This is the sixth post in my Blindspot review series. I will continue to publish one like it each month for the rest of 2015.
Solaris is a film that puzzled me, eluded me, thrilled me. In parts, it felt like 2001; in others, a precursor to Under the Skin and the part of Kooyanisqatsi that I’ve seen (a clip from the urban time lapse sequence). It is beautiful, possessed by dream logic and a poet’s sensibility. I suspect it contains layers of philosophy and symbolism I have yet to unpack, but this very atmosphere of mystery itself suffices in producing a sense of the sublime, triggering that rare state of awe experienced by mortal man when he peers into a vast unknown.
Russian art cinema legend Andrei Tarkovsky helms the story, adapted from the Stanislaw Lem novel, of a psychologist tasked with visiting a space station whose crew members have unexpectedly begun exhibiting symptoms of insanity. A potential cause is Solaris, the planet at the center of the station’s orbital, and the gelatinous “Ocean” it houses that may or may not be sentient. The scientists aboard the station are collecting data on the Ocean as part of a larger, decades-long initiative to learn more about the planet. The psychologist, named Kris Kelvin and haunted by his own demons, is to provide the diagnosis that will determine the fate of “Solaristics”: if the planet is indeed harmful to humans, the research endeavor will be called off.
Once onboard the station, Kris immediately notices that things are off. One crew member has committed suicide. The other two are heavily reclusive – one keeps himself locked away in his lab, the other ventures into the open only slightly more frequently. Things quickly get stranger. A woman in a blue dress is glimpsed walking the halls; at one point, a midget scurries out of a room before being hastily swept back inside. Are these hallucinations? We think so at first, but then Kris’ late wife appears to him, and it seems his fellow crewmates can see her as well. Through dialogue, the film gives an explanation for this phenomenon: apparently, the Ocean, in response to all the scientific poking and prodding, has set out to interrupt the researchers’ plans by manifesting dimensions of their consciousness in physical form. This hypothesis, while providing a narrative starting point, does almost nothing to alleviate the movie’s enigmatic quality, largely because the characters themselves seem uncertain of their diagnosis.
Whether the Ocean’s “aim” is mere distraction, an attempt to catalyze self-reflection in the human characters, or something else entirely, the film never explains. Solaris introduces an extraordinary fictional conceit then seems to throw away plot altogether, delving into a space of contemplation rather than logic- or action-oriented thinking. Indeed the Ocean is mysterious, but the film doesn’t treat it as a riddle to be solved. In one respect, the waters of Solaris feel simply like our route into Kris’ psyche, a narrative convenience that makes visible to us his inner torments. I mean this not in a disparaging way – all I’m saying is that, ultimately, Solaris is less about the Ocean than Kris, and through Kris, humanity in general.
Exactly what the film says about humanity is, at present, largely beyond this reviewer’s comprehension. But do consider this quote, uttered by one crew member in a moment of rumination: “In my opinion, we have lost our sense of the cosmic. The ancients understood it perfectly. They never would have asked why or what for.” This line, perhaps, encourages us to view the Ocean in another, more radical way: as a metaphor for those aspects of nature we can never know, at least not in this life. It could be that the enigmas of Solaris are meant to humble both the characters and us, functioning as a lesson in recognizing the limits of science and experiencing awe beyond empirical knowledge.
All that said, I did pick up on a few of the film’s ideas, and they are fascinating. I will focus on just one, but know that it comprises a mere fraction of the movie’s manifold ponderings. I am referring to the conundrum produced by the second coming of Kris’ wife, and this curious thing he says to this second Khari: “You and not her are the real Khari.” I initially found this statement to be ridiculous, but then I thought about how this woman was born from Kris’ mind. That being the case, it could be argued that, for Kris, this new Khari is actually the same as the deceased one because, from his perspective, his wife was only ever the sum of his perceptions of her. Isn’t it true that all relationships are based on what each party perceives of the other? Nobody can claim to “know” another person absolutely, so in effect, what you love about someone is not technically that someone, but the parts of that someone you perceive. These parts are what the Ocean purportedly pulled from Kris’ brain to make Khari 2.0; hence, this second Khari will feel to him exactly as he remembers his first wife, with the added advantage of being alive and present. Thus, to Kris, she may very well be more “real.”
And yet this somewhat solipsistic argument – that all we know for certain is the totality of our perceptions – doesn’t feel quite right, especially in regards to human interaction, and perhaps the film knows this. I can’t say for sure, because Solaris raises the dilemma of this second Khari then simply lets it hang over the rest of the film, keeping it open for interpretation. Personally, though, I was never hopeful that Kris and this second Khari could lead a life together, my thinking being that human relationships involve not just perception but faith in the unseen. To maintain a meaningful relationship is not only to act on what we know about the other person – their looks, their mannerisms, even their personality – but on what we don’t know. We must assume the other has as many aspects of their person hidden from us as we do from them; we must believe that this other individual is not merely surfaces but a soul akin to ours. Perhaps that is what Kris was getting at – part of what he was getting at, anyway – when he said, “The preservation of simple human truths requires mystery. The mysteries of happiness. death, love.”
And so returns the motif of mystery, and it almost seems as the film is commenting on its own mystifying nature. Maybe so, but if art reflects humanity as it should and must, then the mysteriousness of Solaris is more than fitting.