Solaris at the Pacific Film Archive

The plot of Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction film Solaris could easily work as a Star Trek episode. Captain Kirk (or Picard) visits a troubled space station orbiting a strange, ocean-covered planet. The ocean appears to be sentient, and it’s playing tricks on minds of the human visitors, driving them mad.

But no Star Trek episode could feel so bleak and hopeless. And while it might bring up the question of what defines a human being, it would provide a clear and optimistic answer. Nor would it run nearly three hours, much of it made up of long takes of tormented faces. (Okay, the first Star Trek movie kind of matches that last description, but not in a good way.)

I caught Solaris Thursday night at the Pacific Film Archive, where it screened as part of the ongoing series, The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky. This was my second Solaris experience; the first was probably around 1977. I don’t think I was mature enough to appreciate it then. This time around, I loved it. Definitely A material.

Tarkovsky keeps the story down to Earth for nearly 45 minutes. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), troubled with his memories and his journey to the troubled space station, prepares to say goodbye to his father, son, and the rural home he clearly loves so much. That home, which shows very few hints that this story is set in the future, provides an extreme contrast to the space-age setting of the rest of the film.

When Kelvin arrives at the space station, it looks like the morning after a frat party. Garbage is strewn everywhere, and no one is in a mood to meet with the newcomer. Of the three crewmembers, one of them rarely leaves his laboratory. Another is only a bit more friendly. The third, an old friend of Kelvin’s, has committed suicide.

Then Kelvin’s late wife, dead the past ten years (another suicide), shows up. An hallucination? Not quite. The other crewmembers see her and interact with her. She is unquestionably, really there. But she suffers from mercurial emotional shifts. And physically, she heals with stunning speed–even from death. She has his wife’s looks and love for Kelvin, but no memory of the past. Natalya Bondarchuk gives an amazing performance here.

Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris suggests that connecting to extraterrestrial life will be far more difficult than we imagine. And that connecting to ourselves, and each other, is almost as difficult.

Like I said, it’s bleak.

The screening at the PFA was a sell-out via advanced tickets, but apparently some people didn’t make it. A few seats were empty.

The print, from Kino, looked as if it had seen better days. Scratches were heavy at the beginning and end of each reel, and the colors looked a bit faded. I think Solaris needs a full restoration.