Solaris – Book and Movie Review

Solaris is a science fiction book, written by Polish author Stanisław Lem in 1961. It’s a scary and powerful depiction of the limits of human rationality. While, I don’t usually review fictional texts here, this book is fantastic and I just have to share it. In a way it is like Frank Herbert’s Dune, as it is incredibly multidimensional dressing a variety of themes. I’ve recently watched the Soviet film adaptation, and I couldn’t help myself to not write about it, so here we are. I don’t have a specific category for movies on the blog, at least not yet, so I decided to attach my impressions of the 1972 Tarkovsky film here too.

Stanisław Lem (1921-2006) was a Polish science fiction author and essayist. He was one of the most prolific writers in the genre of hard science fiction in the country. His other famous works include The Cyberiad, Eden and The Invincible. His work is difficult to translate due to the many neologisms. Credit: Alamy.

Let’s begin chronologically with the book. The story follows the journey of Kris, a doctor of psychology also known as Kelvin, who is tasked to evaluate the wellbeing and research purpose of the men working on the Solaris station. He arrives at the planet and finds only 3 people there, where one of them called Gibarian committed suicide a few days before. He finds Snaut and Sartorius in mental disarray, paranoid and not wanting to talk. He feels something strange is happening, but the real horror begins when he wakes up the next day. In the room stands his wife, who committed suicide 10 years ago. She is referred to as a guest, both Snaut and Sartorius also are visited by such creatures. Yet, they are not monsters but almost completely human. As we later find out, they are composed of neutrinos stabilised by the gravitational field of Solaris (don’t ask). They are self aware, but need to be constantly in the presence of their “host”, else they lash out with violence and terrible screams. They also can regenerate wounds and resurrect from drinking liquid oxygen.

The pinnacle of the story story, in my opinion, is when Kris explores the library. There we get a detailed overview about the past study of Solaris and Berton’s mission. The planet Solaris has been studied for decades and was once at the pinnacle of funding and interest. Nevertheless, the planet proved extremely difficult to comprehend, and now it is a playing field for unfalsifiable hypotheses. As a last resort, the researchers used strong radiation on the ocean, which caused the planet to respond, by acting as a mirror for the human psyche. It spawned these guests, which are products of the researcher’s subconscious mind. It puts into question the limits of human knowledge. The different approaches, efforts of brilliant scientists and creative theories all turned out to be fruitless. It makes one wonder if it is worth studying things that we will never understand; should we give up or continue like Sisyphus?

Lem hated both movie interpretations (there was another one in 2002 directed by Steven Soderbergh), as he thought that they misrepresented the main theme of his work, and I couldn’t agree more. The Tarkovsky film focuses more on beautiful visuals and symbolism, rather than the profound philosophical insights of the author. This misrepresentation by all means does not make it a bad movie, and here is why.

A frame from the movie Solaris, when Kris is standing on the field next to his family home. Credit: Andrei Tarkovsky.

The 1972 film has been called a Soviet response to 2001: Space Odyssey, but that is an awful oversimplification. The film plays an entirely different cultural role. It emphasises the theme of love and identity through phenomenal lighting. Harey’s selfless The small budget made for some interesting artistic choices, such as using very long shots of Japanese tunnels and highways to portray a retro-futuristic city. To be honest, it works better than today’s CGI and fits perfectly with the theme.

Tarkovsky exemplifies Harey’s dilemma. Kris grows to love her, as he regrets having an argument with his wife these 10 years ago. Nevertheless, as time goes by she becomes more and more self aware, and doubts his love and her real existence. She knows she is not that Harey, but someone completely else. The story is about contact, contact wit the pseudo-consciousness of the planet and Kris’ lost love. It’s a beautiful parallel between romantic love and the innate thirst for knowledge.

Solaris is a thought provoking text and film, especially in the context of astrophysics. We spend a lot of brain power and money on the study of black holes, the Big Bang, dark matter and dark energy. Yet, the energies required to verify string theory or perhaps some aspects of dark matter may never be achievable, and we might reach a point of unfalsifiable theories. A pessimist might already notice that the study of quantum gravity, since the early 2000s, has reached relative stagnation and we might have to wait for a long time for a resolution of the string theory vs. loop quantum gravity debate. Nonetheless, we have reached such periods before with quarks, the Higgs boson and other fundamental particles. Science keeps surprising us in terms of just how much we are able to discern from our tiny vantage point on Earth. But the limitations of science are still worth thinking about.

A frame from the 1972 film, featuring Kris and Harey. Credit: Andrei Tarkovsky.


Diana @ Thoughts on Papyrus. (2019, July 24). Review: Solaris by Stanisław Lem. Thoughts on Papyrus.

Lem Vs. Tarkovsky: The Fight Over ‘Solaris.’ (2020, June 16). Culture.Pl.

Lopate, P. (2011). Solaris: Inner Space. The Criterion Collection.

Shave, N. (2020, May 1). I’ve never seen . . . Solaris. The Guardian.

Published by Mateusz Ratman

High school student from Warsaw, Poland. JHU Class of 2026.

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