“Solaris” is one of those movies that make me feel incredibly stupid. Watching it, I found it hard to understand what was going on and even harder to understand what it all means. The extra material includes some analysis, but this I found even harder to comprehend and left me feeling dumber than ever. I tried reading up on it from various sources, but to no avail. It is very clear that “Solaris” is concerned with some fundamental aspects of the human condition and also that these mean more than the actual narrative, but I am struggling here.
This is what I got out of it.
We meet Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) at a countryside house belonging to his parents. He is about to leave for a space station above a planet called Solaris. Solaris may be an intelligent planet (?), but years of research have failed to make contact and the mission controllers are considering shutting the project down. It is my understanding that Kris has to evaluate the project on the spot in order to make that decision.
Kris is visited by a former astronaut, Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) on the station who was dismissed in disgrace when, after an accident on the station, he claimed to have met with a four-meter-tall boy. On Earth he has a normal version of this boy. Berton wants something from Kris, but I could not work out what it was. Kris is indifferent and Berton leaves in disgust.
For five minutes Berton drives around on highways in China…
Kris arrives on the space station, but there is nobody there to greet him. Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) asks him to take it easy, Dr. Satorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) is outright dismissive and Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has killed himself, but left a largely incomprehensible video message for Kris. The station is in disrepair, it is literally falling apart and there is a feeling of lethargy. Kris wanders around and starts to see people who are not supposed to be there. It does not seem to concern him too much.
This changes when Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appears. This is Kris’ former wife who died 10 years earlier after he had left her. Kris sends her away in a rocket, but a second copy is soon back. Dr. Sartorius explains that they are constructs the planet creates from their minds, that they are physical enough but artificial constructs and that they all have these guests. Hari tries to cope with the fact that she is not the real Hari and is distressed about it while Kris response is to try to protect her. He is still in love with her and it does not matter that she is a construct.
Dr. Snaut wants to send a brain image of Kris to Solaris before they finally kill it (?) and this has the effect that the guests disappear. Kris is then back at the country house with his father, only this also just a construct, an island on the ocean of Solaris.
Solaris is apparently compared to Kubrick’s “2001: Space Odyssey” and I can see why. Both are considered incomprehensible science fiction movies, but where the Space Odyssey is very sparse in dialogue, the characters in “Solaris” just cannot stop talking. What they are saying is not outright obscure, just not very helpful in understanding what is really going on here. I have often complained about those, often French, movies who sacrifice the narrative in order to emphasize a symbolic message, and Solaris is flirting with this problem. There is a point to it all that director Tarkovsky is trying to bring across, but whatever it is, it is so amorphous and diffuse that it remains outside my perception and renders the rest, not entirely pointless but incomprehensible. Long passages looking at old pictures, driving in China, wandering the space station…
Kris prefers his dream to reality. Humankind needs other humans. It also fears the unknown and will rather destroy it than try to comprehend it. The guests are Solaris’ way of communicating by picking the scientists brains and showing them what they care for the most, but why? To teach them about themselves? To try to understand the humans? Is this something about that reality is only a construct in the first place and that you chose yourself which reality you want to live in?
Perhaps. As mentioned I am still wondering what this is actually about and suspect I am just not mentally equipped to understand “Solaris” and Tarkovsky. I wish I was though.
Some people did get it. “Solaris” won the Palme D’Or in Cannes and has fans around the world. So, I guess it is just me.