Star Trek, Russian Style

Solaris Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky At the Charles Cinema, 2:30, 4:50, 7:20 and 9:45

GIBARYAN IS DEAD."

"Accident?"

"Committed suicide."

"But I knew Gibaryan. He would never..."

Kelvin pauses. Something has obviously gone wrong aboard the space lab Solaris. Russian scientist had set up the lab to study a body of liquid on another planet--a thick, oozing, brain-colored expanse called the ocean Solaris. The project began with over 80 experts. Over 80 experts had since left: escaped back to Earth or died.

Kelvin, a psychologist, has been sent to interview the three scientist left and recommend whether or not to terminate the project. He finds the space center in a mess: books, wires, levers and clothes strewn about; everywhere the sound of short-circuiting. As he steps through the main entrance hatch, a small figure darts behind a corner and a child's circus ball comes rolling toward his feet. The shot calls to mind the sinister flashes of a child bouncing a ball down a dark stairwell in Cabaret: eerie, unexplained, foreboding.

But Kelvin is a cool customer. Back on Earth, we've already seen him alienate his anxious father with freezing scowls. When a worried former Solaris astronaut tries to warn him about his haunting visions, like hallucinations come to life, Kelvin mocks, scoffs and deries him out of the house. You cloud real science with your romanticism, he snaps. No such nonsense for Kelvin.

Gibrayan took a pistol and put himself out of his misery, though, and he wasn't the type. And why does Sartorius, one of the two remaining scientists, have a dwarf running out of his room? Why the ball?, and why the young girl who mysteriously prowls the space lab in a blue negligee? "Is she real?," Kelvin asks Snauf, the last astronaut. "Is she human?" Snauf only laughs, wildly, wickedly. A panic starts to grab Kelvin, like a pounding hangover on a clammy summer morning. No more Mr. Imperterbable. On a tape made just before his suicide, Gibaryan tells Kelvin nervously not to think that these "guests"--the apparitions--are just figments of his imagination. After all, he tells him, this is no longer Earth.

Little by little, with these scary hints and some entrancing camerawork, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris draws you in. All signs at this stage seem to point towards a Star Trek turned upside-down: a Spaceship Enterprise--like crew that blasts off to explore strange, unknown lands and instead of finding curvacious blondes drifts into a new dimension where scampering children and uninvited "guests" control reality. Obviously more sophisticated than the sci-fi schlock we've grown used to, Solaris promises to give us a provocative view of the race to space, and a commentary, perhaps, on the moral and political implications of expecting to treat other forms of life as "guinea pigs." Talk of morality, immorality, scientific abuse and Hiroshima hums through the first part of the film.

BUT SNAUF, still wild-eyed and now drunk, sums up the meaning of this bizarre mission in another way. "We must strive after something we fear and which we do not ask for," he tells Kelvin. "Man needs man." Here is the key. Solaris has not been dealing with space travel at all, but with man's emprisonment inside his own conscience, his own memories, his ties to the past. The ocean Solaris, Kelvin begins to understand, draws men's dreams from their subconscious during the night and makes them materialize, not in flesh and blood but in "neutrinos," an indestructible substance that renders the apparitions immortal. Hence the "guests"--they are dreams brought to life. No wonder the ocean looks grey and creviced, like a brain. A simple Freudian parable. Maybe.

For Tarkovsky refuses to lay this great symbolic egg and then just leave it there as nothing but a symbolic egg. He embellishes the metaphor with many more illusions and ideas, emotions and moments of suspense, dabbed subtly here, dropped subtly there for contemplation. Thus Kelvin must not only reconcile himself to the idea of dreams incarnate, but to a materialized, breathing, caressing version of his former wife, who had committed suicide on Earth. He becomes sucked in by his desire to love this bionic apparition, neutrinos or no. Stanley Kubrick may have meant to convey this same space-subconscious analogy in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he abstracted too much, and became boring. Tarkovsky doesn't; he clutches us in the gut with emotional ambiguities, and he is not using scare tactics. Hari, the returned wife, kills herself again, but Kelvin knows she is immortal and waits for her to come back to life. Wild convulsions announce her reanimation, and the picture of a woman helplessly wretching, jerking about plays for all the shock value it had in The Exorcist.

The men torture themselves with a mix of deep metaphysics and petty jealousies. They look balding and brooding, like cafe intellectuals. (They even wear leather jackets over their space suits.) Sartorius wants to cut up Hari in the interest of science. "Immortality," he cries. "Faust's dream!" Snauf copes by letting himself slip into sarcastic lunacy; when Hari jerks back to life in Kelvin's arms, he mutters "I can't stand all these resurrections." And the once zero-degree Kelvin gives himself over to his soulful-eyed dream woman like the agnostic who embraces religion, because only thus can he bear the pain of living day to day, can he get by. His women absorb his life, and Tarkovsky shows us why. Hari is haunting and vulnerable as she pleads for his love. And when Kelvin pictures him mother in his mind's eye, her tall, calm figure stares at us from the screen with the look of a bewitching Modigliani.

THESE BITS and pieces carry the film. As in a dream, even the distorted lapses in time, the changes from black and white to color and the rain falling strangely inside as well as out add to the effect. Still, some loose ends to hang unevenly. What, for example, after her first few appearances, happens to the girl in the blue nightgown? How does Kelvin, who starts out sleeping in his space suit, suddenly take possession of a pair of monogrammed pajamas? Some of these points may be straightened out in an extra 40 minute section cut out of this version. But if the "guests" originate in the men's subconscious reconstruction of their past, I, for one, would like to know what Sartorius had going with that dwarf.

Loose ends don't really detract, though, because the film's final clinching shot throws open all doors to analysis. Hari has allowed Sartorius to dissect her, leaving only a note, and Kelvin has decided to return to Earth, he approaches his home, where the film began, and in the doorway kneels at his father's feet, head buried in his lap, one of those poignant Bergmanesque poses. The camera begins to pull up and up, above the house, the trees, the adjacent lake, until we see the entire island surrounding the house, sitting--you guessed it--in the middle of the cranium-colored ocean Solaris.

What should one think of all this: the disturbing psychology, the terrifying moments, the obviously scientific atmosphere that fills bit by bit with a powerful spirituality? Bergman meets William Peter Blatty? Or Kubrick meets Kierkegaard? Actually, an academic search for allusions and comparisons will not stick here, because Solaris is an unsettling, spooky and unfamiliar world. Or put it this way: You know how it feels to come out of a movie that creates a compelling, comfortable reality and to return into the yapping, yawning crowd, step in the stale popcorn and walk into the unalluring street, still as noisy and hot as before? Solaris produces just the opposite effect. You'll be glad when the lights go back on.