About 45 minutes into Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction epic Solaris, a cerebral 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel, a psychologist arrives at a space station near the remote oceanic planet of the title. The two surviving cosmonauts on board—a third has committed suicide—have been so haunted by strange happenings that all scientific projects have ceased and the space station has fallen into disrepair. Looking for answers from these confused, troubled men isn’t easy, but the psychologist comes away with one piece of useful advice: Cut a piece of paper into ribbons and tape it to the air vent in the room. This way, while he’s sleeping, the sound could be mistaken for the rustling of leaves in the evening breeze, perhaps tricking his mind into believing he’s on terra firma.
It’s a small detail, but it’s endemic to Solaris, which treats space travel like a dangerously extended session in a sensory deprivation tank, where the intense isolation and loneliness can lead to psychic turbulence. What these men experience are not hallucinations—they’d be easier to dismiss if they were—but Tarkovsky, much like Stanley Kubrick did four years earlier with 2001: A Space Odyssey, views space as an abstract realm, as if consciousness itself were floating in zero gravity. Though Tarkovsky didn’t care for Kubrick’s film—nor did Lem care for Tarkovsky’s, for that matter—both reject the space adventures that pass for most filmed science fiction in favor of a more meditative, difficult, mysterious examination of what it means to be human.
Nearly as inscrutable as Keir Dullea in 2001, Donatas Banionis stars as the psychologist sent to the space station after decades in orbit yield little progress, apart from some disturbing news about the crew’s psychological well-being. Banionis arrives to find the two remaining cosmonauts (Jüri Järvet and Anatoli Solonitsyn) alone and distracted by alien “visitors” who seem to have sprung from their own minds. When Banionis’ deceased former wife, played by Natalya Bondarchuk, appears in his room one night, he initially dismisses her as a hallucination and forcefully expels her from the station. When she returns, he comes to understand her both as real and as an alien created by the sentient planet’s access to his grief-stricken conscience.
The solutions offered for combating these “visitors” are as vaguely defined as the visitors themselves, but Solaris is perhaps best viewed more as ghost story than conventional science fiction. The spectacular images Tarkovsky offers of the planet—foggy, unnaturally colorful, constantly shifting and swirling in seeming response to the psyches it’s manipulating—have a trance-like instability that stands in sharp contrast to Earth’s steady gravitational pull. Solaris also asks the audience to accept its mysterious, ever-changing reality and share in Banionis’ disorientation. It’s a lot to ask—this is a challenging sit, even by Tarkovsky standards—but even when the film seems impenetrable, its strange ambience lingers.
Key features: Given the difficulties Solaris poses, the extras are a great help, particularly a liner-notes essay by critic Phillip Lopate and a commentary track by Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie. Also included are interviews with some of the cast and crew, and a five-minute TV profile on Lem.