by Connie HanThe plot of Solaris, such as it is, can be summed up in one faintly absurd sentence. Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, goes into space, and is haunted by his dead wife; confusion ensues.

There is more to Solaris than any summary or review can tell. It’s not a film you can dip into: it immerses you for almost three hours and leaves you astounded and breathless. It is a film both uncompromisingly beautiful and bleak. Even under the burden of Soviet censorship, Tarkovsky refused to bow to creative pressures, crafting his films to produce a unique and enduring vision. With Solaris, Tarkovsky hoped to transcend science fiction. He was disappointed that he had not succeeded and that Solaris was categorised and trapped within a narrow genre. Yet to describe Solaris as ‘sci-fi’ is like describing The Seventh Seal as a film about chess.

If general consensus means anything to you, Solaris is regarded as an astounding film. ‘An extraordinary film of great sensitivity and lyrical power…engrossing and gravely beautiful,’ gushes Newsweek. ‘In every way a majestic work of art…a masterpiece’ writes Mark leFanu in The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. On the other hand, Stanislaw Lem, the author of the book on which Solaris was based, famously disliked it, feeling it concentrated too much on the relationship between Kelvin and his wife, and too little on the book’s main theme: the incomprehensibility and unrelatability of alien life. Yet many feel that the focus on the relationship enriched, not detracted, from the film’s alien atmosphere. ‘Man needs man,’ declares Snaut, one of the scientists. Later, Kelvin tells his wife; ‘you mean more to me than any scientific truth.’ Science and love, knowledge and delusion, humanity and the Cosmos; these are the themes juxtaposed continually in Solaris.

The performances are low-key and taut. Kelvin’s dead wife, Hari, is at once both eerily alien and more human than any of the scientists. She is played by then 18 year old Natalya Bondarchuk, who was catapulted to fame by her performance. The film has almost no musical score, proceedings being interrupted either by mechanical beeps and clicks or by strange, unsettling swells of sound. The only actual music is Bach, played during moments of intense emotion and unsettling beauty.
Solaris is about time, grief, perception, reality; guilt and memory; man’s quest for knowledge and the failure of science. It is also about a man adrift in space around an alien planet with his dead wife. Though at times it verges on pretension, it sails gracefully on where a lesser film would have lapsed into self indulgence. It is one of the films you need to see before you die. Make of it what you will.