One of the great movie mind benders, Solaris uses a science-fiction setup to plumb questions of identity, death, existence and grief. The movie opens on the fresh, running water of a stream and ends in a foggy, oceanic howl. Those given to frequently pondering their own mortality might want to stay away.
Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem and directed by that giant of Russian cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, The Sacrifice), Solaris follows psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) as he’s sent to investigate the mysterious messages coming from a space station observing the title planet. Upon arriving, he finds that one scientist has committed suicide, while the two others have largely retreated to their respective quarters. Also on board, inexplicably, are random people the scientists vaguely refer to as “Guests.” Soon one of these Guests visits Kelvin – a woman who looks and acts like his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who committed suicide a few years before.
So no, there aren’t a lot of space battles and laser guns here. As in all his films, Tarkovsky favors long, contemplative takes that employ odd sounds and abstract images to lull you into a meditative trance. A lengthy car trip at the start, which rumbles through the concrete streets and illuminated tunnels of a Russian highway, plays like a lo-fi version of the wormhole rides in 2001 and Interstellar. In interior scenes, the camera will often slowly pan over to an object or casually pull back to reveal another character, rather than employ a quick edit. Especially languorous are the full-screen images of Solaris itself, a roiling, misty ocean of a planet that the scientists suspect is a sentient being, projecting physical manifestations of the men’s memories in an act of exploration and/or aggression.
Dense and enigmatic, Solaris seemingly tackles a different Big Idea in each scene.
Kelvin, who feels deep guilt over his wife’s suicide, eventually welcomes the “new” Hari as a second chance. Yet we also understand this as a form of denial on his part. Indeed, if Solaris itself is meant to be a physical embodiment of grief – less a planetary presence than a metaphor for what’s happening in the men’s minds – then each of them can be seen as representing a different stage in the mourning process.
Or maybe there’s more to it. Dense and enigmatic, with references to Don Quixote and an extended sequence pondering the details of Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow, Solaris seemingly tackles a different Big Idea in each scene. In a video message left for Kelvin, the scientist who took his own life says the appearance of the Guests and his tragic, corresponding act have “something to do with conscience.” Later, another scientist claims that mankind will never truly discover anything new because even in the deepest reaches of space “we want a mirror.” And towards the end, grasping to understand the higher consciousness they’ve seemingly encountered in the form of Solaris, Kelvin finally concedes: “We need mysteries.”
That’s where Solaris leaves us: deep in mystery, especially in its final moments. A philosophical tug of war between sci-fi rationalism and Christian mysticism, the movie concludes with a twist that can be read in a number of ways. It is conceivable that Kelvin returns to Earth; it’s more likely that he remains on Solaris. Or – and this is a horrifying possibility – perhaps he has become the Guest of someone else. This isn’t a movie that offers answers, in part because it doesn’t seem to believe mankind is capable of understanding them. Yet still we seek, on distant planets and beyond.