Solaris is based on a l961 sci-fi novel by the prolific Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, whom some critics have called a modern day H.G. Wells. Born in 1921 and originally trained as a physician, the author is most interested in exploring the ramifications of science as a philosophy. Whether writing stories about the interface between technology and wo/man or probing the significance of information theory, Lem creates out of a deeply humanistic perspective.
In the film, Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a Russian astronaut and psychologist, is a solitary and highly pragmatic man. A fellow scientist has returned to earth from a space station above the mysterious planet Solaris; he is convinced that an alien consciousness emanates from its ocean. The Academy of Scientists assign Chris the task of performing an experiment shooting Solaris with radiation and then deciding whether the space station manned by three scientists should be shut down.
Arriving on the site, Chris finds things in a state of disrepair. The actions of Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Dr. Snauth (Juri Jarvet) are quite bizarre. They seem to be obsessed with ghosts from their past. Chris finds a videotape from his friend Gibaryan (Sas Sarkisyan) made just before he took his life. "Solaris has something to do with conscience" is the message. Chris discovers what that means when he is faced with the phantom of his deceased wife Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk). An attempt to destroy her apparition fails. The shame he feels for deserting Khari, which led to her suicide, brings him to a sense of his own lovelessness.
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (Ivan's Childhood, Andrei Roublev) has had a continuing interest in the complexity of human experience. He has taken Lem's science fiction tale and sharpened its moral intentions. Scientists have extended our reach into outer space and aggressively sought to tame the unknown. But precisely the opposite may be happening scientists may have their own aggressiveness tamed by the mysteries of life. Outer space could be just another arena where we will have to come to terms with our own human nature both its limitations and potentialities.
When the sea of Solaris materializes figures from the astronauts's past, they are forced to look at their personal lives from a different perspective. Dr. Sartorius views his phantom as an object for scientific analysis; Dr. Snauth escapes from his guest through liquor. Chris the rationalist is transformed in the process of reliving his times with Khari. He realizes that she means more to him than his scientific pursuit of the truth.
The slow pace of the film and its many elliptical sequences give us ample time to savor the characters. Donatis Banionis is good as the troubled Chris, a man whose rigid scientific principles must give way to a more humble understanding of reality. Natalya Bondarchuk is compelling as the otherworldly Khari. And Juri Jarvet is appropriately perplexed as the deranged Dr. Snouth.
Edmund Crispin once noted that "science fiction is the last refuge of the morality tale." Certainly the point of this intriguing film is well taken: the ultimate value of space exploration is our coming to a deeper appreciation of the very qualities that make us human: conscience and the capacity to love.
Special features on the High-definition digital restoration DVD include Audio essay by Andrei Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, coauthors of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue,Nine deleted and alternate scenes, Video interviews with actress Natalya Bondarchuk, cinematographer Vadim Yusov, art director Mikhail Romadin, and composer Eduard Artemyev, Excerpt from a documentary about Stanislaw Lem, the author of the film’s source novel and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate and an appreciation by director Akira Kurosawa