With Solaris — which plays tomorrow afternoon and Friday at the Walter Reade’s complete Andrei Tarkovsky series — the sci-fi picture enters its contemplative phase, that is, if the film doesn't transcend the classification altogether. (The director Tarkovsky has said, "I do not believe the cinema has genres. The cinema is itself a genre.) Adapting Stanislaw Lem's bestseller, the Russian filmmaker's 1972 entry strips away much of the sci-fi trappings of its generic forebears, taking the source novel's central narrative hook and using it as a testing ground for its lead character's humanity. Relentlessly insular, self-conscious in its claims to high art, Solaris is a heady, visually stunning consideration of the problems of identity, and if it occasionally feels as "cold" and cerebral as the film whose frostiness it was meant to correct (2001: A Space Odyssey), then it has every bit as much claim on our continued attention as Kubrick's movie — moreso, since its concerns lean rather to the human scale than the cosmic.
Sent to reinforce a mission at a distant space station, Kris Kelvin finds the operation in shambles: one member recently committed suicide and the other two keep guardedly to their quarters, while strange creatures are glimpsed at the margins. What Kelvin discovers is that the planet of Solaris, which the cosmonauts were sent to explore, functions as a sort of living brain, reading the thoughts of the men and then manifesting their buried guilts and fears in the form of living creatures. For Kelvin, this means the reappearance of his former wife, Hari, who committed suicide after their marriage ended, and he spends most of the film alternately running away from and embracing this projection who, while not technically "human" — she's composed of neutrinos instead of atoms and lacks the real woman's memory — Kelvin comes to accept as his ex-wife. As it plays out, the relationship represents both a retreat from life, the cosmonaut shacking up with a simulacrum while neglecting his official duties, and an opportunity for a newfound acceptance, as his increasingly human guest forces a reconsideration of his own existential position.
Tarkovsky is above all a director of moments, and Solaris offers at least three of nearly overwhelming power: an extended sequence of a car ride through the anonymous overpasses and tunnels of an unidentifiable modern city, a scene where Kris and Hari enjoy a floating embrace in the space station thanks to a temporary bout of zero gravity, and the reunion of father and son at film's end, based on a Rembrandt painting and preceded by an anomalous bout of indoor rain, before the camera cranes up and calls the reality of the scene into question. What's great about these three sequences is that while they work beautifully as isolated moments, they're intricately cued to the film's central theme — the possibilities of humanity amidst an isolating modernity — the first by negative example, the second two positively. If Tarkovsky's insistence on spiritualizing his discoveries can occasionally be off-putting — critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has gone so far as to label much of his holy theorizing "pretentious, egocentric and downright offensive" — then at the filmmaker's most inspired, as in Solaris' concluding image, wherein an otherworldly intrusion (the rain) grants added potency to a decidedly human moment — there's nothing else in the cinema that can offer up the same heady thrills.