I wasn't sure how well the novel would translate to the screen, but I hadn't seen anything by Tarkovsky, so I got it from Netflix, more curious about the early 70s Soviet cinema than the science fiction effort.
Tarkovsky adds almost an hour of preamble establishing our protagonist Kelvin and his relationship to his parents (who will almost certainly predecease his return from space), as well as delivering exposition of the fantastic properties of Solaris via oral testimony by a retired explorer (whose recording devices have mysteriously malfuctioned). This latter point economically evades the limitations of Soviet cinema visual effects, but unhelpfully introduces the possibility that everyone who travels to Solaris suffers from hallucinations.
Because I had just read the novel, I was much less impatient with the first act than the average viewer would likely be. I knew that Kelvin's suicidal ex-wife would figure largely in Kelvin's encounter with Solaris, and I expected more foreshadowing than Tarkovsky delivers. Instead, we are left with the feeling that Kelvin is more attached to his childhood; he seems to have made his peace with his ex-wife's suicide. I think this is more effective than having Kelvin haunted by his ex-wife, fleeing Earth only to find her at Solaris. That jibes with my experience of memories; they can be quite impertinent when they choose to surface.
I don't know how intentional this was by Tarkovsky, but one motif that struck me was how often he shows us the back of a person's head. I found myself trying to read a character through the movement of his shoulders, with mixed success.
When facing the camera, I found the performances to be strong. It's a talky piece, and I thought they hit the right balance of weariness and curiosity without falling too hard on the obsessed scientist cliche. One element that Tarkovsky captures well is the dilemma faced by scientists charged with what was once the most important mission imaginableestablishing contact with another intelligencenow almost abandoned by the attention of greater humanity. When the project turns disturbingly personal, from whence do they derive their duty? 40 years ago, one might have been tempted to say that only a Soviet filmmaker could do this absurdity justice, but I hope we know differently now.
Taking the film as one of my few exposures to Soviet science fiction, I wasn't terribly concerned that it didn't look as "futuristic" as 2001 or even Barbarella. I found nothing kitschy or camp among the Zaporozhets, flaring shirt collars, or ubiquitous cigarettes. I instead empathized with a group of people who had little enthusiasm for moving into the future if we were just going to bring the past along with us.