At university in the early 90s, friends who were studying philosophy would enthuse about Solaris in the same smoke-filled breath as Hegel and Sartre – neither of whom I had read. But I felt at ease with nerdiness, in a room crowded with techno music and people lying about on the floor. Vicariously I became a purist, without ever watching the 1972 film by Andrei Tarkovsky nor reading the original novel by Stanisław Lem. And when Steven Soderbergh’s slicker, shorter, altogether shinier adaptation, starring George Clooney and Natasha McElhone, was released, I knowingly let it pass me by – why have Hollywood cotton when you could have Soviet silk? So it has taken me more than 25 years and the lockdown of a global pandemic to make time for Tarkovsky’s film, only to find that the more you attempt to understand Solaris, the more it defies explanation.
Generations of scientists have risked their sanity trying to make sense of its sprawling ocean, a vast living organism that appears to be sentient; none has succeeded. The doomed hero of this story is Kris Kelvin (played by Donatas Banionis), a psychologist and expert in the field of Solaristics, who is dispatched to the station that orbits the planet to evaluate whether or not the troubled mission should continue. Its dwindling crew is under siege from mysterious figures – phantasmic incarnations of their own shameful memories and fantasies that seem to have risen up from the depths of the sea. Kelvin is greeted by devastation: his colleague Dr Gibarian has killed himself, while the other cosmonauts – Snaut and Sartorius – are hiding away in their cabins. The “visitor” that will drive Kelvin to the edge of madness is a simulacrum of his lost love, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who killed herself long ago. He awakes in a dream to find her sitting before him – and so the living nightmare begins.
Or, at least, this is where the film really gets going. Departing from the book, Tarkovsky opens on Earth. Entrancing images of the natural world – a leaf carried downstream, weeds undulating in the dark depths of a brook, thistles veiled in light mist – are set to the melancholic sound of an organ work by Bach (a musical embodiment of order, religious faith and reason) as Kelvin contemplates the garden at his family home. It is an exquisite conjuring of the universe he is preparing to leave behind, as well as a vision of lost childhood that reproduces the house the director grew up in. Tarkovsky is on home ground, then, yet uncannily so, as home, in that disturbing Wizard of Oz way, becomes somewhere yearned for, yet forever beyond reach.
A similar meditation on nature occurs in Tarkovsky’s later science fiction film, Stalker, a journey through a post-apocalyptic wasteland called the “Zone” in search of a mythical house of dreams. And perhaps it was the remnants of the industrial landscape from that film that made me imagine the characters of Solaris would be trapped between brutalist grey walls in a dystopian black-and-white vision of solitude. We do get stark white interiors when Kelvin arrives in space, but this vision of the future is not so distant from the film’s present; he wears the same clothes he wore on Earth – a leather jacket and T-shirt (that bears an unfortunate passing resemblance to a string vest) – while his pyjamas really are monogrammed. Mirrors in each room reflect the cosmonaut’s journey into his interior world. Objects are imbued with memories: Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow hangs on the wood-panelled walls of the library, recalling the cold comforts of the earthly landscape he’s left behind.
But return to that moment when the narrator, Kelvin, meets Hari in the book: “My first thought was: ‘I’m glad this is one of those dreams where you know you’re dreaming.’ All the same, I’d preferred her not to be there. I closed my eyes and began to wish this intensely, but when I opened them again she was still sitting there.” What I love is the way in which the film captures this merging of dreams and the waking world. Emerging eerily out of silence, the ambient sounds of Eduard Artemyev’s electronic score echo the warm glow of red sunlight that floods the room and catches soft hairs lining the contours of Hari’s face.
Elsewhere, surreal happenings (a dwarf’s darting out from Sartorious’s cabin as he guards his door) or telling inconsistencies (the lack of fastener on Hari’s dress) go unexplained, occurring naturally within the rhythm and pace of an elliptical chain of events. As the camera slowly pans in long takes, characters that disappear from one point of view seem to occupy an entirely different space when seen from another, creating the effect of a lucid dream in which the camera is at once observing and determining the narrative. Bondarchuk is disconcertingly blank-faced and willing as she relives the traumatic loops of obsessive love that destroyed her; Banionis convincingly carries the burden of guilt of a man whose first desperate attempt to get rid of the problem involves folding her into a rocket and launching her into space. Relating was clearly never his strong point.
But what to make of it all? I’m still none the wiser. Tarkovsky set out to expose the “phoniness” of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with this interrogation of the human condition and the result is a strange kind of psychological horror. The vividly coloured and intricately textured forms of Lem’s majestically rendered ocean – so profoundly unsettling in the novel – are almost an afterthought here. Soderbergh’s sea at least gives off a nice CGI shimmer in a telling that ticks off Lem’s underlying philosophical queries with impressive efficiency. (Questions of faith, the existence of God and the limitations of human understanding are raised and dealt with in the exchanges of a 30-second dinner party conversation.) But, in the absence of CGI, and a musical score that tells you how to feel, Tarkovsky’s dreamworld draws you in; you don’t need an ocean to sense a world at sea.