Solaris is science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction.
This justly famous film is based on a Polish novel from 1961 by Stanisław Lem, which first appeared in English in 1970. Both are science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction. The film is easier to enjoy if you don’t know the book well. Tarkovsky’s work here is often brilliant, especially when there is not much happening, but he is erratic in his handling of the plot and clumsy with dialogue. The screenplay changes quite a lot of the mechanics and details of Lem’s story: sometimes it seems as though the writers have misunderstood the book, more often as though they are trying to correct it, and this usually has the effect of substituting crudeness for subtlety.
The worst bits are the talky passages, in particular a sub-Dostoevskian scene where the characters sound off bitterly and sarcastically at each other. And towards the end, the characters seem to be trying to explain the film to us by means of meandering philosophical ponderings. There are problems with the acting - plenty of hammy moments, and a general sense that the actors are not quite sure what they’re aiming for. A notable exception to these criticisms is the luminous Natalya Bondarchuk: the director himself observed that this 21-year-old fresh out of drama school outshone the rest of the cast.
The best bits are not just those with no actors on the screen, but also the mainly silent scenes, central to the story, between Kris the spaceman and Hari the woman from his past. A couple of dream/hallucination sequences are inspired additions to Lem, in terms of imaginative vision if not of content. The most striking invention is a weightless scene of great beauty and mystery. And with the exception of the dialogue scenes, the film is a visual tour de force. About two hours in (!) it really takes off, as the director seems to forget about getting the story straight and contents himself with making strange and beautiful variations on themes of doubt, unease and illusion.
For all its faults, this is an extraordinary film. But, especially if you admire the book, you might prefer the 2002 remake by Steven Soderbergh, starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. It concentrates on the crucial relationship between Kris and Hari, and it supplies what Lem and Tarkovsky both fail to come up with: a really excellent ending. If buried in you there are any feelings of regret or remorse about ended relationships, be ready to have them unearthed. The remake manages, like the book, to convey the sense that this work of science fiction is perhaps not really about strange happenings in an imaginary future, nor even about man and the unknowable universe, but about love and loss and memory in our own lives.