Now considered a classic, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey divided critics strongly back in 1968. The sci-fi opus earned plaudits, to be sure, and a slew of awards. But there were also high-profile detractors. Famed critic Pauline Kael wrote that “it’s a bad, bad sign when a movie director begins to think of himself as a myth-maker” and called the movie “trash masquerading as art,” for example.
Joining Kael in her critique was Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. In interviews, the filmmaker called 2001 “phoney on many points, even for specialists,” adding that, “for a true work of art, the fake must be eliminated.” Tarkovsky argued that Kubrick’s emphasis on technical breakthroughs left his movie “cold and sterile.”
When Tarkovsky announced a sci-fi epic of his own, 1972’s Solaris, adapted from the 1961 book by Stanislaw Lem, the Cold War took perhaps one of its most unexpected detours. In addition to the Space Race and the Olympics, the art house cinema suddenly became a cultural battlefield. As Phillip Lopate noted in a 2011 essay for Criterion, the media “played up the cold-war angle of the Soviet director’s determination to make an ‘anti-2001.’”
But by 1976, when Solaris actually debuted in America, critics like Richard Eder in the New York Times were sure to call the film “Russian” instead of Soviet. Why? Because “this complex and sometimes very beautiful film is about humanity but hardly at all about politics,” argued Eder.
What is Solaris about, then? Here’s a very brief synopsis. As it opens, the Soviet Union has for decades maintained a space station over the distant planet of the title. Years earlier, a cosmonaut named Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) reported incredibly lucid and bizarre hallucinations while at Solaris Station, though his claims were dismissed. Now, cosmonauts are once again reporting bizarre sensations.
It’s up to psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis, voiced by Vladimir Zamansky) to figure out what’s going on. After spending a day with Berton and his father, Kelvin takes off for the ocean world of Solaris, where’s expecting to meet three crew members: Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet, and voiced by Vladimir Tatosov), Dr. Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn), and Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan). But by the time he arrives, Gibarian has taken his own life, leavin behind a cryptic video for Kelvin to watch.
Snaut and Sartorius can’t help Kelvin solve this mystery, and soon enough he has impossible problems of his own: his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) has suddenly materialized onboard. What makes the situation even more bizarre is that she’s been dead for ten years.
Explaining that setup doesn’t really capture the feeling of watching Solaris. Events often flow on for extended periods with no dialogue — it takes seven and a half minutes before the movie’s first line is delivered. Early on, there is an extended wordless sequence of busy highway traffic that Tarkovsky filmed in 1971 Tokyo, standing in for a futuristic city, with electronic music playing in the background.
Scenes like these have garnered Solaris labels such as “hard to watch” and “pretentious.” The writer Dan Kois once described a college friend who demanded he watch the movie: “‘It’s so boring,’ he said with evident awe. ‘You have to watch it, but you won’t get it.’ He was right: I had to watch it, and I didn’t get it.”
Even its advocates, like the aforementioned critic Phillip Lopate, admit that watching the two 166-minute epic can feel “like catching a fever, with night sweats and eventual cooling brow.” Tarkovsky’s signature long shots go on and on. A man stares through a window, and someone stares back at him. The oceans of Solaris rage away. A man and his wife, who is dead and yet somehow not, are suddenly levitating. They float and discuss whether she is real.
Like 2001, Solaris has influenced countless projects: modern sci-fi stories of transformed identities, like Alex Garland’s Annihilation; epics that have a fascination with water, like Christopher Nolan’s Inception; and even video games about power and trauma like Control.
If you’re unfamiliar with Tarkovsky’s work, Solaris might feel like watching paint dry at first. But if you stick with it, a Tarkovsky film can feel like watching life: sometimes things are gorgeous, sometimes they are ugly, but they are always moving forward at speeds you cannot see.
Solaris is now streaming on HBO Max.