Fun fact about the Cannes Jury Prize winning 1972 feature Solaris - neither the director or the novelist from whose work the film was adapted like it.
Well, he didn’t dislike it, but Andrei Tarkovsky, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, was never quite satisfied with it, wishing it had done more to transcend the sci-fi genre. Novelist Stanislaw Lem didn’t like it at all, claiming Tarkovsky had added too much human drama and emotion to a story about knowledge and man’s ability to communicate with his surroundings.
‘But Solaris is an all-time classic!’, we hear you shout. Here is a masterpiece of genre and filmmaking, surpassing the work of Tarkovsky’s contemporaries and creating a platform for so much that has come after it, and not just science fiction. And yes, it really is.
The first thing to strike home about Solaris is its aesthetic. The composition and framing of the camerawork is a joy to behold. Slow, gliding shots introduce the world of Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) as he visits his father’s (Nikolay Grinko) countryside home. Kris is spending his last days here before going into space to psychoanalyse the crew of the Solaris mission.
It’s a contemplative first act, a place where Kelvin’s normal outward nature is revealed, only to be thrown into disarray in the second act of the film. His calm, cool veneer is stripped back once he encounters the skeleton crew of the mission, all of whom seem to be suffering psychologically due to the power of the planet they are studying.
The planet’s ocean seems to be an organism that reads the minds of the space station’s inhabitants and builds organic recreations of their memories. For Kris, that means recreations of his late wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), opening wounds he previously thought healed.
Tarkovsky’s film muses on grief, exploring the concept of partial recovery. Kelvin has long ago dealt with the death of his wife, but once he is faced with a living breathing version of her, he understands that he can never let her go.
The process of Kris’s sanity being diluted is deeply distressing to watch. He begins knowing that this Hari is not real, but the warmth and affection drawn from this form is entirely from his memory, which he ultimately finds impossibly comforting.
Reality becomes objective, as Tarkovsky plays on themes of regret and memory, things that are quintessentially human. Although this perhaps wasn’t what Stanislaw Lem had in mind, it certainly makes for one of the most complete artistic visions in film.