Andrej Tarkovskij is Russian and in "Solaris" it shows. As other episodes in his cinematic career only exalt the characteristics which we believe are genetically installed in a Russian: slowness, concentration and, for the Russian artist in general, a certain tendency to introspection in the screenplay which is spectacular in its own way. "My Name Is Ivan" was mentioned at Venice, its successor "Andrei Rublev", the story of a famous15th century painter that wavers between political activism and simple observation, just like "Stalker" or the recent "Nostalgia" make Tarkovskij’s cinema a dense, dark forest in which it is difficult to move but, once you eyes have got used to the dim light, which he is knowingly responsible for, you can loose yourself with conviction.
Stanislaw Lem tells the story of the socio-psychologist Kris Kelvin who is given the task of reaching the station in orbit around the planet Solaris in order to investigate the strange situation in what should have been a simple but important approach to a new type of life. Lately the regular reports haven’t been arriving anymore and the astronaut Burton, who visits Kelvin at his father’s country house before going on the mission, only tries to persuade him not to bombard Solaris with X-rays. Kelvin is a man of few words, he accepts the task and once he has reached his destination he discovers that the station is practically deserted. Of the three people who should have been there, two seem to be trying to avoid him and the third, Gibarjan the leader, is dead. Snaut and Sartorius, the other two survivors, have gone mad; their discussions seem to have no logic, they are in a pitiful state, they are run down, cut, their behaviour towards Kelvin is very ambiguous. Kelvin learns from a posthumous message from Gibarjan that Solaris has already been bombarded by X-rays in an attempt at an extreme defence against the incumbent madness but this resulted in radiation which could materialise human obsessions. So beside Gibarjan a beautiful girl appears, while Snaut and Sartorius are surrounded by strange beings. Kelvin is soon absorbed by the atmosphere which by now permeates the station, so much so that he wakes up in the morning beside his girlfriend Chari, who committed suicide a few years earlier. Kelvin cannot tell reality from illusion and Chari reappears after another suicide attempt. The copy of Chari that Solaris materialised is in reality a pleasant nightmare for Kelvin who cannot leave her without re-living all the pain of another one of her innumerable suicide attempts. While Kelvin is taken ill with a strange disease similar to delirium, Sartorius fins a way to neutralise Solaris by sending it a brain scan of the psychologist, the only (maybe) still capable of taking control of the situation. Solaris succumbs to the bombardment and its atmosphere changes and the becomes lighter allowing them to see a green island where Kelvin sees his father in his house in the country.
"Solaris", filmed in 1972, was hailed as the soviet answer to Kubrick’s masterpiece, more so as it was in the middle of the cold war and the conquest (and understanding) of space was the most difficult and prestigious feat. While the engineers were working on the means the artists took part in the race to space by trying to understand what we might find up there. But if Kubrick extracted the birth and rebirth of a civilisation from Clarke’s book, Tarkovskij and his camera occupy themselves with the details of mankind, with its absolute invulnerability to itsself. Tarkovskij’s astronauts don’t have the opportunity of comparing themselves with a computer, they do this with themselves or better with what they thought could no longer belong to them. Space increases the limit of their worries, their desires and their beliefs. "Solaris" is soaked in a sort of spatial mysticism in which space and the orbiting station are nothing but territories unknown to man but already inhabited by their thoughts and their infinite directions.
Tarkovskij’s eye is as slow as it is analytical. Inside "Solaris" there are many sequences of details which are apparently insignificant and boring, like the lakeshore near the father’s house or the incredible twentieth century sitting room where the three celebrate a birthday. But as you proceed towards the end it will be these "details" that show you the difference between unknown space and earth which we mistakenly think we know. The slowness of the film and the distress which results from it are essential to the vision just like the totally unpectacular cosmos (between "Solaris" and "2001 – A Space Odyssey" there is a technical abyss) and strip it of the things which could have confused us.
The full-length version of 165 minutes was cut during the De Laurentis era for distribution reasons but the result was a mess which was even harder to understand than the original.