How ‘Solaris’ Uses Colors to Tell a Story

Andrei Tarkovsky created one of the most emotional space movies of all time, a distinction he achieved visually through a complex color scheme.

When he set out to make the 1972 cosmic psychological drama Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky faced a challenge: how do you make a movie set in outer space resonate with earthbound viewers. His solution? Color. By giving the movie a color scheme that speaks directly to human emotions, Tarkovsky was able to make his far-flung sci-fi film feel very familiar. Solaris, which is about a psychologist sent to a space station to find out why its crew has gone insane, includes space travel, cryptic messages, and a mysterious planet, but it also includes color arrangements that resonate with us deeply no matter how far from Earth we have ended up.

It is common practice for filmmakers to use deliberate color schemes to set the mood for a film — a predominant use of red may suggest romance or danger, while the use of blue tones may make a film feel cold or uneasy. But Tarkovsky, with the help of cinematographer Vadim Yusov, uses jarring shifts between a variety of different color arrangements to his thematic and storytelling advantage. Solaris switches between the palettes so frequently that it may be difficult to interpret, but once we break down the intentions of each color scheme in relation to the plot, we can understand how Tarkovsky poetically tells a story through color.

He crafts a relationship between content and color in three distinct ways: memory is a nostalgic black-and-white monochrome; the spacecraft is stark, cold, and artificial; and home is saturated and vibrant. Thematically, the separation of these three is challenged by a five-minute sequence that occurs halfway through the first act. The sequence, set on a congested highway in Tokyo, not only bridges the gap, quite literally, between home and Solaris Station, it is also the only scene in the film that combines all three color schemes, suggesting similarities and connections between home, space, and memory. The three might not be as different as the viewer might think.

Solaris begins at home. The opening shot is of a bed of mossy plants floating, rippling whimsically in the water. The greens of the plants are bold and saturated: home, as seen by the psychologist, Kris (Donatas Banionis), is lively and warm. Solaris’ luminous introductory colors fundamentally define Kris and serve as an important comparison to other colors and moods throughout the film. Home is the place that shaped Kris, and many of his endeavors in space act as an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of it.

Once Kris ventures to outer space, the color palette undergoes a dramatic change. By shifting the film’s visual style, Tarkovsky informs us that Kris’ experience in space is going to be nothing like his experience at home. The colors become less saturated as Kris moves further from his perception of the “real.” The walls of the spaceship are blunt, artificial silver and sickly, mechanical yellow. The world of the spaceship, unlike home, is guided by science, not emotion. A fuse could blow. An engine could burst. That’s just the essence of the cool-colored device. 

But the colors of the spacecraft aren’t entirely the steely colors you’d expect to see in something like Star Wars. Tarkovsky diverts from the science fiction norm. Glowing, golden light shines through the windows, which contradicts our idea of a pitch-black space. Deep reds decorate the ship. This isn’t our typical space experience. Memory inserts itself both into Kris’ experiences at home and his experiences on the spacecraft.

Memory in Solaris materializes in black-and-white. At first glance, this directorial choice offers less autonomy than evoking emotion through color. This is not how we see the world, and therefore it is more artificial than color could ever be. But black-and-white conjures feelings of nostalgia, like old home movies and vintage photographs. Because of that, we feel a connection to Kris’ memories.

When, in black-and-white, he burns a photo of his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), we know she is an important memory, and, sure enough, Kris’ memory of her continues to haunt him through the remainder of the film. When Hari appears on the spaceship, this time in color, we instantly know memory has fused itself into reality because it has taken on reality’s color. The golden-brown of Hari’s hair and spacecraft yellow of her sweater tell us that the line between memory and reality has blurred.

Nostalgic black-and-white is also used when the characters discuss the concept of memory. When Kris realizes it’s the materialization of memory that is causing the passengers to go crazy, the discovery occurs in black-and-white. 

In Solaris, memory is more complicated than a mere recollection. The boundaries are blurry. Conversations about memory turn to black-and-white, while memories themselves infiltrate the world of color. Through color, Tarkovsky has provided us with a guide that helps us keep track of the complicated fluid nature of things past.

Aurora Amidon: Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.