Soviet Science Fiction

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris

Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris is remarkable for precisely those qualities that angered Stanislaw Lem, whose 1961 novel it loosely adapts.

No future in space: Cosmonaut Kelvin.

Both the novel and film are profound meditations on the limits of reason.

But whereas Lem’s book focuses attention on the dramatically exotic intelligence of the planet Solaris, Tarkovsky situates this classic science-fiction narrative within an earthbound frame.

In the novel, we first encounter psychologist Kris Kelvin during his voyage to Solaris. Everything else occurs on or near the space station adjacent to that planet.

By contrast, the film opens with nearly forty-five minutes – almost a quarter of its total run time – of scenes set on Earth.

Kelvin arrives at his parents’ dacha, where he is briefed on his assignment and meets Burton, a pilot who had reported a strange experience years before while participating in a rescue mission on Solaris.

Even though Burton is a good friend of his father’s, Kris dismisses the man’s warnings about the planet. This interaction allows us to observe that the father-son relationship is fraught.

The bucolic setting of the dacha, with trees and a pond, also contrasts sharply with the landscape of Solaris. This helps give a clearer sense of who Kelvin was before his journey, fleshing out the painful memories he goes on to contend with during his mission.

Lem collaborated with Tarkovsky on the screenplay yet was ultimately unhappy with how it turned out, both because it seems to prioritize art over science — famous paintings, sculptures, and buildings are repeatedly referenced — and because the screenplay shifts the story’s emotional weight away from the encounter with radical otherness that Lem prioritized.

While this decision might have made Solaris less satisfying from the standpoint of science fiction, however, it broadens the film’s allegorical potential.

From our perspective today, when rapidly worsening climate change goes hand in hand with a media ecology too damaged to address it, the idea of a sentient ocean no longer feels so speculative.

Solaris responds to the intrusive presence of the research team on the space station — presumably as a defense mechanism — by conjuring simulations from the crew’s own memories.

We get fleeting glimpses of the apparitions seen by the crew members Kelvin is sent to investigate, as well as learning about the one that Burton saw. Then we witness Kelvin himself succumbing to this disturbing phenomenon.

In his case, the creature he sees is a dead ringer for his lover Hari, who killed herself ten years earlier. Shaken by his interactions with her, which are emphatically tactile and visual, he tricks her into a space capsule and sends her to her doom.

Yet the demise of this doppelgänger does not assuage Kelvin’s torment. Another Hari soon takes her place.

During a crucial scene later in the film, the hostile Dr Sartorius confronts Hari in the space station’s library, informing her that she is just a mechanical reproduction. Hari replies indignantly that she is becoming more and more like a human being: “I can feel just as deeply as you.”

For anyone familiar with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the similarity between this statement and what the replicants in that 1982 film say about their condition will be immediately apparent.

Dr. Sartorious’s words echo Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which famously argues that the proliferation of copies diminishes the value of originals, destroying the aura that derives from their singularity.

Significantly, the space station’s library is decorated with artistic reproductions, just like the dacha of Kelvin’s parents. Tarkovsky draws particular attention to copies of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s genre paintings of the seasons, which have been reduced in size to fit the constraints of the setting. Not long after Sartorius’s exchange with Hari, the film cuts to close-ups of those copies, permitting us to move through them the way the eye might during a visit to see the original paintings.

In addition to anticipating the scene from Blade Runner in which Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard uses a device to magnify a photograph in the search for clues, this interlude encourages us to perceive the incarnations of Hari that Kelvin encounters on the space station as copies with an ontological status equivalent to these artistic reproductions.

We can learn about Bruegel’s original paintings by studying these reproductions. And they can differentiate themselves from those paintings by virtue of the new situations that they are able to enter. As copies, though, they can never wholly escape their parasitic relationship to the original.

The more human the Hari on the space station feels, the harder it becomes for her to cope with the realization that she can never take the place of her earthly namesake.

But Kelvin faces a different conundrum, telling her that he is only now truly in love with a woman who has been gone for a decade. It’s easier for him to feel a connection with a potentially immortal simulation than it was with a mortal doomed to die.

The difficulty of figuring out who is an authentic human being and who isn’t one retroactively undermines our certainty about the past.

The night before Kelvin begins his voyage to Solaris, he burns personal artefacts. He disposes of his research notes and personal photographs, including one of Hari that seemingly resurfaces once he is on the space station.

Not only does the planet present Kris with the person he misses most in the world, over and over. It also recreates the physical evidence of her existence that he clung to after her death. We cannot destroy our memories, no matter how hard we try.

From the perspective of Lem’s novel, this is proof that the planet possesses a superior intelligence, like the sort that the crews on the various Star Trek voyages periodically grapple with. But Tarkovsky clearly wants to complicate things.

Unlike the novel, the film seems to align with the argument Ludwig Feuerbach makes in The Essence of Christianity. However insignificant we may be individually, as a species we have demonstrated a capacity for creation equal to any deity.

In Tarkovsky’s Solaris, characters are overwhelmed not by an otherness incommensurate with humanity but one that correlates with their own blind spots.

After the second Hari kills herself, the cyberneticist Snaut tells Kelvin that he hates witnessing the resurrection that will inevitably follow. Having seen it all before is no defence against seeing it again.

No matter how hard we might try to put experiences behind us, they will continue to come at us from the future.

In a sense, the alien intelligence on the distant planet Solaris is a double for the one that lives inside of us, which perpetually outwits the attempt of our conscious minds to control it.

Solaris feels newly relevant for our times because we increasingly confront a world in which substitutes for our memories are repeatedly conjured by technology that exists independently of individual consciousness.

Put another way, no matter how badly we might want to make material that has been uploaded to the cloud disappear, it keeps returning like the repressed content targeted by psychoanalysis.

The “memories” with which Facebook confronts us are the proverbial tip of the iceberg, the small visible portion of a boundless external repository for humanity, which can loom out of the darkness at any moment.

Our awareness that this content is always out there, as both lure and threat, decentres us. Its sheer objective quantity puts the scope of our subjectivities to shame.

When we combine that realisation with the perception that Earth itself is behaving like the sentient ocean of Solaris, tormenting us as retaliation for our destructive intrusions, we get the sense that Tarkovsky’s film itself was sent from a future whose presence now surrounds us.

Maybe that’s why the audiences who had a chance to see Solaris in the 1970s found it so alienating. And why it is so important to watch now.

Screenshot courtesy of Wasfi Akab. Published under a Creative Commons license.