Solaris is a meditative psychodrama that is set mostly on a space station in orbit around the planet-like object called "Solaris". The scientific mission on the space station has fallen into a crisis. Psychologist Kris Kelvin travels to the station to evaluate and explore the situation, but soon experiences the same kind of hallucinations that have befallen the other crew members. The film concentrates on the thoughts and the conscience of its characters and is a "drama of grief and partial recovery". Solaris and its complex and slow storytelling has sometimes been compared to Western science fiction films, which rely on special effects and an imagined version of the future.
Solaris was a critical success and is widely regarded as a masterpiece. The film was presented at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury and the FIPRESCI prize and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. Another film adaption of the novel by Stanisław Lem was released in 2002, and was directed by Steven Soderbergh.
A former pilot named Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) is visiting. Together they watch footage of hearings many years before, in which Burton recounted seeing a bizarrely huge child on the surface of Solaris during a search for two missing scientists. His craft's cameras having only recorded clouds and the serene surface, his claims were dismissed as hallucinations. After unsuccessfully trying to convince Kelvin of the truth of his experience Burton leaves angrily, only to call from his car to say that later he met the child of one of the scientists and that except for its size, it was the same one he had seen. In an extended sequence, Burton drives with his son through the streets of a busy, foreign city (Tokyo). Kelvin burns most of his old papers in a bonfire before leaving, remarking on how much he had kept.
Arriving at Solaris after his journey, Kelvin is not met by any of the three remaining scientists, and finds the space station in dangerous neglect and disarray. He searches them out, finding that his friend Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has died mysteriously and the remaining two offer only unhelpful and confusing information. Shortly after being advised by Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) not to overreact if he sees anything unusual, he begins to catch glimpses of other people on the station. He begins his investigation against the backdrop of the swirling ocean like surface of the planet.
Waking from an exhausted sleep, Kelvin finds a woman in his quarters with him despite his barricaded door. It is his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). She seems as puzzled by her appearance as he. Realizing she is an apparition of some sort, he lures her into his spacecraft and launches her into space, being caught by the rocket's blast in his haste. Dr. Snaut tends his burns, opening up more now that Kelvin is sharing their experiences, and explains that the "visitors" began appearing after the scientists attracted Solaris's attention with their first surveys.
That evening Hari reappears in his room. He is calmer, holding her through the night. When he wakes he attempts to hide the duplicate clothes left by her predecessor, but when he leaves the room she panics, beating her way through the metal door and badly cutting herself. He carries her to his bed, where her injuries heal in front of his eyes. When Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) calls up for a meeting, Kelvin introduces her to the others as his wife, and insists that they treat her with respect. In the discussion the scientists begin to understand that Solaris has created her from his memories of her. She is not human, but has thoughts and feelings. Sartorius suggests that they are made of neutrinos, and it may be possible to destroy them.
Kelvin shows Hari films of himself and his parents when he was a boy, and, later, herself. While she is asleep, Snaut comes and promotes a plan of beaming Kelvin's brainwave patterns at Solaris, in hopes that it will understand them and stop trying to communicate with its disturbing apparitions, and Sartorius suggests a more radical plan to attack it by bombarding it with heavy radiation. As time passes she becomes more independent, able to be out of sight of him. From Sartorius she learns that the original Hari had committed suicide ten years earlier, and Kelvin tells her the whole story. She kills herself again outside of his quarters by drinking liquid oxygen, only to painfully, spasmodically return to life a few minutes later. The surface of Solaris has become agitated. Kelvin falls into a fevered sleep, dreaming of his mother and many Haris walking around his room. When he recovers she is gone, and Snaut reads him a note she left, in which she explains that she herself asked the scientists to destroy her.
Snaut informs Kelvin that since they broadcast Kelvin's brainwaves at Solaris, islands have begun forming on its surface. Kelvin debates whether to return to Earth or to stay on Solaris in the hope of reconnecting with that which was loved and has been lost. He is then seen back on the shore of the frozen pond beside his father's house. His dog runs toward him and he walks happily toward it, but his face falls when he sees that something is wrong: water is falling inside the house and though his father (Nikolai Grinko) is inside he seems unaware of it. They embrace on the front step. The camera draws back; the house, lake and surrounding land is revealed to be on an island, floating on the surface of Solaris.
Initially Tarkovsky wanted his ex-wife Irma Raush for the role of Hari. After meeting Swedish actress Bibi Andersson in June 1970 Tarkovsky began to consider Andersson for the role of Hari. Andersson was willing to work for Tarkovsky, even accepting being paid in Ruble. In the end, Natalya Bondarchuk was chosen for the role of Hari. Tarkovsky had met Natalya Bondarchuk many years ago when the two were students at the State Institute of Cinematography. It was she who introduced him to the book Solaris by Stanisław Lem. Tarkovsky had auditioned her in early 1970, but initially did not choose her because of her young age that made her a bad match for the wife of Kris Kelvin. Instead he recommended her to fellow director Larisa Shepitko, for whom she played a role in the film You and I. Half a year later, Tarkovsky saw the footage of this film and finally chose Natalya Bondarchuk for the role of Hari.
Tarkovsky chose Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis for the role of Kris Kelvin, Estonian actor Jüri Järvet for the role of Dr. Snaut, and Russian actor Anatoly Solonitsyn for the role of Dr. Sartorius. Ukrainian actor Nikolai Grinko was chosen for the role of Kris Kelvin's father. Tarkovsky had already worked with Anatoly Solonitsyn, as he had played the title role in Andrei Rublev and with Nikolai Grinko, who had played in both Andrei Rublev and Ivan's Childhood. Tarkovsky was confident in Banionis and Järvet, but thought that Solonitsyn and Grinko, would need a bit of work. For the role of Kelvin's Mother he chose Olga Barnet, although he had also considered Russian actress Alla Demidova.
Later, after film had been almost completed, Tarkovsky rated the actors and their performance in the following order: Bondarchuk, Järvet, Solonitsyn, Banionis, Dvorzhetsky and Grinko. Natalya Bondarchuk was Tarkovsky's favorite of the film, as he wrote in his diary that "Natalya B. has outshone everybody".
There were two motivations for Tarkovsky to start a project based on the novel Solaris by Polish author Stanisław Lem in 1968: firstly, he was an admirer of Lem's work and avid reader of his books. Secondly, he was in need for work and money after his last film Andrei Rublev had been relegated to the shelf and after his script A white, white day had been turned down (this script would later become the film The Mirror in 1976). Choosing a film project based on a novel by Lem, who was a popular and well-respected writer in the Soviet Union, was thus a natural choice.
Tarkovsky worked together and was in contact with Lem about the project. He wrote the first version of the screenplay in the summer of 1969 together with the screenwriter Fridrikh Gorenshtein. In the first screenplay variant two-thirds of the film took place on Earth, concentrating on the previous history of Hari and Kris Kelvin's relationship with her. This version was criticized by both Lem and the committee at Mosfilm. Several other screenplay versions were written. In the final shooting script the action on earth had been substantially reduced. In particular Kris Kelvin's second wife Maria and his relationship with her had been removed from the script.
In the book, Lem describes the inability of human science to properly handle a truly alien life form that is beyond human understanding, while Tarkovsky focuses on Kelvin's feelings towards his wife and the human condition in space exploration (Tarkovsky turns Gibarian's monologue from chapter six of the book into a highlight of the final library scene, in a line which Snaut delivers: "We don't need other worlds. We need mirrors"). Unlike the novel, which begins with Kelvin's spaceflight and is set entirely on Solaris, Tarkovsky illustrates Kelvin's visit to his parents' house in the countryside prior to his departure, thus creating a contrast with the cold, sterile and alienating atmosphere of the Solaris station and questioning the concept of space exploration and its impact on the human psyche in general.
Tarkovsky decided to feature a chorale prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach and several paintings of old masters in the film. The interior of the spaceship contains full-size reproductions of Brueghel's Months paintings. Details of The Fall of Icarus and The Hunters in the Snow are displayed in the film. The moment in the final sequence, when Kelvin falls to his knees before his father and the father embraces him, is reminiscent of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son. The reason for this was that for Tarkovsky cinema was a very young art. He tried to create in the viewer's subconscious a historic perspective into the depth of the centuries, such that the viewers would think of cinema as an old art.
Shooting started in March 1971. Vadim Yusov was the cinematographer, as in Tarkovsky's previous films. The two had frequent arguments on the set, and would not work together again after Solaris. Shooting in Japan took place in September and October 1971. The scenes were shot in Akasaka and Iikura in Tokyo. Filming finished and a first version of the film was completed in December 1971.
Tarkovsky wanted to create a contrast between earth, which he saw as the sensual source of life, and the space station and Solaris. To convey this idea of earth as the source of life, they filmed underwater plants, fire, snow, rain and other elements of nature. One scene departing from this idea is the last visit of Kris Kelvin to the house on earth. He walks to the pond near the house, which is frozen and surrounded by bare trees, but not covered in snow. This dead scenery, where everything is still and not moving, contrasts to the early scenes at the same location, where underwater plants are floating in the current and trees are in full bloom. This was not planned, but rather a happy coincidence as temperature in Zvenigorod had suddenly dropped below zero. The final scene, showing the house on earth on a small island in the ocean of Solaris, was achieved by combining separate shots taken from both a crane and a helicopter, which were then composited with a special effects shot of the Solaris ocean. In order to create the unique texture of the ocean on Solaris, Tarkovsky and Yusov at one point considered using animal viscera from cows. In the end they chose instead to use a liquid mixture of acetone, aluminium powder, and various dyes.
The space station was designed by Mikhail Romadin, who was a friend of Tarkovsky. They decided to have an old and broken-down space station instead of a futuristic utopian design. They were consulted by Lev Lupichev, a scientist and aerospace engineer. Lupichev also lent them a mainframe computer to be used on the set. Romadin designed a mirror room, with all walls, the ceiling and the floor covered in mirror. The cameraman Yusov would be hidden inside a mirrored sphere, with only a small opening for the camera. Akira Kurosawa, who was visiting the sets, was impressed by the design of the space station and even asked to spend one hour alone on the sets.
In January 1972 the State Committee for Cinematography requested several changes before allowing Solaris to be released. For example, the committee wanted a more realistic film that gives a clearer image of the future and the removal of allusions to God and Christianity. Tarkovsky was infuriated at this request, and was ultimately successful in resisting any major changes made to the film. After some minor alterations the film was finally approved in March.
The soundtrack of Solaris features a combination of Johann Sebastian Bach's chorale prelude for organ, "Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" (BWV 639) and an electronic score by composer Eduard Artemyev. The choral prelude for organ is heard four times throughout the film. Tarkovsky was an admirer of Bach's music and chose the choral prelude as the central theme for the film.
The electronic score was written by Artemyev specifically for the film. Artemyev met Tarkovsky in 1970 at the house of Mikhail Romadin, who would become the production designer for Solaris. Initially Tarkovsky did not want music in his film, and asked Artemyev to simply orchestrate the natural ambient sounds. Artemyev proposed to introduce orchestral sounds in a subtle way, almost inaudible to audience. As a counterpoint to the classical earth theme he wrote an electronic theme for the planet Solaris. This theme was fluid and diverse, as if coming from nowhere. He also wrote an additional subtheme, that was based on Bach's music as a cantus firmus, with his own composition on top. This subtheme was used in the scene of Hari's death and in the finale.
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. The film premiered in the Soviet Union on February 5, 1973 at the film theater Mir in Moscow. Tarkovsky was angered by this choice, as the Mir was not the best film theater in Moscow. Solaris was not widely released in the Soviet Union, with only two to five cinemas showing the film in the whole country for only a limited time. Nevertheless the film sold 10.5 million tickets in the Soviet Union. Solaris subsequently premiered in Eastern Bloc and later in Western Europe. In the United States Solaris premiered on October 6, 1976 in the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City in a version cut by more than thirty minutes.
Tarkovsky's film differs substantially from the book by Stanisław Lem. Lem was dissatisfied with the finished film as he said "I never really liked Tarkovsky's version". To Tarkovsky, who was an admirer of Lem's work, this showed that Lem was not understanding the nature of cinema as an art. According to Tarkovsky, Lem expected the screenplay and the film to merely illustrate the novel, without creating something new and of artistic value of its own. Tarkovsky worked together with Lem (and with Fridrikh Gorenshtein) when developing the screenplay, resulting in some conflicts between the two. Lem was opposed to any divergence between the original novel and the screenplay. Tarkovsky, on the other hand, was more interested in creating a film only based on the novel, but ultimately standing on its own. He wanted a spiritual film about inner life, whereas Lem's novel was about the conflict of man and the cosmos. For Tarkovsky this conflict was merely a vehicle to describe the inner life of the protagonists.
In his autobiographical documentary Voyage in Time (written a decade after Solaris), Tarkovsky says that he viewed Solaris as unsuccessful. He says that his goal was to make films "without genre", and that Solaris, even with its minimal technical dialogue and special effects, was unable to escape the genre of science fiction, unlike his later film Stalker, which he felt succeeded in circumventing the standard constraints of the genre.