(Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1972)
Back to Earth
The conception of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris – now widely regarded as one of cinema’s finest science fiction films – sprang from a reaction. If the enigmatic Russian auteur’s somewhat supercilious assertion that Western sci-fi lacked any real depth – a complaint unbelievably leveled against Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which Tarkovsky’s work is forever destined for comparison – resulted in Solaris, it’s nearly impossible to disagree with him. And, even though the metaphysical heft of Solaris is merely a prelude to the director’s later masterpiece, the sobering Stalker, it remains one of the most humane, thought-provoking explorations of the human psyche in all of cinema.
Like 2001, Tarkovsky takes his time rocketing us into space. His film opens on earth as psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) prepares to visit a far-off space station orbiting a planet named Solaris after ground control has received some unusual communications from the crew. His mission, we learn, is to assess whether or not to pull the plug on ongoing explorations of the planet’s vast ocean. Tarkovsky introduces Kelvin as a somber, serious man with as-yet-unknown personal baggage and a skepticism surrounding the tales he’s told about strange occurrences on Solaris. These early scenes are dialogue-heavy as Tarkovsky builds suspense around the mystery above and scenery-heavy as his camera gently rests on the natural landscape of Kelvin’s father’s country home, allowing his central character to bask in this planet’s beauty before he tears him (and us) from it for the remainder of the film.
Once aboard the space station, Kelvin realizes rather quickly that things have gone awry as he learns of one colleague’s unlikely suicide and the frightening aloofness of the remaining two crewmembers. Before long he’s forced to believe the absurdity of the claims of supernatural phenomena on Solaris when his late ex-wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appears by his bedside one morning. This is no mere apparition; Hari has a physical presence with a full memory of her ex-husband and a range of human emotions. The revelation is disturbing as Kelvin is both confronted with this unexplained appearance as well as painful memories from his past. Here Tarkovsky parks his narrative as Kelvin unconsciously grows to love this version of his former lover who he knows full well isn’t who his eyes believe her to be. Conflict between the three scientists arises when Kelvin begins defending his relationship with this human-like being while one of his colleagues wishes to conduct studies on her.
Fortunately, Tarkovsky doesn’t leave his audience completely in the dark. Of course, there’s very little real science behind this premise, but the explanation for these occurrences – that Hari and others are physical manifestations of the crew’s memory and thoughts projected from the depths of the planet’s living, thinking ocean – provides the backbone for Tarkovsky’s thematic exploration. Strip away the space station and the phony science and at its core Solaris concerns one man’s reckoning with the grief that plagues him as he’s literally confronted with the memories – both good and bad – of someone he once dearly loved. The replica of Hari as a stand-in for his memories of her forces him to face his past. The intimacy the pair shares aboard the station initially clouds the reality of their parting ten years prior when Kelvin left her and she subsequently committed suicide in his absence. Tarkovsky brilliantly exposes our human desire to revel in the good memories of our past, even if it means subconsciously or consciously manipulating aspects of those memories so that we may enjoy them more fully (a notion Tarkovsky explores further in Solaris’ follow-up The Mirror where that film’s central character recalls memories of his mother as his ex-wife, visualized by the same actress cleverly playing both roles).
And yet, to strip away the deep space odyssey of Solaris’ outer layer would be to diminish all that Tarkovsky uncovers in this sci-fi masterstroke. For not only does he find his characters haunted by people from their pasts, but the lonely crew of the station also experiences a nostalgia and longing for a place. The thrill of discovery that this long-gestating project promises as humankind explores the depths of outer space still can never fill the void left by leaving home. In an early scene aboard the station, Kelvin’s colleague Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) ties strips of paper to an air vent in his room claiming that the sound resembles that of ruffling leaves. He even asserts that his seemingly unfeeling counterpart Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) utilizes this simple reminder of home in his own quarters as well. Furthermore, the cold, stark lifelessness of the manufactured space station contrasts with the warmth and beauty of earth Tarkovsky captures in the sustained opening shots of the film prior to Kelvin’s departure. The absence of earth is palpable.
If Kubrick’s 2001 exposed the myth of human progress as the failure of deep space voyages resulted in disaster, then Tarkovsky’s Solaris takes this notion one step further: the farther humankind gets away from its home, the less human we become. There’s a reason Tarkovsky ends his film with Kelvin’s dramatic return to earth as he embraces his father (Nikolai Grinko), kneeling before him on the steps of his home. It is only when he is home – facing the very memory of all that word holds – that he is once again happy. Yet, as this is a Tarkovsky feature, the film’s final shot leaves his audience with a satisfyingly ambiguous finale urging us to question all that we’ve seen. The cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky is never easy, always challenging, and rewards multiple viewings if one has the time and patience to dive into his world of eternal questioning.