Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

Solaris was the first film that introduced me to cinema as a true art form. The late Roger Ebert, in his December 2014 review of the film, said:

The films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky are more like environments than entertainments.

Environments, not entertainments. This apt statement helped me realise what it was that I found so compelling about the two Tarkovsky films I’ve seen to date, the other being Stalker.

It lies in the atmosphere Tarkovsky forges – an atmosphere which lingers for long after the rolling credits end. Solaris left me feeling utterly perplexed, and yet, without sounding hyperbolic, after a few viewings and sufficient musing, it has become part of my psychological makeup, forming a piece of that complex, layered lens through which each of us, individually, see the world. 

What does it mean to really know another, to really love another? Is such a feat even possible?

These are some of the questions Solaris grapples with, despite its categorisation as a work of science fiction (a categorisation imposed solely by media outlets, and one that Tarkovsky himself vehemently opposed).

The film is adapted from a novella of the same name, by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, which concerns humanity’s attempts at uncovering the mysteries of the distant planet Solaris, the study of which has long eluded scholars and scientists. This field of study has come to be known as Solaristics. The planet is covered by an enormous, ‘conscious’ ocean, that keeps forming its surface into bizarre shapes. On the space station orbiting Solaris, the astronauts are exhibiting increasingly odd behaviour. Dr. Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, is sent up to the space station to investigate the goings-on and report on the astronauts’ mental states, in order for a decision to be made on whether the mission should be aborted or not.

Kris arrives on the space station to find one crew member dead, and the remaining two deeply disturbed by the events on the station. It transpires that when X-ray probes were used to investigate Solaris’ ocean, the planet replied with probes of its own, entering the minds of the astronauts and bringing to life some of their memories, in the form of ‘Guests’. It is the manifestation of Kris’ dead ex-wife, Hari, and their ensuing relationship on the space station, that is the central subject of Tarkovsky’s film.

The duplicate of Hari that appears is exact in every way, save for one thing – she lacks all of her memories. Her being also seems to be limited to what Kris remembers of her, a theme that plays out through the whole film. She wants to know more of herself – she questions Kris about her past, and upon learning that the real Hari committed suicide, attempts to also do so (only to regenerate immediately – it turns out that this duplicate Hari cannot be killed). Her presence begs the question – is she any less real than the original Hari? Or, to an extent, is she just as real? Sure, we know that her presence is only made possible through the ocean’s eerie capabilities, but the very nature of our relationships with others, particularly romantic partners, is examined here.

For aren’t our ideas about those we claim to know and love precisely those – ideas? And, more than ideas about them, are they not, in actual fact, ideas about ourselves? The new Hari is but a collection of the notions and memories Kris has of her. She is, essentially, a projection of his desire, a point made clear through her confusion and total lack of knowledge of who she is. 

Romantic love, for good or for bad, has long been regarded (in Western traditions, in any case) as something of a spiritual force, something in which there lies immense power for change, growth, and the realisation of goodness. But in this potential, there is also room for great failure. To a certain degree, the relationship between Kris and Hari can be interpreted as a series of recurrences on the failings of love. At one point, Kris dwells on whether he loves the new Hari more than the original Hari. Kris creates her as something he can love, as lovers often do, and as something that can love him. He also creates her as something through which he can absolve himself of his guilt at his role in the original Hari’s suicide on Earth. Though their ‘reunion’ on Solaris might initially seem magical, mystical, romantic, their love on the space station fails, over and over, with Hari eventually convincing the other astronauts to destroy her for good.

The irony being performed becomes apparent here. Humanity seeks other worlds to explore, to enhance its knowledge of the unknown and the unfamiliar, as in the case of the scientists studying Solaris. But Solaris hides its face, and instead projects back to the scientists their own memories and struggles, forcing them to look inward, as opposed to outward. Kris goes on the mission with the aim of investigating the effects of Solaris, but ends up spending his time on the space station introspectively confronting his past.

We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,

Gibarian, one of the astronauts, says at one point.

Solaris is no easy film to comprehend; indeed, certain scenes are doubtlessly bewildering and make us wonder what it is that Tarkovsky is trying to get across. Early on, we’re shown a continuous scene of a car driving over a highway. This scene lasts for eight minutes, and there’s zero dialogue. What are we being told? Tarkovsky actually addressed this in an interview, and whether or not it was said in jest, his explanation was certainly comical: he was using this scene to see which viewers would stick around, and which ones would leave the cinema theatre. It was included as a sort of test of patience, of commitment. Despite the cheekiness of this statement, if it’s true, it’s a testament to Tarkovsky’s utter devotion to his art, similar to his assertion of his view that in true cinematic art, music shouldn’t be necessary to convey feeling or emotion. Visual experience alone should dominate, and this conviction can be felt through the painstaking visual detail in the film, with everything right down to the paintings in the space station chosen to evoke the particular sensations of nostalgia, of reminiscence, of a bittersweet earthly yearning that is, rather than space or technology, the ultimate theme of the film.

Solaris is a film I’m certain I’ll watch for years to come, and hopefully uncover something new each time. Here’s a clip from the film, showing Kris and Hari levitating through the room in a brief period of zero gravity on the space station. For me, it’s one of the most hypnotic, enchanting scenes in all of cinema, and brilliantly sums up the phenomenal beauty and artistry of the film.