Legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky had a lot of reasons for making his 1972 science fiction film Solaris, often seesawing back and forth between motivations driven by business and creativity. He wanted to make something more commercial after his previous film, the 1966 historical drama Andrei Rublev, was left unreleased and his script for A White, White Day had been rejected (in 1975 it was realised as The Mirror) by the USSR (Who approved and funded all local films at the time). He also admired the work of author Stanisław Lem, whose 1961 science fiction novel was the basis for the film. And Lem himself was a popular and critically respected writer in the USSR so, all-in-all, it was a logical commercial and artistic choice of source material. But probably his biggest creative reason was surprising. Imagine a director who, in a 1970 interview, actually singled out Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey as, and I quote, "phoney on many points" and "a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth".
For Tarkovsky, he wanted to bring a level of emotional depth to the genre that he felt 2001 and other products of Western cinema had sidelined for the sake of focusing on the more visually appealing aspect to the genre, technological advancement. For Solaris, Tarkovsky offers very much that, telling a personal story about a psychologist who, upon coming to a space station set over the titular alien oceanic planet to evaluate if the decades-long space station should be decomissioned or not, begins to experience hallucinations of his late wife. And, in the process, Tarkovsky walks on the fine line of humanity between the emotional and logical aspects of our very existence, albeit far more in depth through the dialogue than audiences may have the patience for.
Clocking in at a near 3-hour runtime, the deeply explores the personal story of lead character Kris Kelvin (Played by Donatas Banionis), spending the first 30 minutes of the story as he understands the boundaries of what is to come on the space station along with his personal turmoil of leaving his parents behind (Who will be dead if and when he returns). Kelvin is an emotionally drought man of pure logic, suggesting extreme measures to end the station if he doesn't approve of the direction the science of "Solaristics" is taking. However, this logical focus immediately dissipates as he arrives, seeing hallucinations run around like living beings, the only real people being the remaining scientists of Dr. Snaut (Played by Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Played by Anatoli Solonitsyn) along with a third scientist who has recently committed suicide. That third scientist, a friend of Kelvin's, warns him of what is to come and Kelvin faces this answer with the arrival of his late wife Hari (Played by Natalya Bondarchuk). It is from there that Tarkovsky has some issues.
While Tarkovsky does create a lot of emotional depth in his story as these characters explore the very concept of life and Earth's place in it. And perhaps the scariest part is lent to Bondarchuk's emotionally invested performance. Despite being the only "non-real" character in the film, she gives the most human performance, lent to Tarkovsky's technique of making the other human characters so deeply affected by the small-spaced station they reside in. This is lent to by Mikhail Romadin designing an environment that is lived-in, beat-up, and decrepit. With consultation in this design by scientist and aerospace engineer Lupichev, an environment is created that is not futuristic but believable.
Because of this environment, it lends to the performances of Danionis, Järvet, and Solonitsyn, enhancing their initial withdrawn and distant natures from themselves and each other. And as Bondarchuk's character becomes more enlivened and detailed, they are forced into feeling long-dormant emotions. Danionis uses this to convey a character who is forced to unravel deep trauma and reassessment of his life. Despite being science fiction, these realistic set pieces and this psychological approach allows for soul searching, to the point of melancholy in the tone to match the film.
Composer Eduard Artemyev's score is eerie, almost inhuman, lending to the uncomfortable, cringe feeling the characters are forced to bear in this alien setting. Tarkovsky works to make the audience feel as out-of-sorts as the characters. No one acts human except for the non-human. Emotions are not divulged, neither is any sort of way out. As the audience goes through this story, Tarkovsky may lose some viewers with the abundance of tangents and philosophical debates present in the film.
Some will adore such a slew of conversation pieces, but not all and as a film it slows down the pacing to such a crawl that nothing truly happens until the final 30 minutes where stakes actually feel present. Personal stakes are ever present as these characters dive into their very existence, but Tarkovsky covers every little detail of this journey, it could be deemed tedious at times. Like his later film Stalker, he uses the cinematography (Handled here by Vadim Yusov) to dwell on frames and scenes as if to give the audience time to analyze and understand what they are seeing. Like the characters in the film, that will lend entirely to your willingness to be patient to find answers and if what you're watching is worth the time.
Performances (Especially by Bondarchuk)
Abundance of subplots and narrative tangents.