Andrei Tarkovsky began work on his third feature film under something of a cloud. His previous film Andrei Rubiev had gone unreleased and the semi-autobiographical project that would later become Mirror was still struggling to get off the drawing board. Clearly, if he wanted to continue making the films he wanted to make, Tarkovsky was going to have to compromise and work on something that would get him noticed.
At the time, compromise was the last thing on Tarkovsky’s mind as he was one of the first Russian directors to reach professional maturity having been influenced by the French conception of film directors as auteurs who were uniquely responsible for the articulation of their creative visions. This understanding of what the job of film directors entailed proved to be somewhat out of step with a Russian film industry that still saw the written word as more significant than the cinematic moment. Indeed, Tarkovsky’s desire to put his own imprimatur on every film he made resulted in a series of bitter arguments between himself and the screen-writer of his first film Ivan’s Childhood. The need to compromise for the sake of his career had taken him right back to square one as he decided to begin adapting a science fiction novel by the hugely respected Polish author Stanislaw Lem. Lem had very clear ideas about which themes his story explored but Tarkovsky had ideas of his own.
The film begins in true Tarkovskian style with heartbreakingly beautiful images of underwater plants dancing on the current, and mists settling in over alien-looking marshes. A man paces through the landscape with a concerned look upon his face. Even surrounded by this much beauty, the man is unhappy and the stench of trauma is overwhelming even before the first line of dialogue is uttered.
The man is a psychologist named Kris Kelvin (Banatas Banionis) whose aged father is now retired from a futuristic space programme. When Kelvin returns home from his walk, he encounters an old colleague of his father’s. A man named Burton who was a celebrated pilot until an encounter on an alien world put an end to his career and began the decades-long unravelling of humanity’s attempts to fathom the mysteries of an alien world named Solaris.
It is revealed that Kelvin is about to leave Earth for Solaris and that the travel times are so long that he will almost certainly never get to see his father again. Filled with grief but also awkwardness at their failure to say what needs to be said, Kelvin’s father insists that Kelvin watch Burton’s debriefing in an effort to understand why the Solaris project ground to a halt.
Shot in black and white, Burton’s debriefing is one of the most under-appreciated moments in cinematic history. Nowadays, when we think of official debriefings we think either of people answering questions in front of government select committees or back room military interrogations. Tarkovsky’s vision of an interplanetary bureaucracy is radically different as the debriefing takes place in a huge room with no obvious hierarchies guiding either the layout of the space or the asking of questions. Instead, we have different people speaking directly into a camera while other officials cluster in corners across the enormous room. Burton is visibly shaken and keeps reaching for his glass of water as though using it to ward off demons of doubt and depression. He speaks of flying over the ocean of Solaris in an attempt to rescue a crashed scientist only to come across a manicured garden and a child who reveals itself as being monstrously tall. Predictably, Burton crumples under cross-examination but while the scientists remain unclear as to what it was the pilot actually saw, a man in civilian clothes declares Burton’s testimony to be ‘almost’ physically impossible and promises that no follow-up studies will be made.
By the time Kelvin is shown the film, the study of Solaris has degenerated to the point where only three scientists remain on the vast space station. The wonderful thing about the way Tarkovsky shoots the debriefing is that the horizontalist power structures of the scene manage to capture the way that a vast scientific bureaucracy might ignore a promising scientific lead but without that blockage coming from any particular source. Solaristics reached an impasse because it proved both unwilling to pursue the truth and unwilling to recognise that the pursuit of truth had become a problem. As a psychologist, Kelvin is being sent to Solaris in the hope that he will either ‘cure’ the remaining scientists or provide a bureaucratic justification for shutting down the entire project and moving the space station to another place.
While a lot of contemporary science fiction is little more than epic fantasy with space monsters rather than dragons, there was a time when the genre was both transgressive and experimental. Stanislaw Lem wrote at a time when science fiction was still emerging as a hybrid culture form; half-way between scientific non-fiction and experimental literature, it drew inspiration from both sides of the art/science divide and used literary techniques to explore ideas that were far beyond the reach of even the most gifted bourgeois novelist. In fact, when Lem saw Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Solaris, he commented that the Russian might as well have adapted Crime and Punishment as the novel’s themes of existential and emotional alienation were only ever intended as a place from which to begin exploring the limits of scientific competence. By his own admission, Tarkovsky had precisely zero interest in the scientific and epistemological pessimism that also flows through such great Stanislaw Lem novels as Fiasco, His Master’s Voice and Memoirs found in a Bathtub. Tarkovsky preferred instead to focus upon the psychological impact of Solaris’ attempts to interact with the human crew of the space station.
Arriving at the space station, Kelvin finds it in complete disarray. After wandering the rubbish-strewn hallways, he knocks at the door of a scientist named Snaut (Jüri Järvet) who informs him that one of the remaining scientists has just committed suicide and refuses to speak to him until the following morning. As Kelvin turns and walks away, he notices that the hammock in Snaut’s cabin is moving as though occupied. Puzzled, the psychologist goes to the laboratory where another scientist named Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) is equally rude. As the conversation breaks down, a small figure runs past Sartorius only for the scientist to gather it up and drag it back behind closed doors. Concerned, Kelvin visits the cabin of the dead scientist and discovers a video message addressed to him explaining not only the presence of ‘guests’ from the planet but also the evolving weirdness and hostility of the remaining scientists.
Attempts to summarise the plot of Solaris tend to do the film a disservice as Lem’s ideas have proved so influential that Solaris itself can seem rather over-familiar to anyone who has watched a decent amount of genre TV. The main scientific conceit behind Solaris is that the planet is covered with an intelligent ocean so hopelessly alien as to be incomprehensible to human minds. Aware of the human presence in orbit, the planet tries to communicate with its human ‘guests’ by reading their minds and producing first objects and then people with whom they are likely to be familiar. However, while Burton’s manicured garden and enormous child were primitive attempts to make human dreams a reality, the decades since Burton’s initial encounter have seen the planet improve its projections to the point where they are almost — but not quite — indistinguishable from real people.
This may not sound like an idea substantial enough to sustain nearly three hours of conceptually dense filmmaking but that’s because science fiction is rarely the sum total of its conceits. For example, the idea of an alien technology manifesting the contents of human thought appeared in so many episodes of Star Trek that it is hard to imagine the crew of the Enterprise reacting to encounters with fictional characters or dead relatives with anything more than a bored roll of the eyes and a dutiful plod to the next upper-management meeting. Science fiction is a genre that frequently and shamelessly re-uses old ideas and so the meat of science fiction lays not so much in the mind-bending concepts themselves as in the way those concepts are used to explore various themes. For example, while the various incarnations of the Star Trek franchise habitually used the idea of manufactured human simulacra to drive mystery-type plots, Lem used the exact same idea to explore the limits of scientific thought and the philosophical difficulties inherent in trying to achieve communication between humans and oceanic alien intelligences. Tarkovsky’s approach is rather more abstract in that he uses the science-fictional conceit to explore feelings of guilt and to consider what it means to live with a single flawed memory to the point where it begins to define not just your identity but your entire world.
We never really get a good look at the ‘guests’ who visit the scientists living on the station but it is interesting to note that each of the men react to their ‘guests’ in completely different ways. For example, while Kelvin falls in love with a recreation of his long-dead wife and treats her in much the same way as he would a human being, Snaut is far more evasive on the question of whether his ‘guest’ is actually a person. Even more shocking is the fact that Sartorius views his ‘guests’ as so inhuman that he spends his time cutting them to pieces in order to find out what makes them tick. The fact that the different men react to their ‘guests’ in very different ways does suggest that Solaris is getting progressively better at simulating human beings but it also suggests that the three men might have very different relationships to the objects that Solaris has recreated for them. Thus, while Kelvin has spent years missing his ex-wife and experiences genuine happiness upon being re-united with her, both Snaut and Sartorius seem far less happy about being confronted with the contents of their obsessions.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Kelvin is being visited by a recreation of his ex-wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) because he feels profound guilt over the woman’s suicide. Assuming that Solaris latched onto similar kinds of thoughts in all three men, it is interesting to speculate as to why Snaut would be visited by a teenaged girl while Sartorius appears to be visited by children. Also strange is the fact that both of these men were confronted by the subject of their darkest obsessions and yet chose neither to leave the station with the rest of the crew, nor report the alien phenomena to the scientists back on Earth. The peculiarities of Snaut and Sartorius’ behaviour along with their reluctance to treat the ‘guests’ as people suggests not just embarrassment or guilt but a history of moral trespass so profound that they even have trouble acknowledging ownership of their own obsessions. Snaut and Sartorius are like the titular character in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher: Snaut dreamed of a hammock filled with nubile teenaged flesh while Sartorius yearned to cut up children but once those fantasies were made flesh, they found themselves torn to pieces by the emotional riptides.
Tarkovsky exposes the nature of these tides by considering the evolution of Kelvin’s relationship with the recreated Hari. At first, Hari is little more than a fantasy object who follows Kelvin around like a puppy. Unable to tell Kelvin about the planet that created her, Hari only knows as much as the idealised version of Hari that Kelvin has kept locked up inside his head since the woman’s suicide. However, the fact that Hari refuses to remain constrained by the limits of Kelvin’s fantasy is made obvious the second she crashes through a locked door in order to be with him, cutting her body to shreds in the process. The problem is that the reconstructed Hari can never be emotionally satisfying: At first, she is constrained by the limits of Kelvin’s fantasy but the distance between fantasy and reality mean that the reconstructed Hari never feels completely real. Eager to learn from its mistakes, Solaris allows Hari to learn meaning that the more time a simulacrum spends in the world, the more it comes to resemble the original object. While this means that Kelvin gets more and more of the woman he loves, it also means that he is forced to deal with the reality of Hari rather than the incomplete fantasy he kept locked away inside his head. The fact that the simulacra become increasingly more true-to-life also explains why Snaut and Sartorius seemed so eager to get rid of their ‘guests’ and force the planet to keep replacing them with imperfect copies.
Things come to a head when Kelvin is forced to reveal the truth about the death of Hari and seek forgiveness for his actions. When fake Hari finally learns the truth about real Hari and continues to love Kelvin, the weight of guilt is both lifted and the couple enjoy a rare moment of happiness in zero gravity. However, this moment of happiness is short-lived as Sartorius reveals the truth about Hari’s origins and so compels her to commit suicide by drinking liquid oxygen while Kelvin makes a last-ditch attempt to communicate with Solaris by beaming his brain-waves directly at the planet.
The film ends with what is arguably one of the most memorable images in all of cinematic history. Like the scientists who came before him, Kelvin is forced to choose between returning to Earth and spending the rest of his life on Solaris with the full knowledge that he will be permanently trapped between unsatisfying fantasies and a reality forever trapped between hardship and tragedy. As a psychologist, Kelvin realises that he needs to confront his guilt and move on and the final shots of the film hint at this new future by re-uniting Kelvin with his father where he drops to his knees and begs for forgiveness. However, this moment of emotional satisfaction proves only too fleeting as the camera pulls back to reveal Kelvin on the surface of Solaris suggesting that he has simply replaced the stultifying fantasy of getting back together with his dead wife with the equally stultifying fantasy of making up with his father. This final shot suggests that the truth at the heart of Tarkovsky’s Solaris is very similar to the truth suggested by the character of Agent Smith at the beginning of The Matrix: Even if it were possible to make human dreams a reality, the structure of human consciousness is such that happiness would inevitably result in misery. To be human is to yearn, dream and complain at life’s imperfections as bliss is nothing short of alien.
It is easy to see why Stanislaw Lem would have serious misgivings about the direction in which Tarkovsky took his story. While many of the characters and ideas remain in place, Tarkovsky’s adaptation strips out most of Lem’s philosophical ideas and replaces them with a quasi-Freudian character study that struggles to retain coherence despite the film’s extended running time. Tarkovsky himself described the film as an artistic failure because it failed to escape the limits of genre in the same way as Tarkovsky’s later Stalker developed beyond the limits of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. While Stalker remains a beautiful and thoughtful work of science fiction, it is hard to disagree with Tarkovsky’s assessment. The problem is that though Tarkovsky was undoubtedly a cinematic genius, his genius lay not in directly approaching specific ideas but in orbiting those ideas and inviting audiences to draw their own conclusions through the careful placement of imagery and references. On a purely practical level, ideas that audiences winkle out for themselves tend to have a lot more impact than ideas that are dumped in their laps. On a more theoretical level, requiring audiences to do some work for themselves means that every vision of Tarkovsky’s films is different and exquisitely personal to the person who first beheld it. Despite being the only Tarkovsky film to win a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Solaris feels like a minor Tarkovsky as the juxtaposition of ideas and images is forced to play second fiddle to the kind of dialogue-based exposition that is common in both written and filmed science fiction. The Tarkovsky films we create in our own heads will always be more satisfying than the Tarkovsky films that exist on the screen and Solaris is a less satisfying and engaging film because Tarkovsky gives his audience less space in which to construct their own interpretations. Solaris is a beautiful, moving, and thought-provoking film that is never anything less than completely engaging but it is neither as good as the source material nor most of the director’s other films.