Andrei Tarkovsky is a fairly unique proposition as a director in that his films are so consistent; the Russian director only made masterpieces, and Solaris is probably his best known work, although Stalker is also a useful entry point for novices. Casual viewers should not expect bang-for-your-buck with Tarkovsky, but he’s also something of an apex point for intellectual film-making; don’t leave your brain at the door, but turbo-charge it and bring some cushions to sit on if you hope to navigate his unique approach to ‘scuplting in time.’
Adapted from the 1962 book by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, and it’s probable that you could read the book faster than you can watch the movie, Solaris is a proper Russian sci-fi epic, although for Tarkovsky that doesn’t mean cute robots and fireballs, but at least ninety minutes of people standing in fields reciting poetry to each other before the action leaves earth.
Patience is rewarded, however, and once psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) gets into space, the reflection gives way to a confrontation with ghostly figures from the past and the future. These are generated by Solaris, a sentient planet below the space station Kelvin inhabits, and the alien contact he experiences is closely related to his own personal experience.
As philosophical as sci-fi gets, Solaris is a meditation, deeply rewarding on a spiritual level. It’s notable that Steven Soderbergh’s truncated remake with George Clooney, well-intentioned as it is, don’t have the same narrative pull; somehow it’s the lengthy gaps between the words that make Tarkovsky’s vision so enduring. Another enduring mystery is that Tarkovsky’s co-writer on his historical epic Andrei Rublev (1966) went on to direct Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell in Tango and Cash, but that’s an enigma for another day…