Monday, December 07, 2020
Cult Movie Review: Solaris (1972)
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) has often been termed one the greatest science fiction films ever made, and for good reason.
This Russian film is not merely the tale of a strange alien encounter on a distant space station, but -- according to scholar Peter Wagstaff in Border Crossing: Mapping Identities in Modern Europe -- “a pre-text for reflections on man’s roots on Earth, his place in the God’s world, and his spirituality. Identity, home and attachment to our loved ones form the key themes to the film, for this is what makes us human….”
In exploring these powerful ideas, the film’s unshakable mood is one of “a subtly disquieting sci-fi ambience,” according to critic Paul Meehan (Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir. McFarland, 2008, page 135.)
In terms of specifics, Solaris explores the notion of “guests” or “visitors” created by an alien planet. Despite their origin, these visitors seem human and familiar, but can’t be…at least not according to our understanding of the universe.
So then, how to treat them?
As memories manifested in the flesh?
As sentient and individual beings modeled on our memories but now walking a new path, and therefore forging a new identity?
Or as -- simply -- Monsters from the Id? As embodiment of guilt, shame, and remorse?
This notion of inscrutable alien beings appearing in human guise for unfathomable purposes has proven to be one of the most enduring in the modern science fiction canon, from TV stories such as Space:1999’s “Matter of Life and Death” to movies like Event Horizon (1997) and Contact (1997).
After a fashion, however, Solaris and all these other similar stories get at an essential truth about mankind: We can’t really conceive of something truly alien.
Instead, when we explore space, we are actively seeking to find reflections or images of mankind and his earthbound experiences.
This view-point, says Solaris, is limiting.
We can’t grapple effectively with the mysteries of the universe because we have not yet grappled with the mysteries of our own identities and morality.
In the future space age, psychologist Kris Kelvin (Banionis) is tasked with visiting the alien world Solaris, and learning what has happened to the space station crew observing it.
If he discovers that the planet is dangerous to human life, Kelvin can either remove the station from orbit and cease all “Solaristic” research or bombard the strange alien world with radiation in hopes of negating its strange influence over the human mind.
After saying goodbye to his father on Earth, Kelvin journeys to the space station and finds the disturbed scientists there bedeviled by strange “guests,” physical manifestations from their human memories.
Kelvin’s own guest soon appears too: his long-dead wife, Hari (Bondarchuk).
Hari’s presence threatens Kris’s sanity but also his very sense of morality.
Are these guests created by Solaris actually living people -- shadows of half-forgotten memories -- or some other heretofore unexpressed element of human conscience?
And why has Solaris sent them?
Is it an attempt to communicate, or something else?
On the surface, the brilliant, open-ended, Russian science fiction epic Solaris concerns mankind’s reckoning with an alien world, and its coruscating, planet wide ocean.
Scrape the surface, however, and the Tarkovsky film also revolves around humanity’s steadfast inability to understand something “different.”
This is a result of a peculiar brand of selfishness, Solaris intimates. As mankind gazes upon any object or person, he sees only echoes of familiar experiences or memories.
Thus, we are intrinsically self-centered beings.
This notion is deliberately expressed in a line of dialogue in the film, repeated in the 2002 remake, which suggests: “We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror.”
How then, can we contextualize something that originates far away, and boasts a psyche or soul utterly unrelated to us and our experience here on terra firma?
Solaris suggests that such communication between human and alien is not truly possible. This conclusion about man’s inadequacy in the face of alien discovery is borne out in the film’s dialogue.
“Everything we know about Solaris is negative,” says one scientist.
“Everything has been confusing or incomprehensible,” declares another.
Even in the scientists’ attempt to understand Solaris’s “psychology,” personal, human assumptions sneak in.
“It has something to do with conscience,” concludes Gibarian.
That’s his assumption based on his personal feelings of conscience, isn’t it?
He concludes that the mystery of Solaris involves morality, because he questions his own morality.
Again, he is seeing through a lens that he can’t escape, or even, truly, recognize.
In accordance with Gibarian’s remark, some scholars have described the film as kind of “inner quest” to find the path that allows an “ethical person to develop.” (The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film).
But this is just one interpretation of the film themes, based on one character’s interpretation of the strange events.
I would suggest that Solaris’s real point is more opaque than that. Because man is ill-equipped to countenance a world or universe that does not include him at it its center, man instead seeks to destroy that which he doesn’t understand, or somehow transform it into an acceptable reflection, thereby destroying its essential “otherness.”
Kelvin’s actions in the film support this theory.
Part of his mission involves, essentially, lobotomizing Solaris with radiation if it proves to be dangerous to mankind. But what does “dangerous to mankind” really mean?
That the planet shows man something about himself that he doesn’t understand, or rather would not see?
Is it dangerous to man, intrinsically, to be faced -- in the flesh -- with the consequences of his actions? With the people he hurt, or was hurt by?
Accordingly, at the film’s denouement Kelvin broadcasts his brain encephalograms at Solaris, and it quickly re-shapes itself into a vision from his past, his home.
Islands of Kelvin’s memory ascend from the planet-wide sea in patterns that conform to his (apparently subconscious) desire to return home. Once more, the truly alien is replaced by something human-oriented, something familiar.
Kelvin has gotten his mirror, and yet he still can’t accept it totally, because his psyche can’t understand its nature. But his urge here is undeniable: to kill that which is different and make it a “mirror” of his life.
What makes the events on the space station so terrifying to Kelvin and the others is that there is no way of deducing Solaris’s intent regarding the manifestation of the human-looking “guests.”
Man’s science can’t determine the agenda, or even the nature of these guests.
Are Hari and the other visitors alive in the sense that Kelvin is alive? Even if they are formed only by the colored, personal memories of those who knew them on Earth, do these beings have souls, and therefore possess the spark of life?
If so, Kelvin is a murderer because he dispatches the first “guest” version of Hari in a space pod, consigning her to eventual death in space.
Again, the notion arises that man is so afraid of something he doesn’t immediately understand that his first response is to kill that thing.
Worse than that, the guests represent an unresolvable spiritual crisis. How can we be certain that we aren’t all but the sentient “memories” of other beings -- of God himself -- walking this planet, living this life?
The “truth” about Hari exposes the truth of our existences too.
We don’t know that we are any more “real” than she is.
Viewers also learn in the course of Solaris that the guests began to appear when the station first bombarded the planet with X-Rays. And secondly that the “guests” are made of neutrinos -- not atoms -- held stable by some force on the planet Solaris.
One might thus conclude that Solaris sought contact after being contacted first (with the X-Rays) by man, and did so in a manner it thought would be comprehensible to humans.
But the “guests” represent an imperfect or cracked mirror, and what they reflect upon the human characters is the unsettling sense that it is impossible for a human being to really know another human being.
Therefore, Hari is not Hari, but a simulacrum originated in Kelvin’s (perhaps faulty) memory of her.
Such ideas get to the very heart of what it means to exist, to be sentient, and to boast an individual soul.
Can an alien being or planet reproduce those things which man holds to be the product and providence of divine creation?
When confronted with such questions, Kelvin and the others want to look away, or squash that which is different and threatening to their self-centric beliefs about humanity and the universe.
If Solaris can recreate us, down to our souls, of what use have we for God?
And what use would God have for us?
Eventually, Kelvin comes to realize and accept that he can have Hari back in some form, but again, more questions arise from her presence.
Can Solaris take away loss and give back love?
Or is it providing only a facsimile of love?
Is loving Hari a meaningful and true act, or a willful act of self-delusion?
“Man needs man,” one character asserts in the film, and that conclusion is simply another way of stating that we can’t encounter something truly alien, at least not when our imaginations are so limited, and so dominated by feelings of fear.
So what Solaris really explores is the idea that in observing something natural, beautiful and beyond our understanding, we actually change, and perhaps destroy that very thing.
Bolstered by lyrical visuals, Solaris doesn’t possess much by way of stereotypical science fiction imagery. Beyond the corridors and environs of the space station, there is very little in the film that one would recognize as conventional special effects or space age production design or technology.
Yet Tarkovksy provides unique, symbolic imagery which substitutes for this kind of de rigueur brand of sci-fi presentation.
For example, the film opens with a shot of green plants waving and swaying in placid water. The plant-life -- coruscating ever so gently but also constantly -- suggests tendrils reaching out to touch something else, and that’s a solid metaphor for the planet Solaris.
One gets the sense from this evocative visual of something alive, but also something diffuse and eternal.
The waves don’t stop lapping around the plants, and as the plants move, they don’t appear to possess an overt sign of individual intelligence or sentience.
But there is some indication there -- in the repetition of the waves and the movement of the plants -- of some scale of non-human intelligence. There seems to be an order to it.
Later in the film, there is a long and apparently pointless scene of the astronaut Berton -- who has been to Solaris -- returning to the city by car.
Tarkovsky’s camera follows the astronaut’s car through a conventional, labyrinthine, modern highway network at the foot of a major metropolis. The scene goes on and on, beyond reason, beyond your patience, even, and is accompanied by weird sci-fi sound effects.
Berton’s car darts through the darkness of long tunnels, and then comes into the light for several intervals.
The scene also alternates between black-and-white and color photography.
This scene may prove baffling or be considered unnecessary to some audiences, but in another, wholly symbolic fashion, it seems to represent the ultimate unknow-ability of another person (or entity’s) mind, or sense of “truth.”
There are occasions of light, punctuated by occasions of dark, and neuronal synapses (represented by the cars) seem to fire and move about at random, heading for unknown and unknowable destinations.
Tarkovsky’s use of color in the film hints beautifully at this unknowability. Film scholar Richard Misek writes that the film does not so much alternate between black-and-white and color as it “ebbs and flows through a range of chromatic alternatives.”
Furthermore, he suggests that “Color floats through Solaris, unmoored from meaning.” (Chromaitc Cinema: A History of Screen Color, page 174.).
What this visual approach suggests then, is the infinite variability of memory.
Sometimes we remember images of people vividly, and sometimes those images are not so strong. Our memories run the spectrum from black-and-white or sepia-tone to Technicolor.
But if our memories are not as vivid, then can we create “accurate” representations of the people we know? Solaris suggests, through its use of color, that we can’t. Instead, we create facsimiles, just as Solaris seems to create facsimiles.
This painterly approach to film has been duly noted by critics including Desson Howe, who writes:
“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…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.” (The Washington Post, June 1, 1990.)
Perhaps Solaris’s inaugural image -- of the almost serene, eternal water -- represents the planet Solaris, and the busy, complex light-and-dark highway of Russia represents the human mind, always on the hunt for answers, always looking for another route to understanding or knowledge. One can detect how these images, and these thought processes – eternal and placid vs. eternally busy -- contrast one another, yin-and-yang like.
No matter the particular interpretation Solaris, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, is a dazzling and memorable science fiction film, and one of the ten best genre movies of the 1970s. While many great films imagine what the future will bring, or convincingly portray space battles in another galaxy, Solaris reminds us that when we go to outer space, we will still be human, and therefore saddled with all the same questions of morality and existence that we face now.
In other words, in the space age we will travel a very long way to meet alien life, but when we finally countenance it, we will still want to see only ourselves in it. We will still desire that mirror.
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