Patron Pick – Solaris (1972)

This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

Solaris (1972)
Written by Fridrikh Gorenstein & Andrei Tarkovsky
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Science fiction is a label attributed to a pretty diverse genre of fiction. In recent years, the move to rebrand it as “speculative fiction” has been made but has not gotten much headway in mainstream culture. “Speculative” is a much better way to describe this genre’s full breadth. In Western cinema, the emphasis is often on technological innovation, which makes sense given the very industrial, consumptive capitalist mindset. Things will set us free; items we can purchase and/or upgrade are the path to salvation. Look at how, amid a global climate collapse, we are offered ludicrous technological solutions like dimming the sun artificially rather than simply developing systems that will help us consume fewer fossil fuels. Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky also saw this in Western science fiction and sought to make cinema that captured the metaphysical and philosophical strains, asking big questions about existence and reality.

Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) has been chosen to visit a space station in orbit of the oceanic planet Solaris. His job is to evaluate if the station is providing valuable data for the field of solaristics, a science specifically about this planet. Before Kris departs, his father sets up a meeting with retired astronaut Burton who spent time on the station. He was removed because he reported having strange hallucinations that he attributes to some energy within the planet. When Kris arrives, it’s clear something is wrong. The only two remaining crew members, Snaut and Sartorius, keep a secret close to their vests and offer no clear explanation for why their colleague Dr. Gibarian killed himself. Kris quickly learns what Solaris can do when a physical manifestation of his dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), appears onboard. Kris learns from the other crew members that Solaris can probe the minds of humans and then create beings that believe they are human and alive. Eventually, Kris concludes this is Solaris’ attempt to study them in the same way they blast the planet with radiation to generate data.

The core concept at the heart of the film is captured in the words of Dr. Snaut: “We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror.” In this statement, he captures the sentiment of all human colonization & imperialism. We are curious about the unknown yet wish to fill it with identical copies of worlds we already know. Space enthusiasts have a genuine sense of wonder and contemplation of the vast cosmic sea. But, most of us are incurious about something we can’t understand or see as empty nothingness. 

I can recall a conversation with a principal I had for only one year (Thank the gods) about why space exploration was essential. I know she loved her cell phone, so I pointed out how helium was necessary to create fiber-optic cable and that it is a finite resource. Earth is running lower on helium than ever, but there are places in space where we could harvest it. She remained unmoved and uninterested. So, even from a highly pragmatic perspective, your average human (especially Americans) just doesn’t give a shit about space. It could reasonably be argued that there are so many problems here on Earth that contemplating the stars is a waste of time, and I don’t think you’d be completely wrong. I would counter that the ability of humans to imagine and wonder is what propelled us to create amazing things throughout our short time on this planet. The trend in recent years of “imagination” translating into slight modifications on products to get people to buy a new worthless thing is a sign that our species has lost what made us unique in the first place. Maybe we were always this way and deluded?

The manifestation of a false Hari creates a rift in Kris’ objective role as a scientist. He can no longer observe Solaris with distance; his emotional narrative is now tied to this planet’s existence. This Hari is real to him in every way possible, and she even believes herself to be the real Hari, confused about how she ended up here and with no memory of her suicide. This is because she is Kris’ concept of Hari, whose choice to end her own life shocked him. For Kris, Hari doesn’t want to destroy herself, so this becomes more about confronting his psyche than understanding his late wife. Tarkovsky raises the question, “Do we really love the people that come in and out of our lives, or do we love our perceptions of them?” 

This has become a very relevant question for me as of late. After months of discussing it and making notes of certain behaviors, my wife and I are assured that I am on the autism spectrum. I think I’m on the “high functioning” end of the spectrum or at least have successfully masked enough since my childhood that my brain thinks it’s high functioning. This has caused some big questions to come up for me. Am I the person I perceive myself to be, or is my true personality/self buried under four decades of social masking to survive? Do the people in my life love & care about the actual me or the me I present while masking? Tarkovsky encourages us to deeply explore questions such as these; they are at the core of all human understanding. The Self and Others are pretty abstract when you contemplate them, so can they ever be known completely, or are we doomed to exist at a distance from each other and ourselves?

Even further is the solipsism humans possess about their importance in the universe. Who are we to claim the universe is ours to explore? Why would it not be just as equally as other humanoid entities or even beings outside the classification systems we have developed? The alien visuals of Solaris’ teeming ocean help place us and the characters in a realm outside their understanding. This discomfort, aided by the manifestations, pushes the idea that our conceptualization of the universe is limited at best. The film’s final shot forces us further into zones of unknowing, presenting the idea that our lives could be a simulacrum. If it feels authentic to the consciousness, then who is to say it isn’t “real.” What defines reality? Things that can be objectively observed? If a simulation is incapable of being differentiated from “reality,” then are both real?

There will never be satisfying answers to these quandaries, but therein lies what humanity should be in pursuit of. If this species is ever to amount to anything, we must dive into the unknown, be ready to shake off the structures we’ve become comfortable with, and explore what it means to be human, to exist in this universe, and our metaphysical connection with it all. To get to that place, our material needs have to be satisfied, which is why in popular science fiction programming like Star Trek, we see a civilization that has embraced communism. In lifting up every being, we, in turn, create a universe where all wonders can be pursued even if there are never answers. It is in pursuit of the questions that we become one with our universe.

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