Thirty-seven years before the publication of the Ted Chiang novella that would be adapted as The Arrival, polish author Stanisław Lem had already grappled with the challenges of human communication with radically dissimilar life forms. However, some of those themes of his novel were overshadowed by a more fundamental examination of what it means to be human in Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic cinematic adaptation. Easily one of the most important science fiction films of all time, Tarkovsky’s Solaris (trailer here) returns to New York theaters this Friday, freshly restored by Mosfilm from the original negative.
Kris Kelvin sounds cold. In fact, he has been emotional unavailable to those closest to him, resulting in the tremendous guilt he bears. As Solaris opens, he is spending what could well be his final day on Earth, essentially saying farewell to his elderly parents. He will soon leave for the space station orbiting planet Solaris. Communications with the crew have been garbled, so Kelvin is to assess their condition and determine whether the mission can continue.
It is pretty clear the Earthbound authorities would prefer to pull the plug. Ever since space pilot Henri Berton gave an outlandish report of an attempted rescue mission in the planet’s atmosphere, the reputation of so-called Solaristics has suffered in scientific circles. Kelvin’s initial meetings with the two surviving crew members do little to reassure him. Much to his disappointment, his friend Dr. Gibarian committed suicide shortly before his arrival, but he left Kelvin a cryptic video warning.
The space psychologist will soon understand what his old friend meant when he comes face-to-face with his dead wife Hari. She is not a hallucination. She is a physical manifestation generated by “The Ocean,” the sentient atmospheric storm on Solaris the space station scientists roused with their X-Ray probes. Clearly, the Ocean is responding with what the crew somewhat euphemistically call “guests,” but it is unclear whether the intent is hostile or benign.
Those who saw the original American release of Solaris were probably baffled, because a good half-hour was chopped out. Granted, there are some long, meditative Tarkovskian stretches, but viewers really need to go through them to get into the film’s headspace. It is still the most commercial of Tarkovsky’s films (an almost laughable distinction), but viewers who buckle in and commit to it, should have no trouble following along.
Somewhat intended as a response to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris is one of the few films that can match its cosmic scope. Yet, Tarkovsky deliberately de-emphasized special visual effects, instead presenting a cluttered, human-scale vision of the future. Few films have managed to develop the Tarkovsky’s themes (and Lem’s) any further, but its shadow looms over every subsequent first contact movies.
Viewers should also appreciate the ensemble’s fine performances, once they acclimate to Tarkovsky’s reserved aesthetic. As Kelvin, Lithuanian Donatas Banionis looks like an existential crisis personified. You can practically see the waves of guilt radiating out from him. Natalya Bondarchuk gives one of the great science fiction performances in movie history as the new Hari, who has apparently inherited the old Hari’s neuroses and develops peculiar new ones as she becomes cognizant of her true origins. However, it is Estonian Jüri Järvet who steals scene after scene as the station’s roguish but compassionate cyberneticist.