Solaris (1972)

The Mysteriousness of the Unknown, Unseen, and Unheard

It is an undoubtedly scary thing to think about the vast unknowns of the uncharted areas of both the human mind and the universe.  Especially, in the case of the films of auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, when those areas uncharted happen to be both the spark and the prelude to the things of the past and to the things of the impending future.  

To an extent (perhaps either somewhat small or even somewhat large), Tarkovsky's 1972 science fiction opus Solaris is a response to Kubrick's science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Tarkovsky apparently despised Kubirck's film for various reasons, as Tarkovsky felt that 2001 was ultimately "cold and sterile" (Lopate).  Realizing the problems of science fiction movies, Tarkovsky set out to make his own, a film that focused less on the actual "science fiction" aspects and more about a man's moral dilemmas in an unfamiliar environment, an environment detached from all aspects of the normalities of ordinary life.  Nonetheless, in hindsight, the two films may be more alike that Tarkovsky or others may have originally intended them to be, as both films "set up their narrative in a leisurely, languid manner, spending considerable time tracking around the space set...both [films] employ[ed] a widescreen mise-en-scene approach that drew on superior art direction..and both [films] generate[ed] an air of mystery that invited countless explanations" (Lopate).

Solaris is wrapped in mystic from start to finish.  At the beginning of the film, the viewer learns that the protagonist, Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, is destined to set off for space the next day; his destination is a shrewd space station, a space station that appears to have gone adrift and has lost practically all communication from ground control while attempting to monitor the activity of the Solaris Ocean below.  He watches video from a "scientific conference" (Lopate), video providing him with information about the situation, and his objective seems to be ultimately to determine whether the station should still be operational.  While his father and aunt express little but mild concern about Kris' psyche, it seems that they can do little to influence Kris' inevitable departure for the mysterious space station.  The last shots that the viewer encounters before Kris enters orbit are long subsequent shots of seemingly endless freeways, freeways plagued by the abominable influx of automobiles that even the most watchful viewer would quickly lose track of, images that possibly allude to and parallel the numbing nature of the practically defunct space station that Kris will soon encounter.  

Bordering on the surreal yet more or less some form of a contemporary horror-show, Kris' arrival at the space station yields far greater concerns than previously imagined: the station appears to be deserted by all but two scientists, Snaut and Sartorius, and another scientist whom Kris expected to encounter appears to have killed himself, leaving a final video message warning of "hallucinated guests who have 'something to do with conscience'"(Lopate).  The two scientists appear to be of little help and more or less just confuse Kris even further, frightening the protagonist with numbing proclamations about consciousness and ultimately proving to be no help at all.  It is not long until Kris witnesses his own hallucinations, and they come in the peculiar form--his dead wife, Hari, suddenly materializes before him.

The fictitious Hari slowly yet surely becomes more and more engraved within Kris' mind, as her all-to-human attributes and emotions probe the "devoted tenderness for which he [Kris] is starved" (Lopate).  Ultimately, Hari's nuisance forces Kris to lock her into a space capsule and blast her off into space, yet as soon as he shoots her off into space she returns.  Eventually believing that her husband does not love her, Hari, upon her return, injects liquid oxygen into her system, killing herself (momentarily) until she returns yet again.  To Kris' chagrin, he cannot do anything to rid himself of his visions of his dead wife, and he must live with her facsimile so long as Kris himself stays aboard the space station.  

Kris finds himself in very much of a catch 22 situation, as he loves the presence of his dead wife yet struggles to understand her.  He wants to rid himself of the phantom as much as he wants to hold onto to her, as she effectively incapacitates her husband via her all too realistic humanistic qualities and outward beauty.  

Thus the viewer effectively becomes as confused as Kris Kelvin.  Unable to understand or recognize the world around him, Kris becomes a product of the mysteries of the planet and ocean that the space station continually orbits, detached from everything, including himself.  In one scene, Kris and Hari appear to be floating, as gravity has momentarily suspended itself.  Kris holds Hari as the scene cuts to paintings, a fleeting memory, the ethereal and evolving Ocean, and finally to Hari's death by liquid oxygen.  Knowing that Hari will only become more and more human with the more time that Kris spends with her, Kris declares to Hari that he has chosen not to go back to earth.  Yet after memories and sojourns back into the farthest corners of his mind and subconscious, Kris makes the decision to return.

And perhaps Kris was right.  Things are simply not the same upon his return, for the final minutes of the film paint a picture of both nostalgia and indifference:  the friendly dog greets him in front of the mysteriously abandoned house.  Smoke rises and water drips.  His father works inside, and Kris peaks inside until the two pair of eyes meet; his father steps outside to greet Kris as his son kneels before him on the front steps, embracing his life and acknowledging his mortality, all the while the camera zooms farther and farther outward, eventually displaying the house and the small plot of land surrounding it as nothing but a small island, surrounded by the Ocean that Solaris so desperately orbits, all of which is soon obscured by white clouds as the film ends.

One of the most interesting shots in the entire film concerns a small plant aboard Solaris, a very much of a simple shot in which the camera slowly zooms in on a  small plant that takes in any sunlight from the planet and Ocean below.  It is technically a paradox of the entire film:  the characters aboard the space station rely upon Earth as much as the inhabitants of Earth rely upon Solaris' ability to project the memories and hallucinations of life's mysteries.  It is not so much of an interest as it is something of a revelation;  memories, love, and life are simply a part of the unknown, unseen, and unheard.  Perhaps Snuat, one of the scientists aboard Solaris, summarizes it the best, as when Kris confronts Snaut about visitors aboard the orbiting space station, Snaut inquisitively asks, "And you?  Who the hell are you?"  Eerily well said.