Originally billed as the Soviet 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 masterpiece Solaris is a subtly different beast to Kubrick’s balletic space picture – claustrophobic, meditative and deeply moving. Arguably the first science film to use the cosmos as a metaphor for psychological inner-space, Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel was remade in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh, but the influence of its depiction of trauma and loss is felt much more keenly in films like Lars von Triers’ Melancholia, Christopher Nolan sci-fi and even 1990s B-movie Sphere.
Years after the mysterious death of a scientist on a space station orbiting the ocean planet Solaris, psychologist Kris (Donatas Banionis) has been assigned to investigate the claims that the planet’s hallucinogenic ocean harbours some sort of intelligence. The early scenes reinforce a mundanity to the world, privileging psychological depth over spectacle and weighing down any momentum, reflecting Kris’ oppressive emotional burden. In contrast, 2001 cinematographer Vadim Usov initially prioritises the earthy tones of terra firma over the majesty of the cosmos.
Later, the camera is confined to the cramped corridors and quarters of the beautifully-realised space station, its anxious lens circling Kris as if afraid of what might be behind him. Hardly surprising, given the crew are tormented by spectres of people from their past, conjured by the psychic qualities of Solaris’ ocean. When Kris arrives at the station, he’s warned by Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) to expect strange visions and it’s not long before he begins having visions of his late wife, Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk). Soderbergh’s remake played on the scary aspects of the crew’s ghostly visions, but Tarkovsky is far more concerned with the emotional dissonance of having a loved one returned to you in the knowledge that they are a replica.
Kris finds himself debating the ethics of experimenting on the Khari-apparition, but it’s clear that she is more than a mere projection. Sentient and autonomous, she is still bound by Khari’s memories – or rather, Kris’ memories of Khari – a psychological puppet given life yet bound by its strings to its creator. Like a cruel joke, her body is impervious to damage and a visceral and disturbing attempt at suicide is not enough to free her from her bonds to Kris. Where 2001: A Space Odyssey’s final act explored the limitless possibilities of human potential, the heart of Solaris’ thesis is the crushing limitation of human psychological experience.
As Snaut explains in a key scene, in exploring the reaches of the cosmos, all mankind has been able to find is a reflection of itself. Stanislaw Lem’s original novel was about humanity’s failure to communicate with an intelligence vastly different to its own, but in Tarkovsky’s film, the indictment of human potential is even more damning: in peering into the vast, abstract ocean of psychic potential, all we see is a reflecting pool.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell