Solaris, a 1972 film by the acclaimed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, is in effect the Soviet Union's answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although not nearly as grand in its vision, Solaris received high praise from critics, with a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, the first hour or so is a real snooze fest. The first 45 minutes, which you wouldn't miss much if you skipped altogether, involve the main character, Kris, spending a day at his parents house before blasting off into space to venture out to the planet Solaris. He doesn't have the best relationship with his parents, which creates some tension. The movie even wastes 5 minutes showing Kris driving his car through a Soviet style city, during which absolutely nothing happens. The pacing is way too slow. I set the DVD playback to 50% faster than normal to get through the early parts of the film, which made it feel okay.
After 45 minutes the movie begins in earnest. Kris arrives at the space station orbiting the the planet Solaris. Where the planet is, and how long it takes to get there, and by what means, we are never told. We see a brief shot of a 70's style space capsule and that is all. Kris finds the space station in disarray and the 2 surviving cosmonauts who are behaving eccentrically. One cosmonaut refuses to see him, hiding what appears to be a child in his cabin. The other tells Kris that he should rest and warns him that not everything he will see is real. Kris, a psychologist, begins to investigate the recent suicide of a 3rd cosmonaut, who apparently killed himself because he was seeing things.
We are told that the planet Solaris is mostly covered by an ocean, which the scientists have concluded is a giant brain. They have made some attempts to communicate with the brain by beaming radiation at it.
Given all the things that happened up to this point, we are not too surprised when Kris's long dead wife, Hari, shows up in his cabin. Neither is Kris. He is maybe a little frightened by this, but he is accepting of his new 'visitor'. However, he panics at one point and tries to get rid of her by stuffing her into a rocket and blasting her off into space. (The special effect of the rocket is cheesy, and I guess the space station must have plenty of rockets to spare, since he wasted one in this way. ) However, Hari mysteriously returns.
Hari is not a hallucination. She is flesh and blood. At first she may seem a little alien, but over time becomes more human. She acknowledges her humanity, like it is a new experience. However, she comes to realize that she is not the original Hari, who committed suicide because her husband Kris was always cold toward her. Kris seems determined to not make the same mistake twice, and showers Hari with love and affection. However, Hari realizes that she cannot return to Earth with her husband, because she is tied to the planet Solaris somehow, and kills herself again, but in a manner that is not clear. Kris finds her body frozen, but then he sees her thaw and return to life.
All these experiences cause Kris to soften from the cold hard scientist that he was. The movie asks a few philosophical questions about what makes us human, and whether life is worth living and has purpose? The movie concludes that love is what gives life purpose and defines our humanity.
When all the 'visitors', and there are more than one, disappear from the station, the crew are puzzled as to what it was that really happened to them? The final scene shows a more emotional Kris returning to his parent's house and embracing his estranged father, but the scene pans back to show that it is taking place on a small island on Solaris, and therefore is not real.
One cosmonaut philosophizes that humans aren't really looking for aliens, but reflections of themselves.
This is a difficult movie to rate, because much of it is slow and moody. It looks cheaply made. However, there is some artistry to it. The last 90 minutes I found pretty intriguing, but the film overall is dated and not completely likeable. Part of what makes the movie interesting is to get a historical perspective on Russian filmmaking by listening to the commentary on the DVD.
There are things on the space station that seem way out of place for a science fiction movie, like the fact that the characters smoke and drink, and a library with books, wood paneling, burning candles, and expensive works of art. That's exactly what you would want on a space station.
Rating: * * 1/2