Back in January, I wrote an article for this series advocating the watching of movies in languages besides English, taking up Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In as a prime example of value that would be lost by limiting your viewing via language. This is a topic I would like to revisit today, with my endorsement of a film that really needs no endorsing: the classic Russian science-fiction film Solaris, co-written and directed by auteur Andrei Tarkovsky.
Just four years after American science-fiction cinema was forever altered by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky also released a methodically paced, over-two-hours, thoughtful movie concerning technology, space travel, extraterrestrial life, and the limits of human understanding. But where Kubrick made a film that foregrounded topics and questions related to technological and intellectual development beyond earth, Tarkovsky instead imbued Solaris with a primary focus on human grief, guilt, and connection beyond earth.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Solaris, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film.
Terror and Technology in Solaris:
Solaris is the story of a human, Kris Kelvin, who is confronted with a corporeal specter of his past. And if that sounds to you like the basic outline of a horror movie, then you’re not alone. As Kelvin boards a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, he is greeted by its few surviving crewmembers and a suite of unnerving, seemingly paranormal occurrences. The pieces are all in place for an intellectual version of a macabre, outlandish space-slasher like 1997’s Event Horizon.
But Solaris, based on the philosophical sci-fi novel of the same name by Stanisław Lem, instead takes a surprising turn. It keeps the viewer’s focus calmly rooted on the inscrutable phenomena of the station, at the heart of which lies the aforementioned specter of Kris Kelvin’s past—an apparently human replica of Kelvin’s ex-wife appearing on the ship. The camera holds in warm long shots on this bizarre apparition, embracing it as Kelvin soon does as well.
The ‘apparition,’ as it turns out, is a physical manifestation of Kelvin’s knowledge of his ex-wife, brought about by the baffling sentience of the ocean covering the planet Solaris. As the movie proceeds, it asks questions about the limits of the definition of humanity, about the human need for connection, and about the potential psychological disasters inherent to the act of abstracting a human from its proper environment and society. Perhaps all unbridled technological advance, contends the film, tends toward an act of dehumanization.
Solaris and Disagreements with Kubrick and Lem:
Personally I have more affinity for the perspective in Kubrick’s 2001, which holds to the realistic—or perhaps optimistic—notion that technology may result in unfathomably beneficial progress or profoundly deep tragedy, depending on its application and context. But the overriding pessimism of Tarkovsky’s production can boast two things to its credit, which are lacking from Kubrick’s film: a deep examination of the nature of human connection, and a respect for the natural world which many people would be sure to support.
While Kubrick deeply appreciated Solaris, Tarkovsky found 2001 to be “phony” and “fake.” Certainly one can see why Tarkovsky, so deeply allied to his vision of what sort of emotional experiences humans need and ought to seek, would have rejected 2001‘s bold integration of futuristic technology into both everyday life and humanity’s ostensible path of progress.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a remarkable film and a convenient point of reference, but I have certainly overused the comparison in this article. So before moving onto my conclusion, let me dispense with Kubrick by simply saying that if you enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey, then you will likely enjoy Solaris as well; and if you had the patience for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but opposed your interpretation of its philosophy, then you are even more likely to enjoy Solaris. (If you feel you didn’t or don’t have the attention span for 2001, then you should probably skip Solaris.)
Another person with whom Tarkovsky disagreed was Stanisław Lem. Yes, the author of the novel Solaris differed with Andrei Tarkovsky considerably on the proper aims of the story. Lem favored an approach that was highly philosophical in nature, pertaining to the possibility that extraterrestrial life may exist in a form so alien to human understanding as to be entirely beyond its grasp. Conversely, Tarkovsky saw in Lem’s premise an opportunity to explore aspects of the psyche which are not externally visible. Frankly, I see no reason to weigh in on this one, as I find definite value in both approaches.
What fascinates me about the movie Solaris is that Tarkovsky accomplishes all at once a number of things attempted in a slew of other movies before and since, and does so with finesse and talent. Consider Christopher Nolan’s recent blockbuster space thriller Interstellar, which nails a stunning visual presentation of the universe, nails the momentum of a great action movie, and yet becomes exceedingly shallow when it nears topics of philosophical importance to the film, such as love and selfishness. Or consider a piece of media like the television series The Walking Dead, which uses a catastrophic change in humanity’s stature in the universe as a backdrop for human drama, yet does not engage meaningfully with any epistemological, ontological, or ethical questions that the circumstances raise.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris also presents a vision of the universe and also puts human drama at the forefront of a catastrophic change. But, in addition, it manages to deal with love without being trite, to deal with paradigm-altering occurrences without being dismissive, and, as explored above, to deal with details that could be horrific in a way that deliberately underscores intimate human connection.
Humanism and Pessimism in Space: