"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
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
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.
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.