Thought-provoking and poignant, the movie Solaris by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky revolves around the tough old problem: how can we humans, hampered by the limitations of our nature that we are, ever understand a vastly superior alien intelligence?

Review by SAndman
August 13, 2010

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

novel: Stanislaw Lem
screenplay: Fridrikh Gorenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky

Donatas Banionis as Kris Kelvin
Natalya Bondarchuk as Hari
Vladislav Dvorzhetsky as Henri Berton
Jüri Järvet as Dr. Snaut
Anatoli Solonitsyn as Dr. Sartorius

Released: 1972

Dr. Snaut: We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want. Man needs a man!

The plot of the movie Solaris features a mission of the central character Chris Kelvin, psychiatrist, aboard a space station that orbits the planet Solaris, consisting of a giant planet-wide gaseous ocean, which also appears to be a sentient entity of unknown nature and powers.

In the years prior to Kelvin’s mission, the crew of the space station suffered a major setback when some of its members went missing, and search parties were presently dispatched. One member of a search party, Henry Burton, reported mysterious phenomena upon the surface of the planet, which were subsequently dismissed by Earth’s scientists as hallucinations brought on by stress and alien environment.

Since Burton’s report and the disappearance of the team members, which were never found, the “Solaris” project, has reached an impasse for lack of a breakthrough.

Two solutions were tabled to end the impasse. One proposal was to abandon altogether the space station and the planet, the other to bomb the planet by high-powered X-rays in the last-ditch effort to elicit a “response” from the ocean-entity.

Kelvin’s task is to appraise the situation once he reaches the space station and makes a report which would decide the fate of the space station and likely the planet itself, which has suddenly come under the risk of annihilation at the hands of the baffled scientists.

On Kelvin’s last day on Earth, he receives an unexpected visit from Burton, who makes an emotional case against abandoning the space station but also against the bombing of the planet’s surface with of X-rays. Kelvin remains unreceptive to Burton’s solicitations, which causes the latter to leave in a fit.

However, a short time later Burton calls via tele-link and discloses to Kelvin’s father, his old friend, what he had left out of his official report and what he also wouldn’t tell Kelvin lest he upset him before the journey. Unbeknownst to Burton, Kelvin overhears the whole conversation. The next day he leaves Earth.

Solaris Movie Review
Solaris Movie Review

Upon his arrival, Kelvin finds the space station in disarray, and there is apparently nobody to welcome him, although three men of the once populous crew are left to man the station: astrobiologist Sartorius, cyberneticist Snaut, and Kelvin’s colleague and old friend physiologist Gibarian.

Eventually, Kelvin runs into Snaut and Sartorius, who both seem frazzled and paranoid, and from them, he learns of Gibarian’s suicide. However, they remain circumspect as to the reasons for their strange behavior and Gibarian’s action.

In his room, Kelvin finds Gibarian’s video message, which contains jumbled warnings but offers hardly any clues. That night exhausted and bemused Kelvin falls asleep having barricaded his door. Suddenly he wakes up roused from his sleep by a strange presence.

Though shot in 1972 the movie Solaris has aged exceptionally well, which is a credit to Tarkovsky’s genius as well as the story by Stanislaw Lem upon which the movie is (loosely) based.

Hailed in its day as the Russian response to 2001:A Space Odyssey, it weathered censorship and ideological constraints, which too often plagued the so-called Soviet-era production. As for the counter-2001: A Space Odyssey label, there is admittedly some truth to it.

In a sense, Tarkovsky’s creation picks up where Kubrick’s movie leaves off – if the central theme of 2001:A Space Odyssey is getting out of the Earth’s confines and traveling into space to meet the aliens, which have been waiting for us all along, Tarkovsky’s movie, on the other hand, is about what happens once we’ve got there. Rather than traveling out, we will travel inside the human soul.

The three characters in the movie Solaris with their respective worldviews, and their ideas about the nature of the alien entity they encounter, but even more so with their actions with regard to that entity, represent different approaches to the problem of the first contact.

In a very generalized way they could be described as the scientific (Sartorius), philosophical (Snaut), and religious (Kelvin), which ultimately all prove flawed because they are all irrevocably anthropocentric.

The most we can hope for, as it were, is to abandon any pretense of control and put ourselves entirely at the mercy of the alien entity. Naturally, such surrender doesn’t come easy and first, the characters in the movie have to take a long hard look at their lives and own up to their deficiencies and shortcomings as human beings.

That is essentially the topic of the movie Solaris, even more so than the topic of Lem’s novel. Interestingly enough, Lem wasn’t happy at all with the way Tarkovsky handled his story, which he (rightly) felt diverged too much from his vision.

The alien entity in the Solaris movie, forbidding as it is, is only a means to an end for Tarkovsky. Much like a springboard, the director used the dazzling concept of a very strange and well-nigh omniscient alien to embark on a probing exploration of humanity.

Steeped in evocative visuals, Solaris is undoubtedly one of Tarkovsky’s least hermetic movies, and the closest the Russian director ever came to a blockbuster, though it does have the proverbial sting in the tail.

It also one of the most philosophic science fiction movies of all time, dealing with issues that are seldom captured on screen with such emotional intensity: memory, guilt, self-sacrifice, and redemption, but also harrowing soul-search, resignation and the human need for constructs.


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