Criterion Cuts: “Solaris”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today begins the first of a series of six movies I picked up the last time Criterion had a 50% off sale, because I really can only afford to buy Criterion BDs when they go on sale. I’m noting this mostly because not every one of these is available on Hulu Plus, and there’s something different about watching a movie on disc than there is about streaming it. I try to give movies a fair shake either way, of course, but the truth is that even small subjective beats can have vast results, which is as good a way as any to intro today’s movie.

Solaris (1972)

I went into Solaris knowing nothing about it, and that’s the best most true way to take it in. Director Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel by the same name is a psychological drama wrapped in scifi, but at its heart it’s about confronting the unknown. Unfortunately, that leaves someone like me little space to work for people who haven’t seen the movie, so instead I have to go in the other direction and hope those who care will go and enjoy the mysteries intact. It’s worth the uncertainty. For the rest of us, we soldier on in the most explicit, honest way I know how.

The movie opens with Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist on Earth. We meet him in the throes of deep reverie, standing on the edge of a lake so choked with life that the weeds in the water look like they’re strangling the frame. With the fog rolling in and the lake looking more like a bog at times, and the rain beating down, the whole world looks as though it’s conspiring to drown the lost-looking Kris. He comes in from the wet only to be brought up to speed on his new mission: he’s to go to Solaris, the mysterious ocean planet.

There’s a space station orbiting Solaris, but after decades spent trying to figure the planet out all humanity knows is that it might be a sentient planet and that those who go to Solaris often suffer severe emotional distress of an ambiguous nature. A former pilot shows Kris the testimony he gave after he returned from Solaris. In stark black and white, a sprawling line of bureaucratic suits needle the pilot about a vision (or hallucination, or maybe something else) he saw of a massive baby on the surface of the planet during a search for missing scientists. The testimony was controversial, then dismissed aside from a few crackpots. But the pilot, a beaten-down shell of his former self, wanted to warn Kris that what he was going to might be beyond even his trained understanding of human nature.

The world that Kris traverses on his way from his remote home where he lives with his father and seems remote from some deep, long-felt tragedy is modern in a modestly near-future way. Japan stands in for the globalized Russia, a recognizably real car equipped with big widescreen video-conferencing screen drives through the neo lights and elevated highways of Japan in a blend of old and new that speaks to the desolate futurism of Alphaville or Blade Runner. It’s no better when he finds myself at the space station on Solaris, a place that would have been the gleaming sterile halls of 2001: A Space Odyssey if the three men he was sent to evaluate hadn’t apparently let the whole place get run down, trash littering corridors and consoles hanging open, wires exposed.

The earth scenes are so full of life they look like paintings that Kris drifts through.

Kris discovers nearly immediately that the one scientist he knew, Dr. Gibarian, killed himself before Kris arrived. The other two are furtive, obviously hiding something. But it’s hard to tell whether or not they’re just stir crazy from being locked on this station for years, or whether nor not there’s something else going on in Solaris station. Then Kris starts noticing other people on the station, half-glimpsed behind doors or down at the far ends of corridors. Wary of the warnings of hallucinations, he follows one of them only for her to disappear. Checking the last video recordings left by Dr. Gibarian, he notices the same girl. Whatever is happening on Solaris is no hallucination.

By the next morning, he gets a first-hand experience with the answer of the mystery of Solaris. Kris wakes up to find a woman sitting in his room. Not just any woman, though, but his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who supposedly died many years ago. She is disoriented but seems to remember who he is and who she is and that they were married. Kris, panicking, coaxes her into a rocket so they can supposedly leave together and then launches her into space, nearly carelessly burning himself to death in the process. But the next day, a new manifestation of Hari is sitting there when he wakes up. Not the same one, and not an overwrite, as the shawl the first Hari had worn was still draped over the chair where she left it the previous day.

Soon the truth of the strange happenings on Solaris becomes clear, if not still unexplained: being near the planet causes ones memory and dreams to manifest as real beings, seemingly with minds and memories of their own informed by the mind of the person who they’re spawned from. They’re physical beings, but they can’t die and they’re made of neutrinos, not atoms. That much science can tell, but Kris is left wondering what exactly he is supposed to do with that knowledge, and with the woman who he loved who is here with him once again. He keeps her to himself, as the other doctors do to their own Guests (as they’re referred to in the film).

The space station initially seems very grounded in science.

All this plays out in the backdrop of utter isolation. The film itself unfolds at a deliberate pace somewhere between meditative and glacial, depending on your tolerance for it. Tarkovsky was interested in rejecting editing and montage in favor of just letting the camera linger in a world that naturally unfolded at its own pace. It makes the silences oppressive, the characters locked into their own minds, the moments where there is communication significant and weighty. It’s the kind of restraint that actually runs similar to a movie that Solaris is often cast as the thematic opposite of: 2001. Both movies are confident that a story of significant complexity should be allowed to take up as much space and quiet as they need. It gives every moment its own gravity, weighty with things not done or said as much as the events that transpire.

Kris quickly falls back into the routines of married life, obviously in love with whatever this thing is that so looks like his wife. It’s a second chance, and despite all the warnings he’s been given he jumps into the opportunity to take advantage of it with both feet. But it’s obvious that none of them have the same relationship Kris does with Hari. Dr. Snaut, it’s implied heavily, spends much of his time repeatedly killing his Guest to get a reprieve from whatever it is that haunts him. Dr. Sartorius looks for a way to deal with the actual problem, suspecting that it’s the power of the planet that’s manifesting them, researching ways to stop it from happening at all.

Unfortunately, when Hari discovers that the original Hari on Earth had committed suicide when Kris had left her, this new Hari becomes despondent and tries to kill herself. In one of the most horrifying scenes, she drinks liquid oxygen, freezing solid on the ground. But as the scientists discuss what to do, she begins to thaw, her body convulsing itself back to life in a serious of painful, laborious seizures. Hari, restored, takes instead to trying to assert her humanity, working on restoring her memories and discovering new opinions and thoughts that aren’t built out of Kris’ memory, even as Kris begins to realize that he’s failing this new Hari in all the ways he failed the original.

The station quickly gives way to a more abstract, off-kilter space.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the obfuscations of scifi, the ways in which the world’s are built and the technology presented, but the genre has always been about holding up a mirror to ourselves in order to achieve greater discovery through metaphor. Solaris dispenses with the metaphor to present the human drama, it’s scifi setting is only there to whisk away the convenience of magic, to trap these characters into the modernity we all suffer under, the kind of world we know is coming and will only get more isolated, more cynical.

All this would lead one to believe that the movie is difficult, and perhaps it is. It certainly doesn’t go out of its way to be digestible. Not even counting the deliberately slow pace of the film, its choices are often strange and unexplained. The film is rife with color choices without any sort of context. Much of the first part of the movie takes place in blue monochrome, colored filters breaking up the scenes of vibrant color and giving the scenes a depressed hue. Later, on Solaris, the blue gives way to green, then amber, those monochrome scenes suddenly the sunshine reflecting off of the ocean below that fills the large windows of Solaris station. But it’s never explained, and as a conceit is so upfront with its manipulations that it’s easy to get caught in the idea that there’s some sort of giant trick being played. There isn’t. Solaris is, at its core, interested entirely in the everyday reality of the human condition, a point so down-to-earth that one might overlook it in all the space and philosophy floating nebulous, not unlike the planets themselves, around the very intimate, personal sun.

In fact, the movie goes out of its way to state outright that humanity is all we have as people trying to understand the universe. Presented with the wild unknown of what Solaris–a potentially living planet–represents, the only dim relationship the humans can achieve is through the human metaphors of dreams, hopes, memories. It’s never certain if it’s meant as a way for Solaris to communicate, or whether it’s simply the result of human thinking coming up against the thinking of an unknowable Other.

Hari's very existence forces Kris into a trap of memory.

The question the film asks is whether or not this is just how this manifests in this singular case, or whether it’s human nature to cast the universe in uniquely human terms. As Dr. Snaut says during one particularly reflective dinner all the people share:

We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We don’t need other worlds; we need a mirror. We struggle to make contact, but we’ll never achieve it. We are in a ridiculous predicament of man pursuing a goal that he fears and that he really does not need. Man needs man!

But whether or not that’s the final answer Solaris comes to isn’t clear. Snaut is the eternal pessimist of the whole situation, constantly dismissing the Guests as little more than anomalies. Yet Hari is obviously something more than that, a being with her own desires and thoughts, and a deep love she shares with Kris that goes beyond the relationship he had with the original back on Earth. She might look like Hari, and have her memories, but she has become a unique being, to the overwhelming guilt and torment of Kris.

Eventually Kris agrees to a plan to send a scan of his brain down to the planet, in hopes that this new way of communication will establish a better link to whatever is down there creating the manifestations. After doing so, he takes sick to bed, and there has a vivid hallucination of all of the various Haris in various times, all compressed into one moment, and then a dream of his mother come to soothe him. It’s never clear whether this is just a fever dream or an attempt by Solaris itself to reach out and actively come in contact with him. It never approaches the clear definitions found in the similar situation at the end of Contact. 

Hari's death and on-screen resurrection is one of the most haunting shots in the film.

But by the time he wakes up and recovers, he discovers that Hari has gone. She chose to step into Dr. Sartorius’ disintegration beam, her motives for once entirely unclear. It didn’t seem to be the depression of the Hari of old, but a sense that it was the only way to save Kris from what they were becoming. Unlike the old Hari, this was a death offered out of love rather than despair. And at the same time, she was not replaced, nor were the other Guests. Instead, in response to the brain scan, the oceans of Solaris had begun churning and islands began to rise out of the water, islands that looked like they had come neatly transplanted from Earth. Whatever the brain scan communicated to the planet, Solaris was listening.

But what is down there is exactly what Dr. Snaut suggested: that the only way humanity could understand anything alien was to remake it in its own image. What’s left at the end, then, is not an answer but a question. Did Kris remake Solaris in some act of human dominance, or did Solaris offer a neutral ground familiar to him to come and try to relate to the planet? Was this all just an experiment in two races trying desperately to come into some sort of proper communication, or was the entirety of Solaris’ manifestations and Kris’ struggle and sacrifice done out of a real love for a real woman born from the magic of human thought and alien magic? Like Snaut’s speech, Solaris doesn’t offer truth but a mirror. It shows us the oldest story of humanity, that of couples and love and grief; it puts it just far enough away from what we understand that we’re forced to reexamine every fact of the reality we take for granted, every assumption now shattered.

In that way, despite being more psychological drama than scifi, Solaris is one of the truest, greatest scifi movies of them all.


About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Criterion Cuts: “Solaris”

  1. Outstanding piece. Thanks.

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