Night is the best time here; night somehow reminds me of earth.
The final, grandiose scene in this film will be derived from its opening in a way that is admittedly less surprising than thrilling. We begin on a lush country estate as a man in his forties, somewhat heavy-set, handsome, and with a peremptory stare, walks around a large and fecund pond. What he first espies beneath that pond compared to what lies there towards the end may have ignited a few film studies papers, but we need not belabor such secondary detail. He is a microbe within a universe moving through a wonderland where he is barely noticed; his steps are silent because an echo implies impact. He approaches a house, his father's, only to find his mother and a stranger glued to the television.
Our wanderer is Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist who will be participating in a Soviet space mission to a place referred to as Solaris – another planet or realm, the matter is not easily resolved. His last day on earth, so to speak, is spent predominantly with his father (Nikolai Grinko), a tall, dismissive man who may remind the American viewer of this actor. That same day, planned as a pre-departure of quiet reflection on a peaceful estate, Kelvin's father also invites Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), a former military pilot. Apart from indulging the father's lifelong habit of belittling his son's importance ("It's too dangerous to send people like you into space," he tells Kelvin, "space is too fragile"), the purpose of the invitation is to watch a video of Burton's testimony before the space authorities for whom Kelvin will also make an evaluation. Burton testifies that in the course of his mission on a search party near Solaris – officially an "oceanic planet" – he fell into the thick fog that has begun many tales of mystery. After that fog had lifted, if it was fog at all, he espied something treading the waves, something he dubs "repulsive": a thirteen-foot-high naked baby boy coated with the slime that one might associate with birth. Whatever one may say of Burton, he is certainly not confident; he is also far too sensitive about his own personal opinions to make a good soldier. His ideas are rejected and roundly mocked, and Burton, now bald after the incident a few years ago, can only quip that whenever the "Burton Report" is mentioned only laughter can be heard.
Almost all reviewers of Solaris who know the original novel emphasize that Lem's book did not contain this prelude on earth, and for very good reason: Lem was far more interested in the vicissitudes of the human brain than the human soul. For all its monsters, meteors, and machinery, the vast majority of science fiction has always parlayed simple, melodramatic plots into allegedly original work – but this is a conversation for another day. Some science fiction tales do tackle legitimate philosophical and spiritual problems, often in the form of space travel with ultimately the following question in mind: if we can reach the heavens, does it mean there is nothing beyond them? The argument is not only one of sense and perception, but of ethical implications because, as Burton points out as any spiritual person would, "knowledge is only valid when it's based on morality." But Kelvin wants nothing of this and we soon learn why. Ten years before his upcoming space mission, Kelvin's wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) committed suicide for the most banal of romantic tragedies – unrequited love. Whether this extinguished any faith Kelvin might have had in the immortality of the soul cannot be determined from the opening scene, nor from Burton's subsequent teleconference from a car in a modern metropolis where he confesses that Fechner, the object of the search party, had a son identical in all but size to the creature treading the water. This concept is reinforced upon Kelvin's arrival as he is greeted by one of the three remaining persons in the space station monitoring Solaris, the cyberneticist Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet).
A correction, only two remain – alive, at least. The surviving passengers are Snaut and the astrobiologist Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn). A third scientist, Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sarkisian), a physiologist and former colleague of Kelvin's, has already committed suicide by the time the psychologist enters the station. Gibarian is considerate enough to leave Kelvin a video detailing his slow descent into a miasma completely divorced from any hints at insanity. This circumstance allows us to ponder Snaut's strange words (Snaut is also responsible for this review's opening quote) to Kelvin upon the latter's arrival: "If you ever see something other than me or Sartorius here, just remember that you are no longer on earth." Kelvin nears a window and gazes upon Solaris in one of the breathtaking glimpses at the ocean planet, and then spots something moving behind him. Sartorius, clearly the guts and glory behind this operation, warns him of the shocking nature of what he may see in the station, visions at once real and completely synthetic – and we come to the secret of Solaris that is hardly a secret at all. In response to the radiation with which it was bombarded, or maybe not entirely in response, the ocean enters the consciousness of all those aboard the station and triggers materializations of their conscience. The subject matter can only be derived during sleeping, although a later development in the plot shows that an encephalogram during waking hours can be just as decisive. We see Sartorius with a pygmy or dwarf that he tries at one point to impute to Snaut; and while we do not quite know what plagued Gibarian before his death, he had the rather awful impression that he was the only one affected. It is for that reason, one supposes, that one morning Kelvin wakes up and finds Hari staring at him alive and well. The first part ends on this note – more specifically, it ends with Hari asking Kelvin, "why won't you look at me?" – and here our revelations should end as well.
What is a man of science to think of such a manifestation? A great deal, as it turns out. Before leaving earth, Kelvin nonchalantly pitches a large number of his university papers and keepsakes into a bonfire, to the horror of his onlooking parents (here we also first see a photograph of Hari and some of their correspondence). Much later, Kelvin dreams of a scene not unlike the icy landscapes of some of the Dutch Masters of yore in which another bonfire is lit, if only to warm his tired bones. The transformation of Kelvin, a staunch non-believer, into someone who accepts the unimaginable is one of the greatest metamorphoses cinema has ever offered. Instead of the anger and disdain that usually accompany claims to the existence of such phenomena, Kelvin does not disbelieve as much as fear (witness what he does to Hari's first "materialization"). He fears his own role in her death, the evidence of a sort of heaven – Hari and the rest of the so-called "guests" cannot and perhaps do not exist outside of Solaris's force field – and the bewildering realization that conscience may well be the metronome for all of eternity. So when Hari asks Kelvin in front of a mirror (a shot used repeatedly in the film's promotion) whether he knows himself, he replies "Of course, like all humans." And if that were indeed the case, then far fewer of us would ever go to sleep.