Kelvin is visited by Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who believes he saw something while flying over the surface of Solaris; however, footage shot from his craft revealed only clouds and he was discredited at subsequent hearings. Kelvin is dubious and Burton departs angrily.
Arriving at the space station, Kelvin finds that crew member Dr Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has died; reviewing a tape Gibarian made before his death, the circumstances are revealed as suicide. The remaining crew members Dr Snaut (Juri Jarvet) and Dr Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) are behaving unusually and Snaut cautions Kelvin not to panic should he witness anything strange.
Kelvin comes to suspect that other people are on board and are being hidden by Snaut and Sartorius. Kelvin soon receives a "visitor" himself – his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). Problem is, Hari’s been dead for ten years: she killed herself following a bitter argument with Klein.
If the basic premise of ‘Solaris’ sounds melodramatic – the histrionic ‘Event Horizon’ is basically a fast-and-loose rip-off for the stalk ‘n’ slash generation – its execution is anything but. In Stanislaw Lem’s original novel, the emphasis is on the sheer alien-ness of what the scientists encounter on Solaris and how unprepared they are for it. This was a major theme in Lem’s fiction; he was famously contemptuous of science-fiction’s tendency to depict alien species as humanoid.
Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 adaptation focuses on the relationship between Kelvin and his late wife, relying heavily on flashbacks to document their increasingly fragile relationship.
Tarkovsky, though, turns his version into an aloof, cerebral meditation on family, spirituality and conscience. In other words, whereas Lem externalises (the novel is about mankind’s place in, and response to, the cosmos), Tarkovsky uses the vastness of space and the huge impenetrable vistas of the surface of Solaris itself in order to internalise. Herein lies both the film’s genius and its difficulty.
‘Solaris’ was the first Tarkovsky film I ever saw, back in 1991. It was shown as part of BBC2’s "Moviedrome" season, introduced by Alex Cox. I remember his exhortation not to let the slow pacing put you off, that ‘Solaris’ built to a conclusion that was – I think this is more or less how he put it – "on a conceptual level, better than the ending of ‘2001’."
Now, I’ve always been impressed by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – but primarily on an audio-visual level. It looks amazing and Kubrick’s choice of music is inspired. On any deeper level than that … hmmm, not convinced. (I’ve described my issues with ‘2001’ elsewhere on these pages: "I’m still no closer to deciding whether it’s a profound, cerebral, philosophical work of art, or a self-indulgent, egotistical, intellectually hollow con job.") So, with the possibility in mind that I was in for a more satisfying cinematic experience than ‘2001’, I settled down to watch ‘Solaris’.
And was captivated. The snail-like pace became hypnotic. The soundtrack, alternating between J.S. Bach’s Choral Prelude and Eduard Artemyev’s ethereal incidental music, was low-key where Kubrick’s choices were iconic artistic statements in and of themselves. There was something more chilling in Kelvin’s struggle with his own flawed humanity than in Dave Bowman’s conflict with the murderous HAL 9000. And there was that ending. At that stage of my (self-) education in cinema, ‘Solaris’ was a revelation. A science-fiction film where the sci-fi was in hock to intellectualism and not vice versa.
Then I began to discover Tarkovsky’s other works and I’ve experienced a paradigm shift. I still admire the film greatly, but I think that’s the thing: I admire ‘Solaris’ rather than like it. I prefer the immediacy of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, the visceral intensity of ‘Andrei Rublev’, the poetic resonances of ‘Nostalgia’. ‘Solaris’ – brilliant as it is in many ways – is bloody hard work; as hard as ‘Stalker’ with its bleakly earned small moment of hope at the very end; as hard as ‘The Sacrifice’ with its Bergmanesque spiritual debate.
Tarkovsky’s first draft screenplay set much of the narrative on earth, with only the last third taking place on the space station. I think I’d have been happier watching this version. As well realised as the space station is (it’s typically Soviet: utilitarian, characterless and slightly weathered), it’s a bland backdrop to the dark drama being played out. The scenes on Kelvin’s father’s estate contain moments as achingly poetic as anything Tarkovsky achieved. The contrast, then, is brutally evident when the scene shifts to the space station and the visual beauty of the film drains away, no matter that Tarkovsky tries to retain a sense of aesthetics with occasional flashbacks to Kelvin’s childhood (images of earth, water and fire abound: Tarkovsky summons metaphors for life even as Kelvin soul-searches in the sterile confines of the space station) and reproductions of the old masters on the walls of Snaut’s library.
The other thing that troubles me is admittedly a personal issue. My relationship with my father has been a turbulent one that eventually resulted in estrangement. Conversely, my relationship with my wife has been every bit as loving and intimate as my relationship with my parents wasn’t. I won’t labour the context any further – this blog may be called The Agitation of the Mind, but that’s a still from Herzog under the title, not a psychiatrist’s couch – suffice it to say that this colours my perception of the final scene:
Sartorius, convinced the ocean dominating the surface of Solaris is a sentient being responsible for creating the "visitors", devises a scheme to transmit the thought patterns of one of the crew members (he "volunteers" Kelvin) to the ocean in an attempt to communicate. The experiment succeeds. The "visitors" disappear. Sartorius reports, however, that islands are starting to appear in the ocean. Kelvin reappears in the woodland surrounding his father’s estate. He approaches the house and peers through a window. He sees his father moving around inside, but something is "off" about the scene. Rain is falling, but the rain is inside the house. Moreover, his father seems impervious to it. Eventually his father comes to the door and Kelvin falls to his knees before him.
The camera pulls back as mist drifts above the house, across the woodland. The estate is revealed to be one of the islands on the surface of Solaris. Solaris has created, from Kelvin’s thought patterns, the thing he wants most in the world.
Personally, I'd have thought Kelvin would have more business seeking his wife’s forgiveness than his father’s.