Kiefer Taylor sees Solaris as an invitation to confront and examine the fragility and complexity of the human spirit. He argues that Tarkovsky’s declared lack of interest in science fiction allowed him to make a film cracking open the fantastical edifice of the genre, leading audiences to nothing less than a spiritual reawakening.
Upon its release in 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative science fiction feature Solaris was greeted well amongst critics and general audiences. Not only did it receive the Special Jury Prize at Cannes (back then considered the second most prestigious award of the festival) but it also ran for more than fifteen years without breaks in the Soviet Union. Due to Tarkovsky’s vehement rejection of genre, however, the director himself was left underwhelmed.
In his insightful (at times baffling) book Sculpting In Time Tarkovsky states, “Unfortunately the science fiction element of Solaris was nonetheless too prominent and became a distraction.” When viewing Solaris one may be puzzled by the director’s severe self-assessment. Even with the visual tropes of science fiction – from high-tech spaceships to rockets - the film retains the mystical charms of Tarkovsky’s world with the core themes of longing and the sullied souls of man being ever-present. In doing so, the film asks us to look beyond futuristic sensations of outer space and technological advancements and into the interior feelings of its distraught protagonist.
Whilst writer Stanislaw Lem’s novel explored humanity’s inability to communicate with non-human species, Tarkovsky’s concerns reside in humanity’s inability to communicate with themselves, spiritually. Sent to investigate the strange occurrences on a space station orbiting the oceanic planet Solaris, the protagonist, psychologist Kris Kelvin, is swiftly examined by the sentient planet itself. By digging deep into the dusty corners of Kris’ unconscious the planet summons his dead wife Hari. A disorienting pilgrimage of self-examination subverts the scientific quest as an initially indifferent Kris, riddled by guilt, is forced to confront feelings and thoughts he had suppressed over the years.
This conflict between emotions and scientific reason pervades Solaris from the outset. In the tranquil opening of submerged greenery and chirping birds (atypical of science fiction with the first forty minutes set in a pastoral location) a pensive Kris strolls a long the lakeside of his childhood home. What purports to be a man in tune with his feelings within the serene realm of nature proves to be the opposite. For example, during a conversation with a fragile Henri Berton, a former space pilot, Kris coldly remarks, “I can’t draw conclusions based on reasons of heart,” highlighting how the logic of science has plucked away his spiritual well being. Only once aboard the ship does Kris’ emotional paralysis become clear.
With the resurrection of Hari, Kris’ emotions are rekindled, albeit with torturous consequences. What was deemed lost and intangible is materialised, causing Kris to lose sight of reality as he grips to his chest-locked desires. The once rational psychologist becomes so attached that when a delirious Dr. Snout kisses Hari’s hand an awkward silence briefly fills the library until Kris continues his recital. This slightly comical moment of fleeting tension conveys the overwhelming impact of Hari’s presence, unleashing a flurry of emotions as his conjugal duties as a defensive husband resurge.
Later on, in the same room, Tarkovsky illustrates his interest in the emotional efficacy of art over scientific intrigue through another medium. As Hari stares blankly at Pieter Bruegel’s vivid painting The Hunters In The Snow the camera glides across the vast canvas. Fragments of the wearisome dogs, stark trees and the inhabitants of the wintry landscape fill the frame, accompanied by the eerie, faint sound of bells, barking dogs and birds. It would seem that these are the haunting sounds evoked as an inexpressive Hari gazes deeply into the painting’s majesty. To specify the meaning of this scene would detract from the essence of Tarkovsky’s intentions.
Rather than ascribing fixed meanings to such meditative moments, the Russian director revels in the ambiguity of the image. Similarly, in the closing of Andrei Rublev (1966) as the fiery colours of the icon painter’s work shine on screen to when a young Alexei in The Mirror (1975) flicks through a book on Leonardo Da Vinci’s oeuvre, art is exalted for its capabilities to evoke a myriad of emotions and thoughts. Moreover, in the midst of science’s endless hunt for the truth behind our earthly – and unearthly – surroundings, Tarkovsky illuminates the emotional power of artistic creation, encouraging the audience to marvel over its enigmatic beauty, uninhibited by one-sided symbols. Noticeably, during this ruminative sequence of artistic admiration, a shot of Kris as a child on a hill caked in snow abruptly appears. It is memory itself that is pivotal in triggering the remorse and guilt that plague Kris throughout the film.
In the aforementioned Sculpting In Time memory is regarded as “a spiritual concept.” Tarkovsky further proclaims, “As a moral being man is endowed with memory which sows in him a sense of dissatisfaction. It makes us vulnerable, subject to pain.” Kris embodies this statement as a man crushed by his conscience. Prior to Hari’s suicide Kris was transferred to another city due to his demanding job with his departure presumably being left on a sour note, resulting in her death. The potency of Kris’ guilt is evident. On occasions when leaving Hari to attend meetings with Dr. Snout and the callous, though pragmatic, Dr. Sartorious, Kris hurries back to the bedroom to embrace the happiness he had once cherished.
These sudden pangs of regret suffocate Kris further as the distressed alien Hari decides to drink liquid oxygen. Lifeless and pale-faced the suicide alludes to the real Hari’s injection of poison ten years ago, tormenting Kris with his past traumas. Oddly enough, Kris anxiously awaits her revival, seeming more pleased than Hari as she convulsively returns from the dead. At this point it is clear that Hari is no longer considered a mere living memory for Kris but a near mortal figure he refuses to detach himself from.
As Kris’ sanity wanes other objects and figures of longing begin to appear. Hari, his dog, mother and a glassed vase of flowers surround him as the past physically merges with the present. In a sense, this impingement of the past allows Kris to regain spiritual awareness after Hari’s suicide left him with an amputated soul. Rather than fluttering emotions of joy, however, a fevered psychologist is strapped in his bed left enervated by the experience. Eventually, in the end, it appears that Kris has decided to settle on Solaris as the amorphous planet begins to form little islands. By reconstructing his childhood home, with the stagnant lakeside now frozen containing no signs of life, Kris becomes lost in his own uncanny labyrinth of lost love.
The question left for one to contemplate is whether we would fall victim to such paranormal illusions ourselves. In my view, as humans are conditioned to feel and long for moments that become indistinct and smoulder over time many would shackle themselves to Solaris’ alluring chains of illusion as their unconscious desires become manifest. Whether the planet is considered a malignant, possibly compassionate or indifferent supernatural force, the indefinable Solaris invites one to confront and examine the fragility and complexity of the human spirit.
With this in mind, Tarkovsky’s self-declared failures of transcending the iconography of science fiction seem to be an understatement. By substantiating the narrative with a futuristic pilgrimage the Russian dissident cracks the fantastical edifice of the genre, sending audiences to an ethereal ground of spiritual reawakening.