Solaris (1972)

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

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Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky’s third feature film, runs nearly three hours long and works on molding your perception of time.  Like 2017’s A Ghost Story, the first half of the film tests your patience.  It moves like molasses, but the more accustomed you get to the long, silent shots, the more the payoff works near the end of the film.

Maybe payoff isn’t the right word.  This is a science-fiction film about the mysterious madness among members of a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, but the film is more concerned with the questions than the possible answers.  The ‘payoff,’ then isn’t logical but emotional.

Psychologist Kris Kelvin is our main character.  He is sent to evaluate the crew and to consider whether they should continue on their mission studying Solaris.  Kelvin spends his final day on Earth with his aging father and a retired pilot named Berton.  To prepare Kelvin for the mission, we watch old footage of Berton in which he explains what he saw when he himself visited Solaris, decades ago.

Berton remembered seeing a child four meters tall walking on the surface of the water, but this is waved away as just a simple hallucination by the scientists who scrutinize him.  The problem now is that the crew remaining in the space station has made similar allusions to hallucinations, and this is where Kris comes in.

Kris arrives at the space station where three men remain.  There was a fourth, but he committed suicide, and the others prefer not to talk about it.  Kris meets each of the men who come across as a little dazed and who each hide someone in their living quarters.  Soon Kris finds a recording from his old, now deceased, friend, and not long after that he is visited by Hari, his deceased wife of ten years.

No one knows why people like Hari have suddenly appeared.  Each crew member has their own visitor, and they determine that it is a combination of a radiation experiment and Solaris which has reached into their minds and pulled something out of their memory.

Though the crew’s mission is to investigate this mysterious planet, they spend most of their time investigating themselves, particularly as Hari becomes more and more human.  At first she struggles with her own lack of memory, admitting that she doesn’t know where she comes from and can’t picture anything when she closes her eyes.  Her confusion and fear is more than a bit ominous, and her sincerity at her plight makes her an empathetic character.  It’s hard not to want to take care of her, and Kelvin’s response to such an apparition, of a long dead loved one, is understandable.  He launches her into space.

Then she reappears.

This time Kelvin nurtures her, but when he leaves the room she claws through the door to stay with him, mutilating herself in the process.  Kelvin calms her down but quickly finds that her wounds have healed themselves.

Kelvin learns more from the other crew members about the origins of these ‘visitors.’  They were pulled from the crew’s memories, so Hari is made of what Kelvin can recall, and thus her being is formulated only by the way he saw her.  This might indicate her complete dependence on him and affection for him.  Perhaps it’s just the way he remembered her or wanted to remember her.

The other crew has determined that these visitors are not human, but they soon consider Hari to be frighteningly human.  She soon develops her own independence and is able to exist away from Kelvin.  When she sleeps one night (or appears to), another crew member marvels that she has already learned to do so.  The other visitors, it seems, don’t sleep.

To combat these nightly apparitions, the crew devises a plan to stay awake and beam Kelvin’s brainwaves into the planet.  Look, it’s a bit strange, but the idea is that the planet has been pulling from their dreams, thus creating these visitors out of a subconscious, and if they beam his waking life brain waves into the planet’s core, then the visitors will cease to exist.  Or something like that.

Honestly I’m getting my timelines mixed up.  Maybe they beam his brainwaves into the planet before Hari becomes independent.  Either way it all leads to a long sequence in a boardroom where the characters discuss their mission and, basically, the point of life as a whole.

Early in the film Kelvin discusses the importance of his work, looking to find the truth just for the sake of finding the truth.  He, like any person watching Lost, wants to find the answers.  It’s unclear exactly how far into his mission that he stopped looking, realizing that all any of them are really looking for is themselves.  One man suggests that they’ve gone to the edge of the universe in search of a mirror, anything to reflect their own image back to themselves.

“Science? Nonsense! In this situation mediocrity and genius are equally useless! I must tell you that we really have no desire to conquer any cosmos. We want to extend the Earth up to its borders. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle to make contact, but we’ll never achieve it. We are in a ridiculous predicament of man pursuing a goal that he fears and that he really does not need. Man needs man!”

As Hari becomes more human she asks questions about the original Hari.  Hari the Visitor now distances herself from Hari the Human, recognizing that they are not the same person.  Kelvin finds himself telling the visitor about his wife and how she committed suicide by poisoning herself.  The injection mark that killed his wife can be seen on the Visitor’s arm.

Distressed and still questioning her own existence, the visitor kills herself by drinking liquid oxygen.  It’s uniquely horrifying, particularly when she slowly starts to resurrect.  There is no way out, in other words, and the visitor is doomed to live forever on this space station.

A dream sequence follows all this in which Kelvin, now very sick, dreams of his mother.  We see images of his childhood on the same land from the first act of the film.  Covered in snow, the boy Kelvin wanders around with his mother.  In some shots the actress is replaced by the one playing Hari.  Tarkovsky would play iwth the overlapping image of mother and wife in his next film, The Mirror.

The film is much more compelling in these moments of self-exploration.  Kelvin’s journey was to the edge of the universe, and the de facto climax of the film concerns his investigation into his own memory.  I felt that sense of discovery in these dream sequence that you typically feel in the large set pieces of a science-fiction film.  Tarkovsky takes a story of deep space exploration and turns it into an exploration of the inner workings of our mind and memory.

The end result is a devastatingly raw inquiry into what makes us human and what makes us want to know what makes us human.  Why ask any questions?  One of the crew members offers that people, when content, aren’t concerned with such questions and ultimately they may just lead to unhappiness.

What’s the point of searching for anything?

Eventually Kelvin returns home after the visitors stop appearing.  The crew isn’t sure exactly why the brainwave experiment worked or seemed to.  It doesn’t seem to matter.  Even after all these years of work all they have is more questions.

Kelvin returns home where he finds his father in the same cabin as before.  In the film’s opening sequence it rained, and Kelvin stood motionless in that rain.  This time he staggers home where it rains on his father inside the home.  It’s a surreal moment, but by this point in the film you’re either with the surreal or you’re no longer watching.  Kelvin’s father sees him and opens the door to greet him.  Kelvin falls to his knees and embraces his father around the waste, evoking the idea of the return of the prodigal son.

Solaris is a beautiful, philosophical, confusing film.  It feels important because of how long and how opaque it is, but it is genuinely compelling when the characters finally begin to discuss the role of science and what we are all looking for when we look for anything.

Like his other films, this one is about feeling.  It’s a meditation on memory and self-examination.  It’s about a man searching for meaning and recalling his childhood.  In these broad strokes it’s easy to see part of yourself within the text and ascribe meaning to various, abstract moments within the film.

Reading about the movie, I found that Tarkovsky consciously used the imagery of old works of art to add a sense of history to this film and to cinema as a whole.  His framing and even the direct use of other paintings within the movie calls attention to the works of Rembrandt, Andrei Rublev (whom his previous film was about) and others.  He focuses his camera close on the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Months, a series of paintings set in the snow which he connects to the memories of Kelvin’s own childhood.

The film was adapted from a novel written by Stanislaw Len.  Amusingly, the author didn’t like the movie which bares some resemblance to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey about which Tarkovsky had little affection.  There is some overlap, then, among three separate works of science fiction in which the creative minds behind them seem to dislike the others.

Up Next: Cool Runnings (1993), Marathon Man (1976), The Fog of War (2003)

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