SOVIET FILMMAKER Andrei Tarkovsky's space-age epic "Solaris," now restored to its original 167 minutes, would be a long sitting in any theater. In the humbly outfitted Biograph, where the seats are, well, just okay, and the 8-by-16-foot screen doesn't exactly span the galaxies, and the subtitles (at least, for the first reel of this print) flicker annoyingly, "Solaris" amounts to quite a viewing challenge.
But the third feature in Tarkovsky's brief, shining career will deliver you from the mundane to the sublime. An extended, cinematic poem, "Solaris" transforms the elements of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel into a Tolstoy-influenced, religious treatise on the human race. The film, which won the 1972 Cannes Special Jury Prize, is a series of encounters between humans and their fears, fantasies and faith -- or lack thereof. This is not your high-budget ray-gun clash between space voyagers and slime-covered monsters.
Sometime in the unspecified future, a central committee dispatches psychologist and cosmonaut Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) to investigate strange occurences on the remote planet Solaris. Going aboard Solaris's orbiting space station, Kelvin meets two resident scientists, Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsin) and Snouth (Yuri Jarvet), who keep themselves closeted in their laboratories and evade questions. Kelvin also discovers that the third scientist, Gibarian (Sos Sarkissian), has committed suicide and has left a videotape explaining his actions.
Kelvin's investigation ultimately leads to Solaris itself, a planet with mysterious properties, among them the ability to conjure up spirits from the past. He discovers this poignantly when a corporeal facsimile of his ex-wife (Natalya Bondarchuk), who committed suicide several years ago, comes to him. Kelvin's fact-finding mission breaks down as he surrealistically relives a troubled past and also discovers some disturbing but edifying truths about humanity along the way.
Tarkovsky doesn't script so much as paint and compose; his work is a collection of living paintings, or visual symphonies, rather than narrative movies. Though "Solaris" is one of the late director's most plot-coherent and accessible films, its plot is still a mere conduit for mood, atmosphere and philosophy.
With cinematographer Vadim Yusov's deft eye, Tarkovsky also creates some incredible images, such as the opening shot, in which underwater reeds undulate with such hypnotic grace that they seem to be directed, or the breathtaking shots of the surface of Solaris. His pictures, and his sounds -- such as the symphonic drip of raindrops in a wooded pond -- tell more than just the immediate story; they rejuvenate the mind. In this summer season of three-ring-circus subtlety, that's not just a great relief, it's vital.