In Andrei Tarkovsky’s addictive, serenely maddening masterpiece of love and obsession in outer orbit, the dead just won’t stay dead. But neither are they alive. Like the vision of Lazarus reborn which Martin Scorsese conjured in such creepy fashion for The Last Temptation of Christ, Tarkovsky’s reanimated souls are never quite of this world. They are human, of a sort, but just enough to make the protagonist here think twice about killing one. Again.
The story has always been that Tarkovsky, a Soviet director whose few completed films were nearly all completed only after extensive battles with the censors in Moscow, had seen Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, decided it was horrible, and went about making his own version of a sci-fi epic. Both involve a small number of humans marooned inside pressure-sealed metal and plastic capsules unimaginable distances from home, where they encounter sights and sounds that could only be described as ghostly.
One could infer from this supposed East-West conflict was that Solaris would end up some stiff, humorless paean to the glories of comradely cooperation. Well, stiff and humorless Tarkovsky’s film may well be, but then Kubrick’s film wasn’t exactly a bagful of laughs. Though as obscure in its ultimate purposes as 2001 might be, Solaris’s nearly Dreyer-esque monasticism is not just a silent rebuke to the whole Soviet communitarian ideal but also a refusal to take part in Kubrick’s deployment of big, orchestral pieces of music and swooning special-effects shots.
In any event, Solaris deserves to taken on its own terms, and those are pretty bleak, indeed. Based on the novel by Polish sci-fi master Stanislaw Lem, the film concerns a psychologist, Kris (Donatas Banionis) who heads to a titular space station where what’s left of the crew has been having some problems. As these things tend to go, it’s no surprise that Kris is no less spiritually broken than the pair of scientists he is supposed to be counseling.
In the film’s long, dreamy opening scenes, Kris is spotted glooming about in a wet and foggy landscape of trees – Tarkovsky’s camera fixated on the weeds swaying ghost-like beneath the clear waters of a pond – still a broken man years after the death of his wife, Hari. The two scientists left on the space station floating above an ocean on the faraway planet of Solaris are no less broken. They stare at Kris blankly, answer in riddles, and don’t seem to notice either the half-smashed, decrepit nature of the station (Tarkovsky’s technology looking much more Soviet-utilitarian than Kubrick’s jet set cool) or the dead people running about.
As Kris discovers, the Solaris ocean has a strange affect on the people near to it, particularly when it comes to manifesting their thoughts and memories. In his case, that results in an absolutely real-looking Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appearing to Kris. Terrified, he shoves her into an ejector pod and shoots her into the dead of space. But then she comes back. She isn’t quite Hari, more like a dim and faded fourth-generation copy, but whatever she is, she’s attached to Kris, to the point where she shrieks in unearthly terror when a door comes between them.
Meanwhile, the alien landscape hums below them as a vexing ontological conundrum, and Kris confronts his mortality in bleak philosophical discussions that don’t do anything to alleviate this lengthy (166 minutes) and stately-paced film’s reputation for being overly long and pedantic. (One scene deleted from the final cut hints strongly at this tendency of Tarkovsky’s, as it included a text crawl that declared: “You are mistaken in thinking that science is all powerful.”)
In the penetrating essay that Philip Lopate wrote on Solaris that comes included with the 2011 Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray release, however, he notes the connection between this film and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu: “this is a story about falling in love with ghosts.” Tarkovsky’s masterpiece is a bleak piece of work, to be sure, and maybe it didn’t need to be this long; Steven Soderbergh’s severely underrated 2002 remake cut the running time in half while retaining its thematic core. But this is a love story about the dead, after all, maybe a little stateliness is called for.