by Colin Marshall
Though certain cultural circles customarily and wrongfully dismiss science fiction as an altogether inferior breed of narrative, the genre's bad reputation isn't wholly unearned. Just last week, I heard veteran sci-fi novelist Robert Silverberg publicly assert that, in his field, “character is necessarily subordinated to speculation”; rarely has the fatal flaw of one subset of fiction been so succinctly stated. While the disease that withers human inhabitants to ciphers is indeed widespread and devastating, it hasn't quite contaminated every crevice of the sci-fi landscape. Witness, to name one of these exotic and wonderful instances, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, a futuristic, fantastical journey into an impossible planet's orbit that nevertheless remains the most gripping cinematic narrative of the 1970s.
The film is, I would submit, Tarkovsky's finest, though the great director would have argued with me. He reportedly came to consider Solaris his least successful project, owing to what he saw as its inability to break the shackles of its genre. Though no viewer then or now would call it anything other than a science fiction film, perhaps only Tarkovsky himself, his mind's eye fixed on the less conventional visions he would later realize, could lump it with the day's rockets-and-aliens potboilers. What to him may have been a not-entirely-successful attempt to imbue relatively insubstantial material with stronger human resonances is to others a set of Tarkovskian themes brought closer and made more comprehensible by interaction with a familiar cinematic context. This is not to minimize the impact of the films that followed — the ultra-personal Mirror and The Sacrifice, the supremely textural Nostalghia, the much more distant science fiction of Stalker — but to appreciate the unexpectedly positive hybridization effects of two entirely distinct entities, a phenomenon of which almost any science fiction writer would approve.
Not that Stanislaw Lem, author of the eponymous novel on which Solaris is based, granted much approval of his own. Though it's clearly more what we would today call a “reimagining” than a transliteration from page to screen, Tarkovsky's rendition of the story struck Lem as a misinterpretation of the highest order. The movie, so intently, unflinchingly focused on irresolvable inner struggle, is certainly unlike other experiences available in the sci-fi mainstream, but that's all to its advantage over the rest of the sci-fi mainstream. Recent theatrical releases in the genre challenge their audiences to recall their details mere hours after the screening; Solaris challenges its audience to the equally insurmountable task of forgetting a single scene as long as they live.
As the film opens, psychologist Kris Kelvin strolls the pastoral grounds of his father's rural home, preparing to bid Earth adieu before embarking on a mission to investigate a space station launched to study Solaris, a mysterious foreign planet covered with clouds and coated in a roiling, unnaturally-colored ocean. But the look of its surface only scratches the surface, as it were, of the body's bizarre nature. A visiting former cosmonaut brings Kelvin stories of a hallucinatory-sounding encounter during a long-ago rescue mission on Solaris, playing back a recording of his insistent testimony that, despite the failure of his ship's cameras to corroborate, he really did spot a four-meter-tall kid there. The understandably dubious Kelvin ships out to Solaris' orbit anyway, apparently unbothered by the remote prospect of giant space children.
When Kelvin enters the station, the picture's tone shifts to one of a horror movie, and a particularly masterful horror movie at that. The place seems empty, much of it lying in shambles. The outsider's exploration turns up two of the three expected onboard scientists — the third has, ominously, taken his own life — and a couple seriously eerie glimpses of other, unaccounted-for passengers: an ear rising above the edge of a hammock here, a dwarf attempting to dart from a doorway there. These glimpses, coupled with the vague yet dire warnings Kelvin has received about what goes on in Solaris' proximity, add up to something — and something big — definitely being Not Quite Right.
Before Kelvin can gather many clues about the game afoot, he's submerged into it himself. Waking up in one of the station's many empty barracks, he discovers his wife Hari in bed next to him. This wouldn't be distressing but for the fact that he didn't bring Hari on the mission. And even that's substantially easier to handle before it's revealed that Hari died quite some time ago. Spooked to find himself so rapidly thrust into a space ghost encounter, Kelvin shoves the doppelgänger into an escape pod and ejects it, catching himself on fire in his freaked-out haste. This becomes something of a “The Cat Came Back” situation when Hari rematerializes, unharmed, in surprisingly short order, only to “die” by way of ingested liquid oxygen and summarily jolt back to “life”.
This Hari is, quite literally, not the woman Kelvin married. She's one of what the drained remains of the crew call “guests”, neutrino-based incarnations pieced together from the memories found in the brains of the humans onboard the station. Films wore down similar devices before and have done it since — some even in similar settings — but few have made them so rich with complication. The guests are genuinely corporal, for a start, not figments of the humans' imaginations. They're also fully cognizant of their surroundings and, most painfully, self-aware: Hari learns that she's simply a representation of the woman her supposed husband once walked out on and drove to suicide, and, as one might expect, has few tools at hand to deal with that grim revelation. Most fascinating of all, a guest only knows about themselves what its host knows — or believes — about the individual whose identity they've assumed. (This is made slightly clearer in Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake, one of the best films ever not to have a reason to exist.) His self-destructive wife was a bit of a mystery to Kelvin even before this fateful trip; the new Hari is her own reflexive enigma.
This guest business is pinned on the planet itself: reacting against radiation bombardment from the overzealous scientists, Solaris turned around and messed with a few heads itself. The more we learn about Solaris, the less apt the word “planet” becomes: by the film's immortal final shot, it's taken on the role of a non-dare-call-it-god. Tarkovsky was still working in the Soviet Union in 1972 and knew full well where the Party drew the line: sure, you can conjure, at great state expense, a gigantic, borderline-indescribable heavenly entity with the power to create life, endow free will and punish mankind's hubris, but to invoke religion risks destabilizing society. Solaris, like so many pictures to emerge from the late-stage Soviet Union, simply couldn't help but stand as an indirect rebuke to its increasingly hypocritical and illogical place of origin.
But as a critique of wrongheadedly programmatic Communist thought is only one of many ways to process the movie. It can, depending on viewer inclination, shine just as bright from other angles entirely. The aforementioned scare piece, for instance, is properly disturbing — even the least engaged audience members will scoot to seat's edge during the gradual, stomach-unsettling reveal of the station's true condition. The straight aesthetic awe of the production design, mise-en-scène and pacing comes as old news to established Tarkovsky aficionados. (Though even those few Tarkovsky aficionados who inexplicably have yet to make it to this film will be startled by just how effective its famed moment of zero-gravity really is.) And even sci-fi fans, who I understand now prefer their favorite genre be called “speculative fiction”, won't be disappointed by the intelligence of this fiction's speculation. Solaris, like a less malevolent version of its title element, takes one's own mind and reflects it right back, becoming whatever one believes it to be. The skill necessary to pull this magic off is common to Tarkovsky's body of work, but the openness isn't. Just as science fiction needed Tarkovsky's penetrating stare into humanity, so, perhaps, did Tarkovsky need science fiction's unexpected groundedness.
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