Solaris - Andrei Tarkovsky - Donatas Banionis - Natalya Bondarchuk - Kris Kelvin - Hari

1972, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Speaking in his documentary Tempo di viaggio, Andrei Tarkovsky said he was disappointed with Solaris because its adherence to the requirements of science fiction came at the expense of the “inner, hidden, human problems” which interested him. “I could not escape from the genre, from the fictional details.” For the sake of argument at least, let us take him at his word and admit that Solaris does not succeed as well as it might in expressing what it wants to say. Nevertheless there is strong evidence elsewhere, in Tarkovsky’s other films, for what is unique to Solaris, so that it may be possible to rescue the film from the shortcoming he perceived in it.

To be specific, a coded language of high and low positioning runs through Tarkovsky’s work, and it always leads beyond material appearances. Whatever is low is humble, rooted in the earth, with potential to grow – to reach insight and to inspire. Whatever is high is proud, pretentious, and poised for humiliation. For example, the balloonist at the beginning of Andrei Rublev fails without inspiring anybody, whereas the bellcaster’s son at the end, who toils and sweats in an earthen pit, succeeds beyond his dreams and inspires the great icon painter. Ironically, because Solaris is a story of space travel, the pattern of high and low should be especially strong in it. The cosmonauts spend the movie in a spaceship, orbiting high above the ocean planet, yet in fact it’s precisely because of this premise that viewers will take any markers of highness or lowness for granted. Viewing Solaris in isolation, unaware of the importance of high and low in a Tarkovsky movie, we would have little to steer us toward its chief insight.

Solaris - Andrei Tarkovsky - Vladislav Dvorzhetsky - Henri Burton - report

In the opening scene, on Earth, as soon as we’re taken inside Kris Kelvin’s father’s house, we’re shown pictures of hot air balloons on the wall. Kris will soon rise above the earth like the balloonist in Andrei Rublev, with some of the same arrogance, to look down on a world below him. Before liftoff his father introduces him to Burton, a former cosmonaut who had experienced uncanny signs that the Solaris ocean is an intelligent living organism. Officials on Earth had mocked Burton’s report. He became a laughing-stock, and Kris finds him “ridiculous”. Kris’s mission is either to close the space station, abandoning decades of efforts to make contact with the ocean, or to bombard the ocean with radiation, potentially destroying it. Burton is aghast and storms off.

Unlike the balloonist in Andrei Rublev however, Kris’s path opens to redemption. The moment he arrives at the station he trips and falls. Tarkovsky’s subsequent films, especially Stalker and The Sacrifice, are filled with people falling down, and it’s always significant. Kris is immediately humbled, and his experiences on the space station will further humble him.

Solaris - Andrei Tarkovsky - Donatas Banionis - Kris Kelvin - space station corridor

As it turns out, making meaningful contact with the intelligent ocean is no great challenge. One only has to be receptive to it. While the cosmonauts sleep, the ocean reads their memories and prepares “gifts” for them – beings, possibly made of neutrinos, who fulfill the humans’ needs. The ocean of course is below the station, which in Tarkovsky’s code implies a greater wisdom than that of the cosmonauts. While Kelvin sleeps the camera takes an unconventional view, looking into his nostrils as if adopting the ocean’s point of view looking up at its visitor. Kelvin’s gift is a reincarnation of his late wife Hari. He immediately rejects the gift, tricking her into a spare rocket and ejecting her, but when a second reincarnated Hari comes to him he relents and falls in love, putting him at odds with the other cosmonauts, especially Sartorius.

In contrast to the three men, Hari, who is a manifestation of the ocean, is totally aware of her limitations. She wonders who she is, where she came from, whether she’s “real” enough for Kris. The three men are not entirely opposite to her. They question their mortality and their purpose, but they are quick to answer their own questions. They show enough sense of wonder to maintain scientific curiosity, but not quite enough to appreciate the contact they make with Solaris. They feel superior to each other, to Hari, to the other “guests”, and to the ocean below. Instead of thinking how they might bring gifts to this extraterrestrial creature, they think of what advantage it might bring their careers or their home planet, and they assume the privilege of radiating the ocean, not knowing what the consequences would be.

Solaris - Andrei Tarkovsky - ocean - planet

No one can watch Solaris attentively without noticing the weighty questions it raises – existential, epistemic, ethical, and metaphysical issues, questions of faith and science and humanity. No film can possibly address so many philosophical problems and do justice to them, but Solaris does not pretend to solve these questions. Instead it defines the appropriate attitude toward them, saying that they must be addressed from “below” or from within. Hari is exemplary in this regard, defending her humanity by asserting the fact of her experience. Responding to Sartorius she admits she may be a “copy” or a “matrix”, but she insists, “I am becoming a human being. I can feel just as deeply as you.” It’s the same argument Roy Batty will make ten years later (more articulately) in Blade Runner.

Once we see Tarkovsky’s movies whole, the high-low dichotomy is not as simple as “low = good, high = bad”. The bell in Andrei Rublev eventually rises toward the heavens, and Kris and Hari are allowed half a minute of levitation in the ship’s library as the craft changes orbit. To be more precise, his films advocate for a kind of rootedness – in the earth, in the questions that mankind faces, and also in the past. The protagonist of Stalker tells his companions, “When a man thinks of the past, he becomes kinder.” In Solaris thoughts of the past are demarcated by black and white photography. When Burton looks back on his embarrassing report, when he rides through the city thinking of his years with Kelvin’s father, when Kris burns his old papers and photos, when Gibarian speaks from the dead, or when Kris recalls his mother, the film shifts to black and white. Finally the pattern breaks with a brightly colored film of Kris’s childhood. At the time of his closest connection to Hari, the past finally comes alive for him. A fragment of this color film is also juxtaposed with the meditation on Bruegel’s painting The Hunters in the Snow when Kris and Hari are alone in the library.

Solaris - Andrei Tarkovsky - Donatas Banionis - Kris Kelvin - opening

As Burton rides through the futuristic city (in the passage filmed in Tokyo) the film likewise switches to color three times after his video call with Kris’s father and after looking back at his own son in the car. Presumably he too finds himself reconnected to the past, and the passage ends with a gorgeous overhead shot of the city highways streaming with headlights and taillights, like the red and white corpuscles in an organism’s bloodstream. It’s simultaneously an image of rootedness and a prologue to the idea of a planetary organism far larger and more connected than any known life on earth.

If Solaris argues the necessity of being immersed in philosophical questions at ground level before trying to tackle them, then it’s easy to guess why Tarkovsky reacted so strongly against 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like almost everyone else he mistook Kubrick’s film for a grandiose statement, the kind of philosophizing “from above” that Solaris renounces. In fact the two films are not so far apart; 2001 is also critical of human pretension, and underneath its grand scale it’s a far more modest and old-fashioned film than people take it for. Like 2001, Solaris lays the groundwork for a kind of wonder that results from putting the self aside.

Solaris - Andrei Tarkovsky - Donatas Banionis - Nikolai Grinko - Kris Kelvin - ending

At the end of Solaris Kris returns home, but there’s a twist. Is he really home? He looks into a window at his father, and it’s raining inside the house, a seeming glitch in reality like the earlier laces on Hari’s dress, which the ocean had mistakenly recreated as ornamental. Snaut had reported that islands were forming in the ocean, and as the camera recedes, the country house and its surroundings form an island in the Solaris ocean. Reviewers have a tendency to make a plot point of this ending, concluding that Kris doesn’t actually return home at all – but that is a rather limited way to view it. We can also imagine that Kris does return home, and that the indoor rain and the island illustrate his new attitude of wonder. He doesn’t see his home the same way anymore. The journey to space was always a kind of inward journey, the decor of the home and the space station overlapping. What’s most important in the ending, and easy to overlook, is that Kris falls on his knees as he embraces his father.


The Wizard of Oz – Journey to a fantastic place with homecoming at end; woman accompanied by three flawed men short on brains, heart, and courage; hot air balloons

Andrei Rublev – Balloon(s) in the opening scene; contrast between high and low

2001: A Space Odyssey – Antidote to the hubris of technology and space travel

The Man Who Left His Will on Film – Meditative passage filmed on the highways of Tokyo

Stalker – Idea that thinking of the past makes us better; fantastic journey with parallels between home and the destination

Blade Runner – Question about an artificial being’s reality answered by recourse to experience

Nostalghia – Black and white photography demarcates thoughts of the past

The Sacrifice – Metaphorical importance of character(s) falling down

Melancholia – Allusion to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow

Arrival – Domestic setting reconstructed in a more fantastic extraterrestrial context; essential foreignness of aliens; alien life presenting humans with gifts