When legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky saw Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, he hated it for its coldness. In response, he adapted Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel Solaris, a film regarded rightly as an anti-2001. However, such an easy description unwittingly pigeonholes the film into some narrow vision of a pithy comeback, failing to mention its endless depth and Tarkvosky's ability to suck you in to the story as much as Kubrick kept you at arm's length.
Tarkovsky, like just about every great Russian director stretching back to Soviet propagandist Sergei Eisenstein, endured nothing but hardships from Soviet censors, even though most of these directors (especially Eisenstein and the Constructivist directors) made movies that celebrated Soviet ideals. Tarkovsky, however, was doomed from the start. He couldn't make the film he wanted because the censors proclaimed it too "personal"--this was an ardently socialist empire, remember--so the director returned with a copy of Solaris. After all, the masses could get behind a science fiction film, couldn't they? The censors agreed, and sent Tarkovsky on his way. Oh, if I could just see their faces when they saw the final product.
Eisentstein set down the unofficial rules of Russian cinema with his pioneering use of the montage, but Tarkovsky moves in the polar opposite direction, crafting a series of long takes that, like the work of Yasujiro Ozu but with moving cameras, linger before and after the scene's action, giving us enough time to collect our thoughts. We need that time, too, because Solaris is an endlessly layered trip through the human mind, providing us with possibility on top of possibilty from which to choose.
Tarkovsky takes his sweet time from the start; we begin with Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, walking around his father's land before he meets with a retired cosmonaut, Burton. Kelvin finally goes inside to speak with Burton, and we discover some strange anomalies about the cosmonaut's mission. Sent to the liquid-covered planet Solaris, he went down to the surface to find a missing comrade. We see a tape of Burton's debriefing upon his return many years prior, as he tries to explain what he saw on the surface to a group of dismissive bureaucrats (undoubtedly Tarkovsky's slam against those who perennially kept him down). The camera footage contains nothing but shots of the planet's barren, liquid surface, but Burton maintains they are not hallucinations.
At last Kelvin prepares to leave for Solaris himself. He is played by Donatas Banionis, a stoic man with a shock of prematurely white hair and a look that balances between unkempt and professional: he has a paunch and he needs a shave, but there's a fierce intelligence behind his look of self-defeat. To gaze upon him inspires a seemingly contradictory mixture of pity and respect. We learn before he leaves of his wife Hari, whose suicide haunts his dreams, and he understand him more.
We do not see Kelvin's journey to Solaris, and while I'm sure budgetary and technological reasons exist for this, I imagine Tarkovsky wants to take the "space" out of the equation and force the audience to pay attention. He arrives on the aging space station orbiting the planet and meets the two remaining scientists, Snaut and Sartorious. A third, Kelvin's friend Dr. Gibarian, committed suicide before Kelvin arrived. The two scientists have little time for their new comrade, and Snaut warns Kelvin not to overreact if he sees anything...unusual.
As Kelvin begins his research, he catches glimpses of a woman moving walking along the station, but she disappears out of sight when he tries to follow her. That night, he awakens in his barricaded room and finds himself face to face with his wife Hari. Soon we learn that Hari, like the child Burton saw on Solaris, is a reflection of memories. When the scientists sent X-ray probes onto the planet's surface, something on the planet probed back.
As a reflection of Kelvin's memories, this Hari has all of his wife's mannerisms and all of their shared memories, but none of her own. Perhaps this is Tarkovsky's way of suggesting we can never really know anyone else, though I don't mean it as bleakly as it sounds. Nevertheless, Kris latches onto this corporeal manifestation of his mind as his wife out of desperation. Here the film, whether it realizes it or not, becomes less like a take on 2001 and more a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo. Kelvin treating this creature as an object that he can mold into that which he failed to protect eerily mirrors James Stewart's obsessive remodeling of Kim Novak's character to make her look like the woman he loved. The knowledge that this Guest (the term they use for Solaris' manifestations) is the reflection of Kelvin, we must ask ourselves how subjective this manifestation is. We know that Hari committed suicide after a vicious verbal fight between the two, yet this Hari is caring and calm. Is this Hari an idealized version of the real wife? A representation of all of his fears? Or is it, in a manner of speaking, the real thing?
What Tarkovsky wants to say with this film is that man's attempt to move ever forward, to find out destiny, serves as a comforting distraction from our regrets and sense of personal isolation. Here, man finally reached the end of the universe, and now he must face those feelings. This knowledge drove Gibarian to his suicide, and it left Snaut and Sartorious teetering on the edge of madness. Sartorious in particular reacts to this forced introspection with great anger; he proposes bombing the planet with high doses of radiation to stop the Guests. It's interesting to see that Hari, created from mere fragments of the human mind, seems infinitely more human than the two scientists.
Though the film presents itself almost like a continuous sequence, two scenes in particular stick out. The first--and likely most famous--occurs when the station momentarily loses gravity, and Kelvin and Hari float in the air as lit candles tumble up with them. The emotional center of the film, it conveys Kelvin's deep longing and his sense of contentment with this copy, the first happiness he's felt at least since being with his real wife, if not before that. The second is the final sequence, in which we learn a twist that makes us rethink everything before it and decide what we want to think about it. It's a moment that the characters themselves do not realize, and the moment thankfully does not insist on only one interpretation.
The censors refused to allow any mention of God, but Tarkovsky's characters reach for a higher power here, as did the scientists in 2001. However, where Kubrick's vision of man's future entailed a combination of man and machine that could explore the universe forever, Tarkovsky believes that man's future is the inevitable reconciliation of his past and present. Our true path is one of spiritual longing, not physical discovery. Solaris represents the literal end of this journey, but it represents the spiritual endpoint of man, where no more distractions exist. Solaris, the God substitute, can only catalyze this self-evaluation. As the characters embrace in their uncertain conclusion, we are left with an unsettling question: can man ever truly understand himself and evolve, or are we forever trapped by our regrets and uncertainty?