Review: Solaris

Posted 1 December 2014

"We don't want other worlds, we want a mirror.'


There is a strange silence occupying much of Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky’s much-acclaimed adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem.  Characters are left to wander about their settings in quiet contemplation, as if they are themselves trying to answer the many questions it poses.

The film’s surprisingly earth-bound opening sequence is a slow yet beautiful watch (its nearly forty minutes before we actually leave the planet). We transfix on lake reeds sailing elegantly underwater; a thick fog blankets the shoreline from where psychologist Kris Kelvin looks out. Visiting his father at his childhood home, we watch the video testimony of an ex-Cosmonaut recalling his experience on the enigmatic ocean world of Solaris. His description of seeing a four-metre tall slimy child is, unsurprisingly, quickly denounced as a hallucination. With confusing data returning from the small crew stationed there, Kelvin is dispatched to the planet work out what’s happening – with future pursuits into the science of ‘solaristics’ hinging upon his success.

As Kelvin descends through the clouds, we get our first glimpse of the station and Solaris’s milky, liquid surface churning away in perpetuity. There’s an air of tension and expectation as he leaves his ship to explore the station’s empty, beaten-up interior. What to expect, we don’t know – but if the first forty minutes are any indication, we’re not exactly expecting a ‘face-hugger’ to come scuttling down the corridor. No, the crew aren’t battling an alien horde nor is the station facing imminent destruction. The threat here is much more profound. Kelvin finds the two remaining crew on board the ship alive and well, although strangely uncooperative and evasive. He sees a female figure dart down the hallway, and receives a cryptic video message from a friend warning of a strange condition afflicting the crew. Everything just seems... off.

Kris wakes to a woman sitting by his bed. Their interaction is confusing; her playfulness and love is met by trepidation and fear. Who is she? Leading her into the launch chamber, Kris packs her into a rocket and blasts her away with little thought. Upon her mysterious re-appearance we learn she is in fact Kris’s late wife, Hari, whose memory has been projected from Kris’s conscience as a result of scientific testing on the planet’s surface. It is these ‘guests’ who’ve been haunting the crew and slowly turning them to madness. Images from past, present or future – impossible to be free from no matter the desire.

From here we witness the gradual breakdown of Kelvin’s reality, as he becomes gradually more enamoured by his guest. Days seem to flash by in moments. He stares out the station’s portholes on to the hypnotic surface below – gradually becoming more turbulent. His initial reluctance to acknowledge her gives way to a strange, almost parental responsibility. The film’s more philosophical themes emerge as Kelvin’s scientific rationality battles with his emotions for this apparition of his wife. What is real? Hari herself struggles with her own identity as she contends with disapproval from the other crew members, coming to a forefront in a strangely theatrical dinner party where the film’s intellectual nature is teased out once again.

If you stay with it, Solaris rewards your patience with a uniquely artistic vision and thoughtful story evidently free from the bonds of conventional sci-fi. The scope of the film surpasses its small cast and closed-in setting to tackle some big questions about the human condition, many of which left me scratching my head afterwards.  But, if the aim of Lem’s original novel was to explore an experience beyond rational understanding, then maybe Tarkovsky’s adaptation did something right.

Jake Richardson is our student sci-fi critic during our BFI Days of Fear and Wonder season. Look out for his review of Robot and Frank, showing Thursday 4 December.

jake Richardson

Jake Richardson

Our student sci-fi criticRead more posts by Jake Richardson


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