“Solaris” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1972)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s third feature film, Solaris (Solyaris, 1972), is by some accounts his most straightforward and accessible film and thus less encumbered by his usual brooding undercurrents of existentialist anxiety.   Based as it was on a 1961 novel of the same name by well-known Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem, the film took on the trappings of a standard science fiction piece, albeit with Tarkovsky’s signature mise-en-scene.  In fact it was seen by many as something of a Cold War Russian response to Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [1,2].  But I would say Solaris is very much in line with Tarkovsky’s main themes, similar in some ways to his later Stalker (1979), and in fact it is one of the legendary filmmaker’s finest works [3,4].

As Tarkovsky himself remarked [5]:
“As for Solaris, my decision to adapt it to the screen is not at all a result of some fondness for the [science fiction] genre. The main thing is that in [the novel] Solaris, Lem presents a problem that is close to me: the problem of overcoming, of convictions, of moral transformation on the path of struggle within the limits of one’s own destiny. The depth and meaning of Lem’s novel are not at all dependent on the science fiction genre, and it’s not enough to appreciate his novel simply for the genre.”
This is not to suggest that Solaris and 2001 are not comparable.  Both films use the vastness of outer space and the confinement within a space capsule to evoke feelings of man’s existential loneliness and separation from ultimate fulfillment.  But Solaris focuses much more on the inner space of human consciousness – which is the primordial reality.  No matter how much modern science may help us build better models of and help us to understand the physical world, we must keep in mind that all of this is grounded on human consciousness.  Consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of neural activity  in the brain; it is the ground on which all understanding, including that of the brain and its neurons, is based [6].  Solaris raises this issue as a central theme.

Indeed how should one go about exploring this theme that transcends the logic of the written word?  Well, there is music and art.  But even better, there is film, whose narratives can comprise music, artistic expression, and words over temporal sequences.  Although sound films began as essentially recorded stage plays, which were mostly just words, modern filmmakers have gone well beyond that to incorporate other modes of expression.  This is what makes all of Tarkovsky’s work especially precious – the use of cinema’s unique modes of artistic presentation to conjure up conscious feelings that go well beyond what can be expressed by the written word or modeled by text-based logics.  He touched on this explicitly when he said [7]:
 "The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."
And so his creative process in making a film did not start with a script, but more with a feeling or mood that he wanted to realize in cinematic form [8]:
“Directing starts not when the script is being discussed with the writer, not during work with the actor, or with the composer, but at the time when before the interior gaze of the person making the film and known as the director, there emerges an image of the film: this might be a series of episodes worked out in detail, or perhaps the consciousness of an aesthetic texture and emotional atmosphere, to be materialized on the screen.”
Tarkovsky’s cinematic expression featured a number of characteristic mechanisms to evoke the moods he wanted to convey. This often entailed the conveyance of the vital otherness of the natural world.  In Solaris this included long shots and sounds in natural settings of
  • a horse running through a wooded landscape
  • images of underwater reeds moving in the water flow
  • the natural sounds of running water
In addition, the action is variously presented in sequences that are colored, black-and-white, or sepia-tinted.  These color-tonal variations serve to shift things (when the move is to black-and-white or sepia) to a more introspective focus.  This was all reinforced by evocative music and even naturalistic expressionist paintings shown, such as Peter Bruegel the Elder’s atmospheric painting “Hunters in the Snow” (1565).

Also, in contrast to the theater, which does not normally have many sequences without words, Tarkovsky often reminds the viewer that our conscious experience of the world frequently encompasses extended passages without dialogue (with just ambient sounds present), during which we may reflect on our circumstances.  In fact we know that the authentic tempo of life is normally different from what we see on stage, films, and TV, and this is what Tarkovsky tries to capture.  This slowed-down Tarkovskian approach and narrative pacing can make some viewers impatient; but I find that once you settle into his moody narrative rhythm, everything proceeds organically.  In fact I am one of those people who find Tarkovsky’s atmospheric films improving on repeated viewings.

In addition, when Tarkovsky shoots conversations, they are often portrayed in long, carefully orchestrated moving-camera shots with the shifting subjects shown mostly in closeup.  This immerses the viewer in the conversation more naturally than the conventional manner of back-and-forth cuts to opposing over-the-shoulder perspectives.  Tarkovsky’s technique in this respect also has a claustrophobic effect that enhances the feeling of isolation and confinement in the Solaris’s satellite setting.

The story of Solaris concerns a trip sometime in the future that a cosmonaut psychologist, Kris Kelvin (played by Donatas Banionis), makes to a satellite laboratory orbiting the planet Solaris.  The planet  has been the subject of a decades-long study of its peculiar properties – it is completely covered by a turbulent, viscous ocean that seems to be a living organism.  The long study has made little progress, however, and the satellite laboratory that was built to accommodate 85 personnel now has only three remaining scientists, who have not communicated useful findings for some time.  Kelvin’s mission is to go there and see if the scientific mission should finally be terminated.

Although the nature of Solaris’s ocean is ultimately beyond human comprehension, we learn that the ocean has the power to read the minds of the scientists within its field of influence and then construct embodied people based on how they are understood in the minds of those scientists.  In particular the mental material that is mined always concerns people who weigh on the subjects’ consciences.  Since these embodied presences suddenly appear as new inhabitants of the satellite, they are referred to by the scientists as “guests”.  These guests are associated with people who persist in a person’s memory due to issues of conscience.  And so this identifies a key perspective concerning the nature of consciousness that is covered in this film – that the concerns and feelings of guilt that we may have in our memories seem to lie at the heart of who we really are.

The logical nature of conscience has been widely discussed in terms of the theoretical structure it may have [9], but the nature of the experiential phenomenon of conscience, as an important aspect of consciousness, is not so well covered.  This film explores that neglected but profoundly important territory.

Thus we can say at the core of Solaris are two key themes:
  • The contrasting perspectives offered by (a) the Objectivist view of reality that is grounded on the modern physical sciences, in which the potentially prejudiced views of a subjective observer are excluded, and (b) the Interactionist view that is grounded on human consciousness (and thus subjective observation) [10].  The Objectivist view cannot find human consciousness within its purview, because it is looking for an objective mechanism that could generate it [6].  On the other hand, the Interactionist view sees human consciousness, not as a byproduct of some objective agency but as the primordial phenomenon. According to this view, human agency is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being” [11].
  • The degree to which conscience and concern for others are important core elements of consciousness and help characterize human existence. 
Solaris’s narrative can be considered to progress through four main phases.

1.  On Earth, before the mission

The opening 43 minutes of this 2-hour-and-46-minute film contain material not present in Stanislaw Lem’s novel and represent something of a prologue.  They show Kris Kelvin’s visit to the country home of his estranged father (Nikolai Grinko) on the day before his trip to Solaris. The opening shots show Kelvin contemplatively walking in the sylvan natural environment outside the home, and this will contrast later with the mechanical and claustrophobic confines of the Solaris space station.  His father has also invited on this occasion a visit from his old friend, the former cosmonaut Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorjetzki), who many years ago visited Solaris and witnessed some bizarre phenomena on the planet which he wants to discuss with Kelvin. They watch an old videotape of Berton’s testimony to the government authorities, where his account was dismissed as hallucinatory.  Berton insists to Kelvin that there is something important going on at Solaris and that the scientific mission there should be continued.  But Kelvin, who is an Objectivist cynic, thinks it likely that the remaining Solaristic scientists there are only engaged in irresponsible daydreaming.  It is clear during this sequence that Kelvin and his father are barely on speaking terms and that Kelvin wants to cut himself off from his past.

It should be mentioned that there is very little futuristic paraphernalia shown in this film.  People are shown using equipment and driving cars characteristic of 1970.  Perhaps the most futuristic environment visually evoked is when Berton is shown driving through a vast superhighway complex, which consisted of shots of an actual freeway in contemporary Tokyo.

2.  Arrival at the Solaris space station

When Kelvin arrives at the disheveled and cluttered space station, the three reclusive inhabitants do not greet him, and he has to seek them out in their separate quarters.  He learns that one of the three, his old friend Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sarkisyan), has already committed suicide.  So now there are only two people left, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn).  Sartorius proves to be a hardcore and exploitative Objectivist.  Snaut, on the other hand, is a little more open-minded and curious.

In Gibarian’s old room, Kelvin watches a video that was prepared for him by Gibarian just before his suicide to warn Kelvin about strange phenomena on the satellite and telling him they are all about conscience. Then Kelvin gets occasional glimpses of other people on the satellite – a momentary glimpse of a young woman disappearing down a corridor, for instance.

The next morning Kelvin awakens in his room to see his wife Hari (movingly played by the beautiful Natalya Bondarchuk), who had committed suicide ten years earlier.  Hari is totally loving and affectionate, but Kelvin is in a state of shock.  He knows that this is one of the bizarre phenomena.  Hari seems to know some things about her past, but not everything.  Almost in a disturbed trance, Kelvin bundles his trusting wife into a space shuttle and has her rocketed off into outer space.  Now he is presumably rid of this apparition.

Later, in a single Tarskovskian four-minute take, Sartorius explains to Kelvin that after the scientists had bombarded the Solaris ocean with exploratory x-rays, the ocean seemed to have responded by extracting “islands” from the satellite inhabitants’ memories and creating the human-like phenomena onboard in order to haunt them.  These human forms are not apparitions; they have real physicality.  Sartorius, Snaut, and Gibarian all have, or have had, their own guests, although we only get brief glimpses of them.

3.  Kelvin and Hari
Later Kelvin sees Hari again, lovingly getting into bed with him.  It seems that the Solaris ocean has created another Hari for him.  These “guests” also have unusual properties.  When the distraught Hari, not wanting to be left alone without Kelvin, tears through a metal door to follow him, she appears to get severe injuries.  But before Kelvin can rush to her aid, she miraculously self-repairs and recovers from her wounds.

In another meeting, the dour Sartorius explains to Kelvin that the Solaris guests are not constructed out of ordinary matter.  Instead they are constructed out of neutrinos and can only exist in stable form when they are within the influence of the planet’s force fields.

Gradually Kelvin finds himself irresistibly drawn to the beautiful and loving Hari.  Although his own indifference and negligence had led to her suicide ten years earlier, he is now falling in love with this woman guest. Sartorius dismisses her as an artificial construction, but Kelvin finds her becoming increasingly developed as a full-fledged person the more she interacts with him.

But Sartorius and Snaut have disruptive plans.  They plan to bombard the Solaris ocean with an x-ray image of Kelvin’s own neural encephalogram in the hopes that that will mollify the mysterious being.  Also Sartorius has been working on some unseen equipment he calls “the annihilator”, which is to be used to permanently destroy all the guests.

Then there is an interesting birthday party for Snaut held in the satellite’s ornately decorated lounge and which Sartorius, Kelvin, and Hari attend.  Snaut arrives late and inebriated, whereupon they launch into a discussion ranging over issues concerning the pursuit of physical knowledge and the neglect of the human “inter-being” existence.  Along the way, these scientists cite and quote from the works of Cervantes, Goethe, and Dostoyevsky. Sartorius insults Hari to her face by telling her she is a manufactured thing, not a person. But with Hari progressively learning about herself and the world around her and thereby becoming more human, the viewer is likely to conclude that she is more of a person than Sartorius is.   Moreover, Kelvin is now fully involved with Hari and assures her that he will never go back to Earth and leave her alone.

4.  Return
Kelvin becomes weak and is taken to bed, where he has haunting dreams of his mother and the original Hari, during which he merges their images.  When he recovers, Snaut informs him that Hari voluntarily submitted herself to the annihilator so that her sacrifice would enable her love to return to Earth [12]. Snaut also tells him that he and Sartorius transmitted the encephalogram to the Solaris ocean, and since then no “guests” have appeared in the space station. Instead the ocean seemed to be creating small islands on its surface.  Kelvin becomes resigned to these developments and agrees to return to Earth.

In the final scenes, Kelvin is apparently back on Earth and again visiting his father’s country home.  When he sees his father, he bows down in a humble embrace, seeking reconciliation.  But as the camera pulls back we see that this scene takes place on an island in the Solaris ocean.  

There have been several suggested interpretations of that final scene.  One is that the planet’s ocean, which is now equipped with a full encephalogram of Kelvin’s brain, has been able to construct a physical replica of Kelvin’s entire mental world, including a “guest” realization of Kelvin, himself.  Under this interpretation, the real Kelvin is somewhere else (perhaps now back on the real Earth), and a full guest realization of Kelvin and his world reside on an island in the Solaris ocean.  A second interpretation would have the real Kelvin ensnared in a guest realization of his home life on the island in the ocean.  You may have other suggestions.

Although the principal character and center of focalization is Kris Kelvin, the most compelling character in the story is his wife Hari.  Natalya Bondarchuk’s performance in this role is sensitive and convincing.  She portrays a woman whose initial self-understanding is limited because it has been constructed only out of her husband’s memories of her.  Thus in the early stages she is not even aware of her own earlier suicide, because that was not part of Kris’s direct experience.  In fact in the beginning is she is seen only as a clinging, desperately in love marriage partner.  But as the story progresses, she learns more about herself and develops more as a person.  This development in fact worries Kris, because as she becomes more sophisticated, he wonders if they will have more arguments and grow further apart.  But Hari is not becoming more argumentative; rather, a key aspect of Hari’s progressing humanity is the development of her conscience.  In fact her voluntary “self-annihilation” at the end is directed by her developed conscience: she wants to free Kris from a potentially imprisoned life on the satellite space station.

In any case, we know that conscience is a crucial aspect of our own identities.  When we truly love, it involves a fundamental interaction of our inner being.  So, too, is the case when we feel true compassion for our dear ones.  And many of us are lastingly haunted by memories of occasions when we failed to respond fully to the call of love from dear ones. These were missed opportunities for full self-realization, and we may still wonder how we can reconcile what happened and our actions back then with our true selves – and how those events ultimately changed ourselves.

  1. Phillip Lopate, “Solaris: Inner Space”, The Criterion Collection, (24 May 2011).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Solaris”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (19 January 2003).   
  3. Richard Eder, “Film::'Solaris,' Russians in Space A Science-Fiction Parable on the Nature of Mankind”, The New York Times, (7 October 1976).   
  4. Acquarello, “Solaris: Exploring the Frontier of the Subconscious”, Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 4, Senses of Cinema, (March 2000).   
  5. Andrei Tarkovsky, “Dialogue with Andrei Tarkovsky about Science-Fiction on the Screen. Naum Abramov / 1970”, from The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky A Visual Fugue”, Vida T. Johnson & Graham Petric. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1994, quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris 1972”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIX:11), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (9 November 2009).   
  6. Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, (2012).
  7. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema,  University of Texas Press Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky The Mirror 1974”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (IX:13), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (16 November 2004).      
  8. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time Reflections on the Cinema, University of Texas Press Austin, (1986), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris 1972”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIX:11), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (9 November 2009).    
  9. Alberto Giubilini, “Conscience”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (14 March 2016).   
  10. For more discussion on Interactionism vs. Objectivisim, see my reviews of:
  11. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living, HarperOne (2017).
  12. We assume here that Snaut is telling the truth and that the good-bye letter from Hari that he reads to Kelvin is authentic.  An alternative hypothesis would be that Sartorius and Snaut selfishly coerced Hari into the annihilator.


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great analysis of a truly great film!

The Film Sufi said...

Thanks for your comment, Murtaza!