In his 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, author Reyner Banham describes the freeways of Los Angeles as “its crowning glory or prime headache,” an appropriately ambivalent encapsulation of the über-modern city’s day-to-day extremes. Perhaps Andrei Tarkovsky had a similar construct in mind for Solaris, which seemingly unfolds without narrative reason for one freeway sequence that nonetheless evokes a comparable bifurcation of geographic pleasure and personal torment found in Banham’s assessment. In the sequence, Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy), a former space pilot, silently navigates a freeway as lights and tunnels of the sprawling terrain quickly pass him by. Tarkovsky eventually erases Berton from the five-minute sequence entirely, as a cacophony of electronic notes from both Eduard Artemyev’s score and the nighttime bumper-to-bumper traffic crescendos, followed by a cut to a calm, quiet pond.
In this relatively brief but telling sequence, Tarkovsky stokes a generalized dread of urban dwelling through an unremarkable arrangement of images that proffers speed, sound, and movement as enemies of human consciousness, and then turns to the serenity of nature as its antidote. Solaris treats urbanization, and especially technological advancement, as a social detritus that dulls sensory experience, and in particular memory, which is allegorized as the basis for Tarkovsky and Fridrikh Gorenshteyn’s evasive adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel. Thematically, their screenplay has more in common with, say, Willard Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner’s 1939 film The City, what with its borderline didactic animosity for metropolitan lifestyles, than it does 2001: A Space Odyssey, made three years before Solaris. And that’s likely intentional, as Tarkovsky objected to Stanley Kubrick’s film, saying in a 1970 interview that it’s “phony” and that it contains “only pretensions to truth.”
For Tarkovsky, a pursuit of truthful representation rebukes Kubrick’s “ultimate trip” aesthetics, in which the Star Gate sequence is exemplary because it says more about the then-current state of visual effects and cinema as experience than it offers a philosophical position on space exploration and environmental preservation. The latter point is especially imperative for Solaris, in which psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) travels from Earth to a space station orbiting the titular oceanic planet where he discovers its crew largely absent, and the remaining few members suffering from a mysterious affliction that seemingly conjures their deceased loved ones. There, Kelvin learns from Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) that a prolonged experimentation with radiation has potentially caused the ocean to become an active entity capable of probing and extracting memories from their minds. In Kelvin’s case, that means the sudden appearance of Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), a woman bearing a significant resemblance to his dead wife.
Although Solaris retains some of the softer sci-fi aspects of Lem’s novel, Tarkovsky’s pacing is less moved by narrative detail than thematic and metaphorical suggestion, which imbues the film, typical of the director’s entire oeuvre, with a Herculean amount of objects that appear charged with meaning beyond their immediate purpose. These items range from the recurring presence of a Greek bust on both Earth and Solaris to images and sounds of running water, all of which spins a complex web of allusions to cultural history, mythology, and philosophy. As Bach’s “Chorale Prelude in F Minor” recurs at numerous points throughout the film, Tarkovsky’s sustained investment in conducting an orchestration of humankind’s achievements and gifts, particularly those found in art and nature, has an overwhelming resonance that seems equal parts prescient and eternal.
Yet, a stubbornness undergirds the film’s entirety that can only be deemed conservative in its reticence to temper the technophobic rhetoric. Kelvin’s dilemma—whether or not to embrace this being claiming to be his wife—provides a basis to comprehend Tarkovsky’s distrust of scientific inquiry and investment, where this apparent clone of Kelvin’s wife, who at one point conjures the superhuman strength to bust through a space station door, more resembles the manic femininity of Darryl Hannah’s replicant from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, made just over a decade later. Scientific experimentation and womanhood in outer space, and the trauma each of them causes Kelvin, become linked with the overrun freeways on Earth, with each marked by their excessive—and thus, pejorative—relationship to nature.
Solaris contains a prototypical sort of associative narrative complexity that would come to define the so-called “puzzle films” of the late ’90s, though these latter works are known for their distinctly pop registers; the allusions of David Fincher’s Fight Club and Christopher Nolan’s Memento are largely to genre and stylistic histories within filmmaking. Still, all of these films contain the same sort of overdetermined pulse that necessarily sacrifices a fuller sense of their core questions for a Möbius-strip construction that valorizes ambiguity, and present-tense confusion, as a generic device. While Tarkovsky’s films typically evade any such faults due to their rigorous engagement with the stakes and status of preserving historical sensibilities and activating memory, Solaris renders affecting passages as mere bright spots in an otherwise meandering scourge against tampering with the unknown.