No less an authority than Akira Kurosawa said that Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris isn’t “too long,” and who am I to argue with Kurosawa? Actually, a first-time modern viewer may feel, as I did, that the movie dawdles entirely too long — oh, say 45 minutes — before even getting around to the story. But Kurosawa wrote that we need the prolonged prologue on Earth so that we’ll feel “homesick” for nature once the movie enters the sterility of space. He was right.
Tarkovsky, whose drawn-out static takes made Kubrick look like an MTV director with attention-deficit disorder, uses silence and inaction to pull you inexorably into the mood of regret and mourning. Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel was about how humans aren’t ready to encounter unearthly life because they insist on defining everything through their own eyes. Tarkovsky extends that to love and memory. When cosmonaut Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) reaches the space station above the shifting ocean of Solaris and encounters his beloved wife Hari (the beautiful Natalya Bondarchuk), he knows there’s something wrong: Hari died by her own hand ten years ago. This new Hari is apparently a construct — a delusion crafted from Kelvin’s memories.
Or is she? She has emotions, though never seems to be happy (or even not-unhappy). At one point she insists that she’s not a human being but is becoming one. To what extent is Kelvin’s guilt-ridden, nostalgic need to be with “Hari” dehumanizing him? This is a love story about two almost-humans. Once you accustom yourself to its pace — it takes probably the first hour — it’s a hypnotic experience, and perks up considerably when Hari enters the picture with her real or artificial (what’s the difference?) anguish and love. Solaris deserves to rank with 2001 as a study of humanity gazing into the abyss of itself out in the abyss of space.