I think, therefore I am. Oh, if it was only that simple.
In Andrei Tarkovsy’s science fiction epic Solaris, the notions of reality and what makes us human are complex riddles that have no clear answer. Based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, the film follows psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) as he travels to the space station circling the planet Solaris to investigate several deaths and other mysteries that took place on the vessel. Once on the station, Kelvin quickly realizes that he should have heeded the warnings of a cosmonaut named Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhertsky). He warned him that Solaris is more than a mere planet. Covered completely by water, Solaris is a living organism that manages to access the memories of the cosmonauts. The results of which is the appearance of beings referred to as Guests.
During his first night on the station Kelvin is visited by one of these Guests. Appearing in the form of his late wife Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk), the Guest is a perfect replica in almost every way except for memory. While she has a deep love for Kelvin, there are key aspects of the past that she cannot recall. Even more disturbing is the fact that this version of Khari is fully aware that she is not the “true” Khari. She openly inquires about aspects of the original Khari’s life and death while trying to grapple with her own existence. However, the fascinating thing about this incarnation of Khari is that she is unable to escape the fate of the original. Her love for Kelvin is so intense that it is destined for tragedy.
Like apparitions haunting the darkened house of memory, the Guests are physical manifestations of the emotional weakness of mankind. They feel pain, yet cannot be killed. The sights of their resurrections are often as horrific as the images of their attempted deaths. Tarkovsky uses the concept of Guests to emphasize that memory is hardest thing for a healthy person to erase, especially if tragedy is involved. The only options are to either try to cope with the memories or become consumed by them. While Dr. Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonistsyn) and Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) have learned to deal, as best they can, Kelvin succumbs to the allure of Khari. Is it true love that bonds Kelvin or Khari or simply the idea of it? Khari repeatedly professes her love for Kelvin, but her entire being is a replication of Kelvin’s view of Khari. Kelvin’s infatuation with her seems to be based more on a sense of obligation rather than authentic feelings for her. Similar to the cosmonaut who is running along the circular hallway of the space station, Kelvin is trapped within his own cycle of guilt.
Tarkovsky’s meditative approach to exploring themes of guilt and memory is both one of the films strengths and weaknesses. Though I had a basic understanding of the premise going in, being a fan of the Steven Soderbergh 2002 remake, I was not prepared for how drawn out the pacing would be. In many ways it is a bit of a double-edged sword, as I loved the sequences where Tarkovsky not only drops an important piece of information, but provides the audience with enough time to let it truly linger. An early example of this is the shots of Burton driving on the highway with the boy, who we initially assume is his son until told otherwise, resting against Burton’s shoulder. It is a haunting moment that expertly sets up what Kelvin is about to experience on the station. These sections also work nicely, in hindsight, in regards to setting up the brilliant and eye-opening ending. As thought-provoking as elements like these are, I would be lying if I did not say that my eye lids got a little heavy during certain sections.
Tarkovsky’s pacing, which at times boarders on plodding, really makes Solaris a bit of an endurance test. Fortunately, Tarkovsky provides enough philosophical questions about mankind to maintain interest even in the slower sections of the film. Though Solaris may be framed around a love story, which Soderbergh explored in far greater detail, the film is more concerned with questioning the indefinable aspects of being human. Are we human because we can experience, but not easily explain, love? Perhaps it is our ability to separate work from emotions? Is it the way we compartmentalize memory? Or possibly it is our ability to be instantly crippled by the emotional weight of memory? Tarkovsky does not provide any easy answers. He merely uses the questions to trigger aspects of our own memories.
Solaris, while a struggle at times to get through, is a truly rewarding experience. It is not a film that one easily forgets which, considering the themes in the film, is rather fitting.