Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972. Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis. Russian. Foreign/Sci-Fi

Solaris was Tarkovsky’s first foray into Science Fiction. Tarkovsky was a big fan of soft science-fiction, the kind that deals with deep moral and philosophical questions instead of focusing on laser rifles, improbable monsters and shiny robots. The film is rather loosely adapted from a novel by Stanislaw Lem and, predictably, the end result was not to Lem’s liking, partly because Tarkovsky took the story and thoroughly made it his own while retaining aspects familiar to Lem’s fans.

The plot concerns a mission to a space station surrounding an oceanic world they’ve named Solaris. A psychologist, Kris Kelvin, is sent to assess the deteriorating situation on the station as scientists kill themselves and apparently go insane without fail. He is to return and recommend future action, possibly shooting radiation into the planet, possibly ending the experiment.

Tarkovsky was an artist who placed a lot of faith in his own artistic sensibility which thoroughly pervades all of his films. He was an obvious and admitted admirer of Antonioni and his films are similarly narratively elliptical and defiantly slow. He enjoyed inserting seemingly random details for the viewer to note that would only be make sense hours later. Solaris, whilst giving us a few futuristic, shiny sets and satisfying some of our demands of sci-fi remains obviously the work of Tarkovksy.

In the Criterion commentary, both reviewers single out a famous scene as the weakest in the film. It is one of my favorites. A former cosmonaut who’d been in the Solaris space station leaves the pyschotropicly peaceful countryside to go back to the city. He calls from his carphone to relay a disturbing detail of his “hallucinations” and for the next five minutes following the call we see shots of cars and tunnels in Tokyo. The light patterns, the noise, the traffic rhythms and the Eduard Artemyev’s amazing electronic score all slowly build and the mood slowly shifts and builds. The experts suggest that maybe Tarkovsky went to Tokyo to film merely as an excuse to vacation and needed to show something to his financial backers. I think it’s an amazing scene that begins obviously as a very modern but still very 1970s city with very 1970s cars, but hypnotizes you with the length and drudgery of traversing the urban sprawl with patterns of light and dark as he enters and exits tunnels and then suddenly ends with a cut to a virtually silent scene back in the country.

Once Kris is on the station his “visitor” as the hallucinations are called leads him to do drastic things with implications that have him (and us) thinking about the nature of love, intelligence, memory, and all sorts of other things that can give you a panic attack if you’re not careful. It’s one of those films that doesn’t so much as stick in your memory but pop up as flashbacks whenever you look up and see cirrus clouds. Be careful.

Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Jan 7, 2008 2:30pm
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