In this column, I’d previously reviewed both cinematic adaptations of noted Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” (1972/2002). The book, arguably Lem’s most celebrated novel, tells the story of psychiatrist-cosmonaut Kris Kelvin, who visits a dilapidated space station in orbit over the distant planet Solaris, which is covered by a living ocean. The Solaris ocean defies repeated scientific attempts to understand it. Controllers on Earth have also lost contact with the same-named Solaris space station and its three-person crew; Dr. Gibarian, Dr. Sartorius and Dr. Snaut. Once aboard, Kelvin soon learns that his friend Gibarian has committed suicide, and that both Snaut and Sartorius are being “visited” by neutrino-based ‘phantoms’ dragged from their subconscious minds by the ocean itself, in an awkward and alien attempt at first contact. These ‘visitors’ have driven the crew to despair and near-madness.
Soon, Kelvin finds himself being ‘visited’ by his late wife, Harey, who committed suicide ten years earlier. At first, he resists the alien doppelgänger and attempts to destroy it. Later, he comes to fall in love with this new version of his late wife, who is based solely on Kelvin’s memories of her. Kelvin seems unaware that the traumatic way he remembers Harey will only cause her to repeat her self-destructive tendencies. After transmitting Kelvin’s brainwaves directly into the ocean in an effort to control these traumatic visitations, Snaut and Sartorius then device an anti-neutrino field to permanently eradicate the phantoms once and for all. Suicidal Harey volunteers as a test subject, after realizing she’s not human and that her presence is only causing Kelvin greater torment. The story ends with a grief-stricken Kelvin remaining aboard the station with the others to study the ocean.
As mentioned above, two theatrical movies were made from Lem’s “Solaris”; Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic in 1972 and Steven Soderbergh’s underrated remake in 2002. However…
There Is Another
When I began my previous 2021 column on “Solaris,” I was aware of a Soviet TV-movie of the story, which was directed by Boris Nirenberg and Lidiya Ishimbayeva. However, I had no idea if this version was available to stream, let alone review—not to mention that I already had my hands full comparing the 1972 and 2002 films. So, for that time being, I ignored it; preferring to focus on the book and its cinematic adaptations.
Then a kindly reader of this column named Maurice Molyneaux (of Fact Trek www.facttrek.com and @facttreks on Twitter) sent me a YouTube link to a full video of the Russian TV-movie from 1968. The version appears to be a second generation copy, sourced from a Russian-language DVD, with fan-provided subtitles (some spelling/grammatical errors, etc) that accurately convey the dialogue (more or less, as gleaned from what little Russian I know). So, with this previously missing piece of the puzzle recovered, I dove in…
Produced for Soviet TV, and clocking in at 2 hours and 23 minutes, the 2-part 1968 TV movie of “Solaris” is only 26 minutes shorter than Andrei Tarkovsky’s version, which greatly padded Lem’s relatively short novel (only 200 or so pages). Eschewing the backstory scenes on Earth from the 1972 and 2002 versions, the TV-movie begins exactly as the novel does—psychiatrist/cosmonaut Kris Kelvin (Vasily Lanonov) launching from the Prometheus mothership and arriving aboard the Solaris space station, after a brief spaceflight.
Note: This TV-movie is clearly made on a very tight budget, with no allowance for optical or visual effects for depicting spaceflight whatsoever; we only see tight closeups of a helmeted Kelvin within the shuttle cockpit. The shuttles launching to and from the Solaris station are represented by stock footage of daytime Soviet rocket launches from Kazakhstan—a cheat that requires major suspension-of-disbelief from the audience to work.
As with the book and other versions, Kelvin’s arrival at the station is met with utter indifference, with no one bothering to greet him upon landing. Trading in his flight gear for a change of clothes, Kelvin makes his way through the ship’s corridors, trying to locate its three-man crew.
Note: The station in the 1968 version does what it can on a clearly made-for-TV budget, unlike the generous, rounded corridors and askew architecture of the 1972 version, or the metallic submarine vibe and handsome detailing of the 2002 Steven Soderbergh film. The interiors of the 1968 Solaris station, combined with the black & white videotape aesthetic of the production, reminded me of early seasons of “Doctor Who” (1963-1968). While this taping of “Solaris” lacks the occasional gaffes and sometimes clumsy execution of early “Doctor Who,” it also lacks the scrappier BBC series’ greater imagination and outside-the-box thinking.
After hearing strange, unidentifiable noises, Kelvin locates Dr. Snaut (Vladimir Etush). Snaut is terrified at the sight of Kelvin, believing him to be yet another of the phantoms that have plagued the Solaris station crew. As with later versions, Snaut has been reduced to alcoholism and near-madness, as the former scientist/engineer slowly comes to realize that Kelvin is real. Unfortunately, Kelvin’s inquiries of Snaut are met only with riddles and half-answers, as Snaut warns Kelvin not to judge him too harshly until he’s received ‘visitors’ of his own…
Note: This is where the TV-version scores its first major coup, as Vladimir Etush is absolutely amazing in the role. With his bushy eyebrows, expressive face and middle-aged paunch, Etush looks more like a blue-collar factory worker than a lab coat-wearing scientist. However, once Snaut begins conversing with Kris, Etush owns the screen. We feel his fear at the sight of the freshly-arrived Kelvin, it soon becomes clear that a logical, highly intelligent man is still present somewhere, under all of that liquor. Of the three actors to play this role, Vladimir Etush’s performance is my personal favorite. Yuri Jarvet’s Snaut (1972) seemed a bit too foggy and distant, while Jeremy Davies’ “Snow” (2002) was little more than a gimmicky, overly-studied Charles Manson impersonation; something Davies more or less admitted to in interviews, as he later played the role of Manson in 2004’s remake of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book, “Helter Skelter” (which was previously adapted in a superior 1976 miniseries). Etush reminds me, in some ways, of the late character actor Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012).
Frustrated by Snaut’s riddles and half-answers, Kelvin seeks out Dr. Sartorius (Viktor Zozulin), after learning that station commander Gibarian has committed suicide. Sartorius refuses to invite Kelvin into his cabin, only agreeing to talk with Kelvin outside the door. Inside Sartorius’s cabin, there are loud noises and unseen visitors banging on the door to be let out. Clearly Sartorius has his hands full, and agrees to meet with Snaut and Kelvin later on…
Note: Viktor Zozulin, the actor playing Sartorius, is a bit younger than the character in either the book or later versions. According to IMDb, Zozulin was around 23 or 24 at the time the TV-movie was made. Even in the crude copy of “Solaris” I watched on YouTube, it was clear the young actor was fitted with a bald cap to make him look older (he also looks like he’s auditioning for a Lex Luthor CW TV series). All the same, Zozulin expertly maintains the character’s cold arrogance and social awkwardness from the book and the 1972 film. It’s a solid performance, in spite of the bald cap. Of the three versions of the Sartorius character, I personally prefer the 2002 version’s Sartorius, who was renamed “Gordon,” and played by actress Viola Davis. The Oscar-winning Davis easily gives the best performance of the three, and her trauma, anger and impatience with the ‘phantoms’ are all the more vivid and palpable.
After meeting with the station’s two remaining—and seemingly insane—survivors, Kelvin retires to his assigned cabin. After drifting off to sleep, he awakens to see a woman sitting nearby; the woman is his late wife, Harey (Antonina Pilyus). The young Harey had killed herself following a terrible fight with Kelvin ten years earlier. Kelvin, finally realizing what Snaut and Sartorius tried to warn him about with their enigmatic talk of “visitors,” is thoroughly creeped out by the sight of his dead wife smiling before him. Harey can’t remember her suicide, or much else beyond her love (and need) for Kris, as she is only an imperfect copy made from his memories of her.
Note: The Solaris ocean itself is somewhat abstractly represented as an almost Venetian blinds-effect through the portal windows of the station (most visibly when we see the resurrected Harey). It’s not terribly convincing as an ‘alien ocean,’ though it settles for a stylized effect of light reflecting off a pool of water.
Unwilling to go on with this ghoulish charade, Kelvin takes Harey to the station’s shuttle bay. Once there, he casts her off into space aboard a rocket, never to return. In his haste, the anxious Kelvin forgot to fully exit the bay before liftoff, and has burned part of his face from the rocket exhaust (a price paid for his act of ‘murder’). Returning to his cabin and drifting back to sleep, he is then awakened once again to see the silhouette of another resurrected Harey turning to stare back at him…
Note: Antonina Pilyus plays this first adaptation’s version of Harey, the young suicidal late-wife of Kris Kelvin. Natalya Bondarchuk would play the character in the 1972 film, and Natascha McElhone would play Rheya in the 2002 version (“Rheya” is the book’s English language anagram of the character’s original Russian name “Harey”). Pilyus does a fine job as Harey. It’s tough to pick a personal favorite onscreen version of the character, since each is a cipher; created imperfectly, from the memories of Kelvin. Of the three, I’d say McElhone is given the most to work with, as we see a lot more of her eccentric character during flashbacks of Rheya’s courtship and troubled marriage with Kelvin. To her credit, Bondarchuk’s Harey had a preternatural spookiness about her that better suited to the “visitor” version of the character. However, Antonina Pilyus certainly does the role justice.
Harey then tends to Kelvin’s facial burns, unaware that he’d just ‘killed’ her doppelgänger not long ago. After some rest and recovery, Kelvin takes a sample of visitor-Harey’s blood and puts it under a microscope, which confirms that she’s not human. When asked, Kelvin lies, telling Harey that her blood is just fine. During a video conference, Kelvin secludes Harey from Sartorius and Snaut’s scrutiny for as long as he can, though both men are fully aware that Kelvin’s dealing with his own visitor…
Note: I appreciated this version’s crude yet prescient version of a video conference call, with the still-isolated Kelvin conferring with his two colleagues by placing two CRT video monitors side by side and watching Snaut and Sartorius on separate screens (as they watch him via a close-circuit camera). Now, of course, we have tools like Zoom which make virtual meetings much easier (some of that technology boosted by the necessity of the recent COVID pandemic, of course). In fact, the scenes of Kelvin and Harey’s self-isolation—filmed 55 years ago—reminded me a little of when we were all forced to shelter in place during the early days of COVID.
Over time, Kelvin—who initially rejected visitor-hardy—loses his former objectivity and begins to fall in love with her (it?), even while recognizing she is only a copy resurrected through his memories and guilt. Kelvin is unable to see that he did not cause the late Harey’s suicide; that tendency was hardwired into the real woman’s deeply codependent character. However, the suicidal tendencies of visitor-Harey are largely based on Kelvin’s own flawed memories of the original woman. When Kelvin thinks of his late wife, his thoughts are clouded by his grief for her, thus, her doppelgänger (or doppelgängers) will be permanently limited in potential.
Note: Actor Vasily Lanonov does a fine job in the role of Kris Kelvin as he conveys the character’s gradual dissolve from the Solaris enigma’s resolute investigator to its greatest victim, as the planet’s sentient ocean finds his Achilles’ heel by conjuring his late wife. Lanonov nicely conveys the gradual slide of emotions that make Kelvin’s transformation believable (save for a somewhat melodramatic outpouring near the very end, which feels a bit overdone). Lanonov’s Kelvin, for the most part, is solidly sympathetic; on a par with Antonina Pilyus’s Harey. The pair are a nice onscreen match, in fact. All the same, actor Donatas Banionis, from the 1972 film version, offers the most daringly vanity-free version of Kris Kelvin, and is still my personal favorite actor in the role to date.
After realizing Snaut and Sartorius fully understand what’s going on, Kelvin later takes Harey to the lab to meet his two colleagues. Snaut and Sartorius now see the once-objective psychiatrist Kelvin struggling with his own ‘phantom.’ Snaut, however, recognizes that Kelvin’s visitor is even more dangerous than theirs, as she is created entirely from Kelvin’s deep-seated grief and guilt. She’s not some random character pulled from Kelvin’s childhood nightmares; she’s a walking/talking reminder of his perceived failure as a husband.
Note: Over the course of this movie, we experience the slow juxtaposition of the once-stable Kris Kelvin with his two seemingly insane colleagues, Snaut and Sartorius. This is effectively and gradually conveyed through the performances, particularly of Vladimir Etush’s Snaut, who transforms from a scatterbrained alcoholic back into the sober-minded scientist he must’ve been when he first arrived at the station.
Sartorius and Snaut are still actively dealing with the problem of first contact with the Solaris ocean. As with all versions of the story, it’s decided to transmit Kelvin’s electroencephalogram directly into the sentient ocean. Realizing that his colleagues are desperate to rid themselves of their own phantoms, but not wanting Harey to disappear, Kelvin actively wishes for the ocean to rid Snaut and Sartorius of their neutrino-phantoms, while keeping visitor-Harey for himself. Kelvin’s transmission of his electroencephalogram into the planet’s ocean marks the first direct contact with Solaris itself. The reason first contact with Solaris went awry was from the ocean reacting to human dreams, not conscious thought; unaware of how chaotic our subconscious minds can be.
Note: The TV movie uses a film noir-style interior monologue/narration for Kelvin to convey some of the book’s less concrete ideas into something understandable for a TV audience. Normally, narration is the bane of visual storytelling, but in this case it works, as it also clues us into Kelvin’s decaying thought processes as well.
Returning to his cabin, he sees that visitor-Harey has taken her own life; injecting poison directly into her arm—just as the real Harey had done years before. However, his will to keep her alive brings her back once more. The once-more resurrected Harey is fully aware of what she is; an imperfect copy made from a grieving man’s desperate memories. She begins to realize she cannot go on living as a facsimile who’s preprogrammed for suicide. There is also the greater question of whether or not visitor-Harey can ever leave the station, since her very life emanates from the energy field of the Solaris ocean…
Note: Off-topic a bit, but a reminder to anyone with suicidal thoughts or intentions; please call the Suicide & Crisis Emergency Hotline, 988. More information on the new hotline is here: FAQs and other information about 988.
Meanwhile, a now sober-minded Snaut has perfected his own means of neutralizing the phantoms once and for all; a neutrino-blocking field that, once activated, will simply dissipate the visitors out of existence—like fog in sunlight. Snaut privately meets with visitor-Harey, where she confesses her own frustrations with her husband’s subconsciously-imposed limitations on her existence. The sympathetic Snaut offers her a way out by use of his newly created neutrino-dampening device. All she has to do is drug Kris with sleeping pills, come down to the lab, and volunteer as a test subject for he and Sartorius’s experiment. With no viable alternatives, visitor-Harey agrees.
Note: Snaut’s ‘neutrino-dampening generator’ appears to be little more than an old telescope and oscilloscope, showing the limitations of this clearly low-budgeted TV production. It helps if you think of this adaptation as more of an experimental “off-Broadway” stage play than a movie.
After a drugged sleep, Kelvin awakens to find that his Harey has gone. Losing his ‘wife’ once more pushes Kelvin to his breaking point, and he collapses to the floor, crying out for “Harey! Harey!!” Upon regaining his composure, Kelvin meets with Sartorius and Snaut, who tell Kelvin that it was Harey herself who volunteered for the procedure. Snaut and Sartorius also tell Kelvin that his transmission to the ocean worked, since neither scientist have seen their respective ‘phantoms’ since. Communication with the sentient ocean is possible.
Emboldened by their successes, Sartorius and Snaut now resolve to continue their work aboard the station, and they ask Kelvin to join them. With no home or wife to return to, Kelvin is disposed to remain as well…
Note: This TV adaptation sticks very close to Stanislaw Lem’s original ending, as Kelvin ultimately chooses to remain on the station to study the implicitly inscrutable ocean. The 1972 and 2002 film versions took major liberties with the book’s ending. Tarkovsky’s film saw Kelvin taking a shuttle out to Solaris, where the sentient ocean created an island facsimile of his father’s country dacha; the one place where Kelvin ever felt contentment. The later Soderbergh film saw Kelvin remaining aboard the station as its decaying orbit sent it on a downward spiral towards the planet Solaris. Kelvin then finds himself in his apartment kitchen on Earth, chopping vegetables, and reunited with Rheya, who tells him that everything is forgiven here—implying the Solaris ocean offers a kind of blissful afterlife. Given Soviet austerity regarding religion in 1968, it’s easy to see why the TV-movie chose not to take such divine liberties with Lem’s story.
Summing It Up
From beginning to end, I was surprised at how faithful this Soviet TV-movie was to Stanislaw Lem’s original book; it’s more or less a rote dramatization. While Lem’s more existential-philosophical musings are somewhat reduced, the essentials of his story are all here. To those who miss the book’s deeper explorations, the protracted Tarkovsky film of 1972 brings them back, with interest.
Buoyed by some unexpectedly strong performances despite its barebones production values, the 1968 “Solaris” feels like a spartan stage play—eschewing much of the visual potential a movie could’ve offered (this is something the two cinematic versions took advantage of in different ways). All the same, this literal, no-frills version of “Solaris” still manages to create a bleak, isolating and uniquely Soviet mood over its 143 minute running time.
Certainly worth checking out for fans of Stanislaw Lem’s story.
Once more, I’d like to thank reader Maurice Molyneaux of Fact Trek (www.facttrek.com and @facttreks on Twitter) for bringing this YouTube copy of 1968’s “Solaris” to my attention, and allowing me to enjoy what I’d erroneously assumed only existed on a rare Russian-language DVD. Much appreciated!
Where To Watch
For now, this rare two-part Soviet-era miniseries is still available to watch for free (with the aforementioned fan-subtitling) on YouTube. You may also buy a DVD-R copy to own on Amazon (an all-regions version formatted in NTSC); as of this writing, the DVD-R was priced around $15.99, but that may vary with sellers.