A spaceship has discovered signs of intelligent life on another planet. Study continues over a period of years from an orbiting space station. Back on earth concern is felt, as the main result has been loss of life – astronauts have gone missing or suicided. The last to die is the friend of an investigating psychologist, who is sent out to determine if the cost of study has not been too high and charged to close down the station if he thinks so, and with it the attempt to contact another intelligent life form in the universe.
This is not the subject, but the background to Tarkovsky’s film of Lem’s Solaris, alluded to or left to the viewer to infer. The film is mainly concerned with the interaction of memory and love in the psyche, and the thought that contact with intelligence unmodified with love would be meaningless or dangerous; curiosity – callous or cruel – is merely a throwaway observation. On the planet Solaris the ocean stands for the psyche – immense and unknown.
The investigator is a man who puts duty before love. His love is deeply felt but unexpressed. His home, his father and his wife have all felt abandoned, and his wife has suicided at his apparent rejection of her.
On Solaris the ocean, a seeming source of intelligent life on the planet, has made contact with the astronauts, and uncovered memories, some of them hidden, painful ones, in their minds. They have visitors from their pasts, women and children. The investigator discovers his dead wife, and falls in love with her.
She is a memory (or is she a planet?) and has no memory of her own, which frightens her. But the investigator, Chris, falls in love with her, the memory, more securely than with the real wife he abandoned. Memory is seductive. It creates a real world we can live with, more perfect than the real world. Chris can love his wife Hari on Solaris. He can embrace his father, with whom on earth he has been so reserved.
So he makes his judgment and lives surrounded by his memories on Solaris, imperfect as they are – symbolised by a strange shot of his father in the family home, who goes about his daily chores while it begins to rain – inside the house, not outside.
The space team on earth will send another investigator. What will he find, what will he do? The film leaves this to the viewer to conceive.
Space, the journey among the stars, the space station, the ocean of life, all this is passed over by Tarkovsky. His film is like the other half, the interior side, of Kubrick’s 2001. The 2003 film by Soderbergh is Love Story set in outer space: Tarkovsky instead uses Lem’s meditation on how limiting our imagination must be when dealing with the universe, god and infinity as a way of making us reflect what our own choices might be, and are, when presented with the limits and delusions of memory, the needs of the emotions.
The power of the film is in its suggestive capabilities. The scenic beauty, the ruined space station, the ocean, and their contrasts, the conflict-ridden world of the astronauts, and the scientists who send them to their deaths or illusions, the beautiful Bach on the soundtrack: all edited seamlessly to enforce meditation on Tarkovsky’s themes.
The film certainly has flaws. Some of the long takes are too long (especially the expressway scene, which lasts a full five minutes). Subtitles are displayed too quickly. On the other hand they are good at expressing subtle and oblique thoughts. At 165 minutes the film is long but rarely felt so.
So back to the film’s final shot. Is it better to love an illusion than not to love at all? Which is the illusion, love – or truth? If the ocean is god, what matters more, love or truth? If the ocean is not god, is the illusion of love self-destructive (because self-deluding) or self-enhancing (because it results in survival, and in contact – contact with an unknown part of the psyche, the universe which might enhance or destroy us). Must we be destroyed in order to survive? Is illusion destructive or creative? Is what happens to us within our control?
Solaris is not a film, but a poem. Its power is in what it makes us think. Just like the ocean on the planet Solaris. Some critics think it bad because the special effects are limited. I, on the other hand, think the point is the Bach on the soundtrack.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.