In our journey to the furthest reaches of outer space we find… ourselves.
Such is one of the unique themes of the science fiction classic, Solaris (1972) directed by the late Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. The film is an adaptation of the novel Solaris (1961) written by the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem.
Lem never totally accepted Tarkovsky’s interpretation of his novel because he felt it was too nostalgic for the Earth and too anthropocentric in its focus. Tarkovsky focuses on the human dimension rather than the philosophical and scientific considerations of Lem’s “Solaristics.” Tarkovsky’s interpretation of Solaris is also considered to be Soviet Russia’s response to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) directed by Stanley Kubrick, and written by Kubrick and the renowned British science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke.
2001 was a visual feast of space exploration and technology where humans sought contact with the mysterious monolithic intelligence orbiting Jupiter. In contrast, in Solaris, when contact is attempted with the planetary super-consciousness of the Solaris’ “Ocean,” it becomes a mirror that reflects the unconscious depths of human memory and emotion. Tarkovsky’s Solaris transcends the traditional themes of science fiction and space exploration. It examines aspects of the human condition, including psychology, spirituality, philosophy, and humanity’s relationship with science and technology.
Solaris opens at Psychologist Kris Kelvin’s (Donatas Banionis) parents’ home in the country. Kelvin is surrounded by the sensual impressions of the Earth–gently flowing plants in a stream, the leaves of trees rustling in the wind, and the sights and sounds of falling rain. He deliberately immerses himself in terrestrial sensations as he stands in a field of plants and flowers and at one point, remains in the rain, allowing it to wash over him in an almost baptismal manner. Enter Tarkovsky’s focus on the perceptions of the Earth, and his use of religious symbolism.
Tarkovsky sought subtle, and perhaps not so subtle, methods of incorporating spiritual themes in many of his films. This was often the source of conflict with, and censorship from, Soviet authorities, which began with his film of a 15th century icon painter, Andrei Rublev (1965).
In Solaris, the spiritual themes are more subtle than they were in Andrei Rublev, but they were prominent, nonetheless. Similar to Solaris, Tarkovsky explored metaphysical issues in his film Stalker (1979). Stalker also used understated, but salient elements of cinematography to create an otherworldly atmosphere of sight and sound. Solaris, like Stalker, creates mood through a slow pace, and a deliberate emphasis on visual imagery, such as, a long, mesmerizing sequence of driving through tunnels and modern cityscapes.
Kelvin spends his last day absorbing the impressions of the Earth before his journey to the distant and mysterious planet, Solaris. His mission is to assess the mental state of the crew and evaluate the progress of their research. Reports to date have indicated that the study of “Solaristics” is inconclusive and contact with the intelligence of the Solaris’ Ocean has yet to be achieved.
A former Solaris explorer and pilot, Henri Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), comes to visit Kelvin and his parents. He shows them filmed testimony that he gave of a search and rescue mission on Solaris. In his attempt to find missing explorers, Burton encounters the hideous apparition of an enormous child whom he later confirms to be the son of one of the explorers. However, another film he took during his flight does not support his testimony, and his sighting is dismissed as a hallucination. With emotions of guilt and loss around leaving his home and family, Kelvin prepares himself for a disturbing situation on Solaris and for some potentially difficult decisions regarding the fate of the mission.
He arrives on Solaris to a seemingly empty station in disarray and disrepair. There he meets the only two remaining scientists on the station, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn), and discovers that his friend and colleague Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has died by his own hand.
After falling asleep in his quarters he wakes to see a young woman sitting in his chair, and staring at him. He soon realizes it’s his wife, Hari, (Natalya Bondarchuk) who had committed suicide many years ago. He learns that other “guests” he’d seen on the station, his “wife” included, began appearing when the crew bombarded the Ocean with radiation.
At one point, they all gather in the library for Snaut’s birthday. The room is filled with books and candles and other mementos of Earth. Snaut waxes philosophic about space exploration. He says that humankind has no interest in conquering the cosmos, rather… “We want to extend the Earth to the borders of the cosmos.” Ultimately, he reasons, we do not need other worlds or contact with alien life, “We need a mirror.”
Tarkovsky shows the Solaris’ Ocean in many scenes, swirling, changing color, and in constant motion. It is a planetary intelligence, a super-consciousness that responds to attempts at communication by reflecting the depths of the unconscious. During sleep, it taps into unconscious minds and makes manifest the most salient memories and emotions. In Kelvin’s case, it is the love and repressed guilt associated with his late wife. Contact for him becomes contact with a part of himself long buried; a part that seeks redemption and absolution from remorse. In this sense, Solaris gives him a second chance at reconciliation with that which he thought he had lost forever.
Solaris’ creation becomes more than a mere reproduction of Kelvin’s memories of his late wife. Hari believes she is becoming human because she is experiencing the depths of human emotion. The scenario in the library ends with one of the most poignant scenes in film. Kelvin and Hari are looking at the bucolic images of Earth including those in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, The Hunters in the Snow (1565). As Kelvin and Hari slowly start drifting in weightlessness in the early hours of the morning, they embrace as husband and wife, floating across images of the Earth to a choral prelude for organ by Bach, surrounded by mementos of home. Tarkovsky reveals, again, the attachment to the Earth, and it is this attachment that seems to direct humanity in the quest for the known, and ultimately, to self-understanding. Perhaps this is what people are always seeking because there is no reference for that which is beyond the human experience. Humans tend toward a perception that is filtered through limited understanding and knowledge, and there is an inclination to anthropomorphize that which is perceived as alien.
Later, Hari appears to have committed suicide by drinking liquid oxygen, and starts to convulse violently as Kelvin holds her in his arms. In perhaps the most obvious example of religious symbolism in the film, Hari is “resurrected.” The incident leaves Kelvin contemplating Tolstoy’s suffering because he could not love mankind as a whole. He laments the fact that people love that which they can lose. Kelvin believes that love was previously unattainable to mankind and to the Earth, but perhaps the reason he and the others are on Solaris is to “…experience people as a reason for love.” Solaris thus not only appears to reflect the depths of memories and emotions, but it also seems to provide opportunities. In Kelvin’s case, it is an opportunity to be with his wife again, to experience love, and perhaps even to heal from the old wounds of mourning and guilt.
The ending is somewhat ambiguous. It is unknown whether or not he actually achieves contact with the Ocean. On the one hand, he seems to be in some kind of purgatory. However, in his mind, he believes he is home living the “simple human mystery” of existence. When he was speaking with Snaut and contemplating a return to Earth, he says that if he returned, he would never be able to give himself fully to the acquaintances and experiences of a new life. Instead, he prefers to wait, even if he does not understand what he was waiting for. Maybe he’s waiting for new miracles.
Perhaps this is what he finds in the end, surrounded by an Ocean of consciousness and possibly even conscience. On this alien world, in the furthest reaches of outer space, Kelvin makes contact with the known.
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