Solaris, released in 1972, was in some ways Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s answer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like 2001 it deals with Big Issues, issues like identity, individuality, what makes us human, and our place in the cosmos.
And like 2001 it’s extremely visual, with sequences that don’t actually advance the plot but they’re there because they convey something through visual images that can’t be conveyed through dialogue. And because the images are simply stunning. I’ve heard people complain about the scenes with the car in the tunnels, but really that sequence is so glorious that I can’t conceive of why anyone would not want to sit back and just enjoy it.
The story, adapted from a novel by the great Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, concerns the ocean-covered planet Solaris, which may or may not be alive, which may or may not be intelligent, which may or may not be aware of us, and which may or may not be wishing to communicate with us. Decades of study have established only one thing for certain – that Solaris remain an enigma. A psychologist has been sent to the Solaris Station, in orbit round the planet, to make a final report on whether the station should be shut down and further study abandoned.
He arrives to find that Solaris has started to actively interact with the handful of remaining scientists on the station, by creating “guests”. These “guests” are more than hallucinations, they are real in a material sense, and are manufactured from the minds of the scientists and take the form of people who have had some importance in their lives. In the case of the psychologist, Kelvin, the “guest” takes the form of his dead wife. But are these guests human? What does that mean, anyway? And why has Solaris started to do this?
One of the ideas that Stanislaw Lem puts forward in several of hi novels is that if we ever do encounter aliens, they are likely to be so strange that we may not even know if we’re dealing with something that is alive or not, and we may have absolutely no way of establishing meaningful contact with them. They may force us to question our concepts of self, or life, and of intelligence. The movie Solaris deals with these issues in a manner that is both intelligent and disturbing. It’s a case of a great novel turned into an equally great film.
Avoid the truly atrocious Hollyood remake.