Solaris at 50: Tarkovsky Held a Mirror up to the Space Age

The creepy, introspective sci-fi landmark turns 50

Movies Features Andrei Tarkovsky
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<i>Solaris</i> at 50: Tarkovsky Held a Mirror up to the Space Age

That we take pristine places and then forcibly shape them in our own image is probably the cruelest human tendency. We force the places we go to reflect ourselves, and it’s not a great arrangement for either party.

Solaris is significant as a landmark of international science fiction filmmaking, and coming out as it did just a couple short years after Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s often placed in context with that film, held up as the Soviet answer to America’s sprawling, visually stunning space epic that was made in a time when humanity was coming to grips with its power to orbit the Earth and set foot on the moon—things that for our whole history to that point had been a synecdoche for “impossible.” But where 2001 is an expansive story that’s partially about human transcendence, Solaris is very much an inward-facing meditation on our inability to move past our failings, and an interrogation of whether we truly even want to. “We don’t need other worlds,” says one scientist trapped aboard a decaying and mostly abandoned space station, ensconced within a room meant to evoke the creature comforts of Earth. “We need a mirror.”

As the movie turns 50, it’s uncanny how many parts of popular culture seem to echo and reference it, even as a lot of what we now label “sci-fi” has become feel-good entertainment.

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Solaris is nearly three hours long and filled, as Andrei Tarkovsky films will be, with stretches where not a lot of stuff is happening. One is right at the beginning as we meet Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist/cosmonaut, as he walks through the bucolic lands around his father’s house in the quiet hour before his duty comes knocking. Kelvin is one of specific cadre of scientists called “Solaricists,” a group of people whose careers revolve around studying Solaris, a planet composed of a roiling ocean that seems like a living, thinking being. Yet, in the decades mankind has dedicated to studying Solaris, they’ve been unable to make any kind of meaningful contact with it, and the repeated failures are mounting: If Kelvin does not deliver a favorable report on the future of the effort, it may be abandoned at best or at worst targeted for some kind of desperate, destructive phase of “study.”

All of this exposition is unspooled slowly as Kelvin is briefed on the project through the eyes of one of the men haunted by his failure on the planet, Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy). While flying over the ocean’s surface in search of other cosmonauts who went missing, Burton describes impossible visions of landscapes and creatures that don’t exist, yet the footage he returns with corroborates none of what he has to say. Though initially reticent, Kelvin decides to take the assignment. He arrives on the space station orbiting Solaris, a habitation designed for 80 people that now has only houses three: The ruthlessly scientific Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), the rueful Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and the only one Kelvin personally knows, Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan).

By the time Kelvin arrives, Gibarian has already committed suicide and left behind a confusing, pleading video log of his final days which reveals something we’ve already discovered: The cosmonauts are not alone on the ship. Snaut calls them “The Guests,” lifeforms who have the shape and seemingly the memories of people from the lives of the crew. Within hours, Kelvin has his own guest, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), the wife who committed suicide. We know she’s formed from Kelvin’s own imperfect recollections of her: He has a photograph of her, but when she can’t figure out how to unlace the back of her dress, Kelvin discover’s it’s because it’s not designed right. He’s remembered that her dress laces, but not how. It’s a realistic, finicky little problem tied inextricably into the story’s deeper complexities.

The planet, Snaut patiently explains, creates these facsimiles of human memories, but their molecular biology is such that they can’t exist outside the planet’s immediate sphere of influence. Kelvin grapples with how real his wife his, with his memories of her and her lack of memory of the sore spots of their relationship, with what her presence means. All the while, Snaut and Sartorius argue with him, try to sway him from his attachment, and attempt to push him toward a new method of attempting to communicate with Solaris in the hopes of telling it to please stop fucking with their heads. Kelvin would rather remain in the decrepit station with Hari, even as both of them inevitably descend into madness.

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We still shoot stuff into space, but the science fiction of the 1970s was very much grounded in the context of a world where going to space wasn’t fiction anymore, and the years between Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris and the 1972 film adaptation straddles the gap between looking up at the sky and going beyond it: Lem’s book published the same year Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth. Lem once said that none of the adaptations of his book really grappled with the limits of human rationality, which he said was the novel’s theme.

Lem isn’t wrong about Tarkovsky’s adaptation, but it’s also not really what Tarkovsky is trying to do. The inability to explain what the hell is going on aboard the station is the premise, not the conflict. The conflict is what to do and how to reconcile it with emotions, morals, ethics and duty. Kelvin’s tragedy is that we aren’t even sure what the possibility of his success is even supposed to look like. We only know, as we see Kelvin return “home” in the last scene and watch as the movie turns its own opening on its head, that he’s failed.

What will strike a viewer 50 years in the future is just how much of Solaris can be found in other works scattered throughout pop culture: The haunted message from Gabarian and the decaying corridors of the hermetically sealed station are the foundation for the Bioshock series of videogames, and the brief interlude of Kelvin’s journey from Earth to Solaris’ orbit, with its futuristic bubble-ship that apparently achieves escape velocity so smoothly that Kelvin isn’t even aware of it until ground control tells him he’s already in the air, will seem familiar to fans of The Fountain (2006). The film even casually posits futuristic-at-the-time technology that now exists: In one scene, Kelvin’s family is watching television when the screen blips over to a video phone call from Burton, who is ringing them from his self-driving car.

More than any of that, though, is the implicit, disturbing question at the heart of Solaris, something relevant to our increasingly digital, increasingly parasocial world: Do we love the person, or do we love their shadow playing across the screen in our mind? Do we want to go home, or do we just want to make somewhere new look exactly like it? Surely the version of these old loves that we create is preferable to the real one. Surely the stories we tell must be more comforting than the realities of their subjects. Either way, the recollection, imperfect as it is, is what will live on.


Kenneth Lowe can never get used to all these resurrections. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.