Vadislav Dvorzhetski (Burton), N. Grinko (Kelvin’s Father), O. Barnet (Kelvin’s Mother) G. Tejkh (Prof. Messenger); Runtime: 165; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Viacheslav Tarasov; Criterion; 1972-USSR-in Russian with English subtititles)

“A brilliantly imaginative work of art.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Billed as the Soviet response to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), though less interested in technology and more interested in the human drama. It actually seems more like an intense ghost love story with religious overtones about resurrection (but is grounded in the modern art world and not on religion) than a dye-in-the-wool sci-fi story, and is more closely akin in this arty theme of resurrection to Dreyer’s Ordet than the Kubrick film.

Noted Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (“The Mirror”/”Stalker”/”Andrei Rublev”) says he was least happy with Solaris of all his films. He notes he had a rough time with his lead actors Natalya Bondarchuk (daughter of his hated rival, the film director Sergey Bondarchuk of the 1967 War and Peace) and Donatis Banionis (whom he found unresponsive to direction). With Friedrich Gorenstein, Tarkovsky adapted the 200-page 1961 sci-fi novel by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem. It has been said that Lem came close to disowning the film because of the changes made (the first third of the film is set on Earth, in the cosmonaut’s dacha, which was not in the novel–the novel is set entirely aboard the space station), and Lem felt that the added soap opera love tale took away how it was meant to be a totally sci-fi story. Lem was also unhappy that most of the space technology detail in the book was cut. These open spats left Tarkovsky unhappy with the project, though he did capitulate to many of Lem’s demands and kept the film faithful to the author’s visions.

Tarkovsky seems to be uneasy with the sci-fi genre–saying it was an artificial construct that was too removed from the humanity issues that were primary to him. Despite Tarkovsky’s reservations, I found it a brilliantly imaginative work of art that has hypnotically beautiful images, is thought provoking and offers a moving lyrical inward meditation on the myth of love. It also is interesting in relating how the Soviet space missions might be similar or different from the American ones. The lead character speaks for Tarkovsky, not too big a fan of these space probes. He believes mankind’s hope for the future is on this planet and not in outer space, and suggests if there is one reason for space probes–it’s so we can look back on Earth with a sentimentality that has a renewed understanding and tenderness.

The film opens after a strange nearby planet named Solaris–covered by an ocean of gasses–has been explored some years ago by the Russians, who maintain a research space station that orbits the Earth. After some time, no great discoveries were made and ‘Solaristics’ became a derelict place. On one visit, the cosmonaut Burton (Vadislav Dvorzhetski) runs into problems after his two co-pilots leave the spaceship and descend into the gas ocean and never return. In Burton’s attempt to rescue them, he encounters bizarre sightings–an enchanted garden and a plaster-cast reproduction of a monstrous child. The authorities who questioned him upon his return seem puzzled and wonder if he was hallucinating. Since the ocean is again becoming mysteriously active, somber astro-psychologist Chris Kelvin (Donatis Banionis), a cosmonaut, goes there alone by rocket to investigate. Before he leaves, in his dacha, he quarrels with Burton, who fears he will shut down the space station that is so dear to him. Once there Kelvin embarks on the space platform hovering above Solaris and meets the almost non-communicative scientist Snauth (Yuri Jarvet) and the seemingly deranged Sartorius (Anatoli Solinstin), who lives with a dwarf and is extremely stressed out. The third scientist, Gibarian (Sos Sarkissian), an old friend of Kelvin’s, committed suicide. He left behind a video-tape telling of his fears, loneliness and misgivings. At one time, when this space probe was looked upon more hopefully–there were 85 scientists stationed there.

Kelvin’s arrival brings about the haunting apparition of his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), whom he abandoned and as a result she poisoned herself several years ago. The deceased Hari is ready to resume the relationship with the one she still dearly loves. With that the panicky Kelvin puts her on a rocket back to Earth, but that night she reappears in his bed. The next morning he leaves her alone and goes to the other scientists to discuss this oddity, but there’s an explosion where she sleeps. The injured Hari simply puts herself back together. The other scientists explain she’s made out of neutrinos, that is related to the strange powers attributed to Solaris that can bring back one’s memories.

We learn of Hari’s and Kelvin’s stressful unhappy past life. But at this point of the story, reality becomes increasingly difficult to decipher. The couple this time around bring a new joy to their relationship, but since her existence is as a neutrino she can’t leave the spaceship without dissolving and becomes so anxiety-ridden that she commits suicide again by drinking liquid oxygen. The problem is that she can’t die, which prompts the sullen Snaught to say “I can’t get used to these constant resurrections!” Kelvin then goes delirious in a dream-state, recalling his mother’s love and confusing mom for Hari. When awakened, Snaught tells Kelvin that Hari is gone and that the experimental X-rays of radiation on the gas ocean seem to be working and some scientific results are soon expected. Kelvin now must make up his mind if he wants to remain on Solaris or return to Earth.

The film concludes with Kelvin envisioning himself meeting his father at his dacha and placing his head on his lap as a gesture of surrender to paternal love. With that we are not sure if Kelvin returned to Earth or stayed, as reality has become too blurred and everything yields to mystery.

The film plays out as a grim and humorless utopian dream that speaks of love being more necessary than technological mastery. For all its heavy-going melodramatics, its simple message urges us to find our own happiness — Tarkovsky believes that if one is truly happy the important philosophical questions such as to the meaning of life become less important.

It won the 1972 Grand Prize at Cannes.