Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Theres a question posed naively by the simple-minded postman, Mario, in 1994s Il Postino to a famous poet and deep thinker, Neruda: Then the entire world might be a metaphor for something else? The poet is stunned, realizing that his ignorant, uneducated friend has unwittingly framed a question of enormous philosophical depth. He modestly replies that hell need a few days to consider his answer. That sometimes happens. Andrei Tarkovskys 1972 film Solaris has something of that same spirit to it. Ostensibly a science fiction piece, Solaris reveals Tarkovsky to be woefully ignorant about science not merely with respect to what science has learned (which no one person can understand in depth for more than one or a few fields of science), but, more importantly, its essential epistemology (way of knowing) and its relationship to religion and the humanities. For all of his ignorance of science (the physical and social sciences alike), Tarkovsky makes effective use of the vehicles of science and burgeoning technology to pose fundamental questions about the nature of existence and human consciousness. Like the postman, he wonders if the entire world (and each person in it) is really a figment in the consciousness of some greater being. Solaris is not so much science fiction as philosophical and pseudo-religious fiction (though philosophers and religious thinkers tend to chaff at having their speculations dismissed as fictional). In Solaris, Tarkovsky uses the guise of science to present viewers with his religious treatise a la Tolstoy, skipping his dialectic like a stone on water past the anti-religious Soviet censors.
Historical Background: Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was a great Russian director whose following is relatively small but devoted. He produced only seven feature films (and one short), partly because of the inhibiting effect of Soviet censorship. Tarkovsky was never in the good graces of Soviet authorities and it was not until he emigrated to the West in the early 1980s that his work gained wider circulation. His body of work is unique is cinema. He made no concessions to Western-style filmmaking practices and his works are therefore difficult to digest and not especially popular among average Western viewers. Stylistically, his films are slow, static, and brooding the virtual antithesis of hyperkinetic Hollywood action films. Some of the takes in his film last two or three minutes with little action or dialogue just pregnant silence. A taxi ride can extend to ten minutes with nothing but the sound of traffic. Many viewers describe Tarkovskys films as dull and boring. His narratives are typically limp. His films are more like visual symphonies than stories. His cinematographic style features hauntingly beautiful and enigmatic images but with a minimal arsenal of special lens or special lighting techniques. Thematically, audiences often find his films difficult. They all address weighty philosophical and metaphysical issues of human existence, but with more ambiguity than concreteness.
For Tarkovsky himself, Solaris was the least favorite of his own films, but it remains one of the more accessible for Western audiences. It was based on a novel by Polish author Stanislav Lem. It was not entirely true to Lems novel and Lem was, in fact, quite dissatisfied with it. Another adaptation of Lems novel was made in 2002 by Soderbergh. Ironically, both of the Solaris films are widely praised by reviewers but poorly received by general audiences of film-goers. While reviewers like myself might rail against Hollywood for emphasizing action and special effects over deeper thematic material, Hollywood does appear to have a handle on the measure of mass appeal.
The Story: It is sometime in the future. The Soviet Union has built a space station in orbit around the distant planet Solaris. Repeated problems have developed with the project and the central committee responsible for supervising the research has decided to dispatch Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a cosmonaut and psychologist, to the space station for an evaluation, to determine whether the project should be abandoned or continued. The film opens with Kelvins last day on earth, at the home of his father (Nikolai Grinko) and aunt (Tamara Ogorodnikova), enjoying a solitary walk along a pond, communing with nature among tall grass and underwater reeds. The Kelvins receive a visit from a former cosmonaut, Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who had previously visited the space station and reported strange phenomena in the fog of the planets atomosphere, which could be interpreted as either hallucinations on Burtons part or some kind of holographic imagery. Burton is there to plea for continuation of the research in order to better understand the nature of Solaris.
The next day, Kelvin is on his way to the space station at Solaris, which supposedly has a resident crew of three. He arrives on the space station but is received by no one. He searches through the space station and locates the quarters of Gibarian (Sos Sarkissian) and discovers a taped message left by Gibarian for Kelvin. The message is somewhat vague (which contributes to the dramatic tension of the film but not its credibility), but the gist of it is that all of the crew members are experiencing something akin to delusions except with real physical form. These aberrations are incarnations of memories of each crew member, especially those memories associated with feelings of guilt or shame. Gibarian had committed suicide and the tape left for Kelvin amounts to his suicide note. Kelvin next locates a second member of the crew, Snaut (Jüri Järvet), who is at least alive and physically healthy, but who appears to be moderately deranged, distracted, and a bit paranoid. Snaut seems uncertain, at first, whether Kelvin is a real person from earth or simply another apparition. Kelvin gets a glimpse of what appears to be a dwarf in Snauts room. Snaut tells Kelvin to go away and that theyll meet in the morning. The third crew member is a scientist, Santorius (Anatoli Solonitsin). He seems a bit more mentally stable, but is preoccupied with his research. He, too, has some kind of corporeal facsimile in his quarters.
Kelvin soon has a guest of his own. When he awakens the next morning, he is greeted by his ex-wife, Kari (Natalya Bondarchuk). Not only is this in defiance of spatial limitations, but Kari had committed suicide several years earlier, using a toxin that Kelvin had inadvertently left in the refrigerator. Kelvin is distressed by this figment of his wife, presumably partly because of his feelings of guilt about her death and partly because the presence of this representation raises doubts about his sanity. His response is to coax the being into an escape pod and to launch it into space. He singes himself in the process. Snaut caters to his minor burns but laughs at Kelvins creativity in trying to rid himself of the Kari image. Apparently, he and the other crew members had already tried shooting, poisoning, and bludgeoning the critters to death but without success. The images always reemerge and are impervious to elimination.
Kelvin learns from discussions with Snaut and Sartorius that the beings first appeared after they had probed the ocean (which covers the entire surface of Solaris) with X-rays. Apparently, they have been reciprocally probed while they sleep at night and isolated memories from their minds have been used to create corporeal representations. Kelvin suggests calling these representations guests. Soon a second manifestation of Kari appears Kari II. Kelvin is now intrigued and attracted, wanting to discover which characteristics of his former wife this guest does and does not possess and, also, needing to deal with feelings in his own mind (love, hate and guilt) about his former wife. Kelvin shows Kari II a home video that includes this father, himself, and his wife. Kari II has her own struggle, as well, as she begins to realize that she cannot be the actual Kari. What kind of a being is she? How does she relate to the sentience of the ocean of Solaris?
Sartorius has developed two strategies for attempting to rid the station of the guests. The last ditch effort will be to irradiate the ocean, hoping to kill whatever kind of being it is or houses. First, however, they will try a less drastic approach: beaming a copy of Kelvins electroencephalogram (EEG) into the ocean. Perhaps with more complete information on the workings of the human mind rather than just the memory fragments that arise during sleep, Solaris will stop generating these unwanted materializations.
In the meantime, the station is due to change orbits, which means that there will be 30 seconds of weightlessness. This is beautifully illustrated with Kelvin and Kari together in the library. Later, Karis ontological crisis (realizing that, whatever she is, shes not really Kari) comes to a head and she tries to commit suicide by drinking liquid oxygen. Shes frozen solid. Not for long, however, since rebooting these materializations is no problem at all for Solaris. One of Kelvins station mates remarks that he gets tired of watching these gruesome reincarnations. Soon we observe Kari literally seizing on the precipice between non-existence and existence.
Kelvin becomes feverishly ill. When he later regains his senses, he is advised by Snaut that the EEG tactic was apparently successful and Kari and the other guests have all disappeared. Kari has left only a farewell note. Kelvins feeling are distinctly mixed, but he has had enough and it is time to return to earth. Islands are beginning to form on the surface of the ocean of Solaris and it is decided to discontinue further efforts at contact.
POSSIBLE SPOILER: SKIP TO THEMES IF YOU LIKE
Kelvin returns to the home of his father, savoring with deep pleasure his re-experiencing of the lovely images of nature on earth and his father at work in the living room. He watches silently from outside a window for several minutes until he is spotted. He embraces his fathers knees on the porch. The camera pulls away further and further, causing the two men, the house, and then the nearby pond to recede into the distance. We see the now tiny images through misty clouds. Suddenly, we realize that all of this is simply an island on the ocean of Solaris.
Themes: Themes are, of course, what Tarkovsky films are all about. The central theme of Solaris is no small one. It is nothing less than the nature of existence. What exactly are all these electrons and neutrons, atoms and cells, planets and stars that make up our universe. On one level, we know nothing of these objects directly. Each human mind can only directly experience its own representations of the external universe. Conscious (and even subconscious) human mental experience is the summed activity of billions of neurons. The mental representations that we have of the world around us are composed of perceptions (neural transformations of various forms of energy in the physical universe such as light waves, sound waves, and chemical energy), successive abstractions from those perceptions, and behavioral orientations toward those physical events based on our instincts for survival as biological organisms (manifested as drives, emotional dispositions, and the like). All that we experience is neural representation not the authentic article. Our mental representations reflect an external universe, we suppose, but it is a representation that derives as much from our own natures as from that of the universe.
Philosophy has long posited the question of whether the physical universe which we inhabit might not itself be a representation produced by some entity. How many levels exist in this representational hierarchy? As we look into our own consciousness, we experience the mental representation that is the product of our brains, but we dont experience the machinery of the brain at work. We see the product, not the mechanics. If the universe is similarly a representation of some kind, might it, like consciousness, be capable only of manifesting itself as a product without any indication of its underlying mechanics?
Science fiction opens up additional venues for exploring the idea of complex representations. The various Star Trek series have explored this concept creatively through the holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation and holographic characters in Star Trek: Voyager. The concept was also delicately explored in the landmark French film, Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
Another great theme in Solaris is the ontological question: who am I? It is an amazing question. The consciousness of which each one of us is in possession is an electrophysiological representation of the worlds we live in and our biological dispositions toward that world, but somehow those brain waves also have the sheer effrontery to perceive themselves as a syncitium identifiable as I or self. Kari has to confront the question of who she is when she discovers that she is some kind of formulation of energy constructed by the Solaris ocean. Her crisis is really no more catastrophic than our own, since our minds are similarly mere energy composites constructed by the neural activity of our brains. This theme has also been beautifully tackled by Star Trek: The Next Generation in relation to the character Data, an android with a positronic brain. I personally have no doubt that electronic devices will someday be developed with capacity for conscious experience provided that mankind survives until that day arrives.
Tarkovsky is clearly no fan of science and technology. Solaris is, in fact, pointedly anti-science in a couple of respects. Tarkovskys issues with science include some that deserve his concern and that of every other person on earth, while some of his other issues derive from a rather limited understanding of the nature of science and its relationship to philosophy and religion. One of the characters in Solaris is effectively speaking for Tarkovsky when he says, We have lost our sense of the Cosmic. Note that the inference is that mankind once had a sense of the cosmos, so, apparently Tarkovsky is indicating that the traditional approach to understand our existence (religion) had it right and that the newer approach (science) is throwing us off track.
As human beings, we search for truth, beauty, and meaning. Some of us search harder for one than another and become either scientists, artists, or philosophers. Religion and science are competing epistemologies in the search for truth. Aesthetics, on the other hand, has the issue of beauty pretty much to itself except when religions or governments impose censorship for propaganda purposes. Religion and philosophy share the search for meaning. Our relationship as humans to the cosmos is both a question of truth and meaning. Science concerns itself only with truth and has nothing to say about meaning. It leaves questions of meaning and values to religion and philosophy but in the truth domain, science has already greatly outstripped religion and philosophy and the gap will continue to widen as the years go on.
To understand why this is the case, consider the essential difference between science and religion a difference in epistemology (the method of knowing). Religion bases the credibility of its dogma on the claim of being revealed truth the wisdom of an all-knowing God passed to mankind via prophets. Science, by contrast, generates its dogma by hypothesis, followed by testing against observation and experimentation. The dogma of science is inherently evolutionary, continuously subject to revision and refinement. Science enjoys nothing more than tearing down one of its own bits of dogma and replacing it with improved understanding. Religion, by contrast, must seek to preserve its dogma in perpetuity otherwise, it is left in the awkward position of admitting that its revealed truth was imperfect and, hence, could not have come from an omniscient supreme being. Science is revolutionary; religion must conserve. Religions epistemology is fundamentally flawed and will inevitably lose the contest to science in the search for truth. On the other hand, science cannot address questions of meaning or morals or ethics and those issues will and should continue to be the proper subjects of religion and philosophy. In my personal opinion, religion ought to concentrate on what it is best suited to provide (meaning and morals) and get out of the business altogether of trying to compete with science in understanding the nature of existence. As things currently stand, the deficiencies of religion in the truth domain undercut its influence in teaching morals.
Tarkovsky introduces in Solaris three principal anti-science arguments three supposed failings of science and technology. The first is implicit in the chapter entitled City of the Future, in which we accompany Berton on an extended taxi ride. Tarkovskys approach is a lot like that of Jean-Luc Godard in Alphaville (1965). Rather than create an artificial technologically-exaggerated set to make the point, Tarkovsky was content to illustrate the sometime aesthetically-barren and dehumanizing architectural structures that already exist on our planet. According to Tarkovsky and Godards views, we are on a precipitous slide into a technocratic society which threatens to engulf both humanity and nature. Personally, I think this view to be a composite of legitimate concerns (such as threats to the environment, too little regard for conservation, an overly gadget-oriented society, some excesses in modern architecture) and the kind of alarmist nostalgia that has afflicted every generation since the rate of change in civilization sharply increased at the beginning of the Renaissance and, again, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Theres no point whining about the good old days (which, in many instances, were a whole lot worse than the present).
The second implicit failing introduced by Tarkovsky relates to one of the social sciences: psychology. Kelvin, the psychologist, did not have enough self-understanding, awareness of his wifes plight, or ability to deal with the problems in their relationship to prevent her from resorting to suicide. Most people understand that expertise in one of the social sciences does not translate especially well into better management of ones own psychology or relationships. To study a discipline is mainly a cognitive pursuit but personal and interpersonal problems are mainly emotional. This is not a failing of science, however. It is simply the observation that human limitations in personal psychology and relationships extend across every category of people and are largely independent of profession.
Tarkovskys third implicit criticism of science is that it has misdirected the search for truth in the outward direction (i.e., the cosmos) while the real frontier lies inward understanding the human mind, psychology, and relationship to existence. Tarkovsky supposedly disliked Kubricks film 2001: A Space Odyssey feeling that it was too shallow and overly enamored with the trappings of technology rather than substantive philosophical issues. Tarkovsky wanted the focus of his film to stand as a contrast and to point to the interior frontier. Tarkovskys assumption, as an artist, was that science concerns itself mainly with the exterior universe while the job of understanding human nature belongs to the arts, humanities, religion, and philosophy. Solaris is partly a plea for the arts and humanities as against societys twentieth century romance with science and technology. The problem with Tarkovskys view, here, is that the domain encompassed by science is as much inward as outward. Public attention during the space race between the U.S.S.R. and America may have been mainly toward the sciences supporting space travel but, today, public attention is as much riveted on advances in neuroscience as in physics. The study of the brain has taught us far more about the nature of human consciousness in the last fifty years than philosophy and religion provided in the last 3000 years. The next fifty years will revolutionize our understanding of both the human mind and the universe and that revolution will come from science, not religion or philosophy.
Production Values: Tarkovskys film style is so distinctive that the viewer either has to concede him a few of his principal demands on viewing skills or look elsewhere for film-viewing opportunities. The issue of pace is perhaps foremost. Tarkovsky intentionally uses a very slow pace because he wants viewers to assume a meditative posture, evaluate and integrate what is being presented as the film progresses, and feel the mood and affective tone. You can either just decide that youre too bored to watch or you can calm yourself down, relax, and drink it all in. Its up to you. That much is non-negotiable from Tarkovskys point of view. If youre prepared to do that much, youll find that Tarkovsky films are works of art raising interesting and profound questions. Each scene is carefully constructed to evoke the intended feelings or thoughts.
The performances in Solaris are very good from my perspective. Few of these performers will be familiar to Western viewers despite extensive resumes in their own countries. The lead actor, Donatas Banionis, had great difficulty working with Tarkovsky because Tarkovsky refused to enlighten his performers as to how particular scenes fit in to the overall story or even what the motivations were of the other performers in the same scene. Tarkovsky believed in the director as auteur and that it was his job to elicit the requisite performances, not the actor's. Natalya Bondarchuk, who played the holographic Kari, was, ironically, the most human of the performers. Anatoli Solonitsin, who played Sartorius, previous appeared in Stalker (1979), which was another Tarkovsky film.
Other than the issue of pace, which I can argue either way, the biggest disappointments for me with this film were mediocre sets, lack of special effects, bad science, and even worse psychology. The set of the space station was a shade better than those of the original Star Trek series but below those of all of the subsequent spin-off series. The special effects were almost nonexistent, other than the nicely conceived weightlessness scene and the frozen Kari after her ingestion of liquid nitrogen. As a neuroscientist myself, I found the entire notion of transmitting an EEG into the Solaris ocean as a means of transferring information about the human mind as laughably implausible. The EEG is simply a graphical recording of neural impulses and reveals nothing substantial about mental experience.
My biggest problem, however, was with the improbability of the behavior of the various characters on the space station. I tried to put myself in their place and am certain that my instinctive reactions would have been totally unlike those of Kelvin or his space mates. Why, for example, was he freaked out by his initial encounter with the representation of Kari. He knew that some such representation would be coming. He knew that she was some kind of fabrication. Why not just enjoy the moment? If one of my deceased parents or my deceased first wife appeared to me in the flesh, and I knew it to be some kind of holographic representation, Id simply drink it all in, enjoy reminiscing and reliving an earlier phase of my life, and have a good old time. What a fantastic trip! Why the haste to send her off in an escape pod without even trying to understand the nature of the representation or simply enjoying its presence? Likewise, Kelvins initial questioning of Staut and Sartorius was far less than I would have demanded of them. It served to keep the plot mysterious but was not very credible. There were just too many instances where these characters did not act in a manner that seemed psychologically believable to me.
Bottom-Line: The thematic material addressed in Solaris was edgy, perhaps, for its era, but Ive seen the same issues handled better and with deeper insights in dozens of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even older sci-fi films like Forbidden Planet (1956) offer comparably deep thematic material, although integrated, in that instance, with some basic Hollywood romantic falderal and special effects. The Next Generation tackled its deep philosophical issues with better characters, better acting, better sets, and better special effects than Solaris. Even some of the better episodes from the original Star Trek series come close to matching Solaris. Although I disagree with most of Karkovskys perspective in relation to science, I overlook those differences. Im happy to see weighty philosophical issues raised regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the perspective being offered. Im giving this film four stars, but with a warning. If you get antsy with slow paced films, youll likely not even experience this film as a three star one. For Sci-Fi buffs, though, its something you ought to see for an historical perspective on international Sci-Fi. Solaris is a classic in the manner of 2001: A Space Odyssey. For more casual Sci-Fi viewers, pick up an episode or two of Star Trek: Next Generation instead. Solaris is in Russian with English subtitles. It has a running time of 165 minutes.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Russia and the U.S.S.R.:
Ballad of a Soldier
Burnt By the Sun
Come and See
The Cranes Are Flying
Ivan the Terrible
Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
War and Peace
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Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older