This last sci-fi film of 1972 may not have actually had much exposure in the American movie market. Solaris is a Russian-made film that not have an english-dubbed release, which would hinder its market. It is actually the second film based on Stanislav Lem's 1961 novel of the same name. Eventually, there would be a third, an english-language remake in 2002, starring George Clooney. At a surface level, it is a sci-fi story, with space travel to a space station orbiting a distant planet. At a deeper level, it is a tale of "Contact" between humans and a very alien life form. Still deeper, it is a quiet examination of humanity.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Psychologist Chris Kelvin is enjoying a semi-retirement at his father's country cabin. He is visited by a former astronaut named Burton. He plays an old video tape of his testimony, given years before, at an inquest about the deaths of several members of the crew of space station in orbit around the planet Solaris. He described strange and fantastic sights -- things appearing on the surface of the Solaris ocean which seems to be sentient. The most fantastic was a 12 foot tall "baby". Burton was assumed to have had a breakdown. His career was over. Since then, the crew of 85 on Solaris station have dwindled down to just three. Kelvin is sent to Solaris to see if any real science is going on, or the last three are mad, or what. When he arrives, he finds only two men left alive: a Dr. Snaut and Dr. Sartorius. Kelvin's friend Gilbarian had committed suicide shortly before Kelvin arrived. Kelvin gets glimpses, or hears sounds of non-crew people at the station. Gilbarian's last taped message for Kelvin spoke of his thinking he had gone mad and seeing people. Snaut is dismissive. Sartorius is reclusive. Kelvin gets a phantom too, his wife, Hari, who died of suicide ten years prior. Think that she is a phantom sent by the Ocean to torment him, Kelvin tricks her into getting into a rocket and he blasts her off into space. This doesn't work. Hari returns the next day. On the one hand, she thinks she's Hari, and can remember some things in Hari's life. On the other hand, she's not sure who she is. Kelvin eventually develops strong feelings for this new Hari and thinks of her as his wife. Snaut and Sartorius argue that she's just a creation of the Ocean, not a real person. Nonetheless, Kelvin loves the new Hari and she apparently has genuine feelings for him. Sartorius, ever the cool scientist, figures out that the phantoms are made of neutrinos. He has constructed an Annihilator which is harmless to regular molecules, but will dissolve neutrino-based matter. Snaut and Sartorius beam X-rays into the Ocean using brainwave patterns from Kelvin. The various phantoms stop appearing. Kelvin's mission is done, but he wants to stay with Hari (who cannot leave Solaris). While Kelvin sleeps, Hari agrees to let Sartorius use the Annihilator on her so Kelvin will be free to return to earth. He has many disturbed dreams, talking with people from his past. The movie ends with Kelvin at his father's cabin (perhaps). He hugs his father. The camera lifts higher and higher to reveal that the cabin and woods are an island in the Ocean of Solaris. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
The visuals in Solaris are subtly captivating. Some of the philosophical thoughts that come through are quite deep. This is no "lite" action film, but a meaty, thought-provoking film.
Solaris is one of those films that is more about exploring the soul of man than about exploring the universe. This is one of the better traits of sci-fi. At one point, Professor Snaut observes
"We don't really want to explore the cosmos, we want a larger earth. We don't want new worlds, just a mirror of our own. We want "contact" but we pursue a goal we fear. Man needs man."
Four Times Telling -- Polish sci-fi writer Stanislav Lem wrote his novel "Solaris" in 1961. The movie adaptations follow the gist of the novel, but movies can never capture the depth of meaning a book can. In 1968, the Russians produced the movie adaptation. That Solaris was a made-for-television movie. It followed the basics of the story well enough, but had very low production values (sets, props, effects, etc.) and was filmed in black and white, giving the whole a very 50s look and feel. The 1972 production, directed by Andrey Tarkovsky and spun according to Tarkovsky's vision. The forth telling of Lem's tale came in 2002 when Steven Soderberg directed his own vision of Lem's novel.
Not Russia's 2001 -- It's been said, even on promotional posters, that Solaris is Russia's 2001. The two films have almost nothing to do with each other beyond both being longer than is customary and being full of enigmatic visuals and scenes. Since Lem's novel predates Kubrik's film, Tarkovsky was not producing a rival or a copy of 2001. In many ways, the two films very different takes on looking at mankind.
Not for ADHD -- Tarkovsky's film is not the sort of film American audiences have grown accustomed to. There are no running gun battles, explosions, car chases, etc. It is very long (2 hours plus, depending on the cut). It moves very slowly and deliberately. Many times, a scene will seem to make no sense, or appear to be a non-sequitur. There is very little in Solaris that is simple or obvious. The film must be approached as visual poetry, a Russian novel, but not a comic book. For example, a subtext in the latter half has to do with identity.Is the New-Hari just a copy of the original, or a second Hari in her own right. Note the poetic use of mirrors, shadows and reflections to play, visually, with the idea of copies and originals.
Lem-ite Life -- Stanislav Lem was fond of imagining extraterrestrial life forms as being very different from anthropoidal forms. Of course, human audiences tend to like their characters to be human too -- or at least humanoid. Lem's sentient Ocean is totally alien. I has no form to speak of, no apparent center (brain), nor does it communicate in the manner audiences have become accustomed to -- talk like an earthling. Instead, it tries to communicate with the strangers its own way, through experience and emotion.
"Guest" Notes -- The Ocean creates phantom beings from memories in each character's mind. The subtle intimation is that most people are haunted by terrible memories. As such, the Ocean tends to conjure up unwelcome ghosts from the station crew's past. Some think they're going mad because they see them. The guests have a vestige of the memories of the person they're modeled after -- at least as much as the crew member knew. Guest-Hari could recall experiences of Real-Hari, but they were fragments.
Coping -- Another complex subtext in Solaris is how the various humans deal with the Guests the Ocean has conjured from their past. Gilbarian was so haunted by his, that he killed himself. Sartorious, hides in his inner-sanctum laboratory (itself a metaphor for science), where he dissects and analyzes the midgets (?) the Ocean gave him. Professor Snaut copes with the ephemeral children from his past by staying more or less drunk the whole time. Kelvin, alone, seemed willing to accept Guest-Hari and love her.
Hari The Human -- Yet another complex subtext is how the replicated Hari develops. She comes to love Kelvin. She is, at first, more visceral than thoughtful -- tearing through a metal door out of fear of being separated from Kelvin, even to the point of nearly fatal injury to herself. (The Guests heal very rapidly). When Hari is terribly conflicted over just who she is (a mere copy, a unique being?) she can't handle the dissonance and commits suicide by drinking liquid oxygen. The recuperative powers of the Guests revives her. Near the end of the film, when she realizes that Kelvin will stay orbiting Solaris for the rest of his life, just to be with her, she willingly lets Sartorius us his Annihilator on her, so that Kelvin will be free. In this, she exhibits an almost Christ-like sacrificial love in being willing to die to save someone loved. The Ocean gave Kelvin a chance to confront a sad unresolved part of his life (Hari's suicide), but gave him a chance to say goodbye, tell her he loved her and understand, in the end, why she had to go. In the end, she's still gone, but Kelvin got the gift of closure.
Bottom line? Solaris is not for everyone. In fact, it's probably not for most. It moves slow. It has little action. It has many obtuse scenes which merit watching again and again. Just accept that Solaris is very Russian and poetic. It is not a fast-paced simple story like Independence Day. Like a poem, different viewers will pick up on different elements. Therein lies the art.