Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie Review: Solaris

Solaris. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 1972.

When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn't explain. What should he explain anyhow?

Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul. –Ingmar Bergman

I. Film as Dream

The reverie passages of Solaris are perhaps the film’s signature feature, but what to make of them? And what to make of Bergman’s quote above, for that matter? What is the significance of experiencing a film like a dream? While I do not assume Bergman and Tarkovsky were of one mind on the matter, I believe there is some common understanding of films as dreams. For the viewer, the most fundamental aspect of films as dreams is the manner in which we understand them, an aspect expressed in the second quote of Bergman’s above: that we experience the movie emotionally first, like music. It is then in our subsequent reflections of why we experienced the feelings we did that we understand the movie and perhaps, and hopefully to a greater extent, ourselves.

II. Self-Reflection

The theme of self-reflection and self-understanding is the central moral issue of Solaris. Each scientist on the station has journeyed there to study the planet, but the nature of the entity on Solaris forces them to study themselves. For example, Dr. Kelvin, himself a psychologist, is forced to confront deep-seated feelings about his late wife and father. First, the entity on Solaris recreates his late wife from his memories. Unable to rid himself of this hallucination, he gradually grows attached to Hari, even confessing that while he left the real Hari on earth years ago, he loves the recreated one now. Yet when he relates this to the recreated Hari, and also the fact that his real wife killed herself when he left her, she too kills herself. Though once again resurrected, she asks the other doctors to terminate her with a device they have constructed. When Kelvin is informed of this, and that “she did it for him” Kelvin says, “things weren’t working out between us towards the end.” Is he talking about the real Hari or the hallucination? Did he drive one to death by loving her too little, and another by loving too much? Kelvin goes on to ask, “Why are we being tortured like this?” Does he mean generally or is he specifically referring to “being tortured. . . by the entity on Solaris?” Dr. Snaut replies as if it were the former, “In my opinion we have lost our sense of the cosmic. The ancients understood this perfectly. They would never have asked why or what for. Remember the myth of Sisyphus.”

Is not understanding oneself what foils attempts peacefully to interact with others. It is simply in man’s nature, then, to be contesting with struggle of self in relation to others. It is perhaps, as Nietzsche said, that life is itself the price of living?

Let us look at some more of the closing dialogue:

SNART: When man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal themes rarely interest him. These questions should be asked at the end of one’s life.

KELVIN: But we don’t know when life will end. That’s why we’re in such a hurry.

SNART: Don’t rush. The happiest people are those who are not interested in these cursed questions.

KELVIN: To ask is always the desire to know. Yet the preservation of simple human truths requires mystery. The mysteries of happiness, death, and love.

SNART: Maybe you’re right, but try not to think about all that now.

KELVIN: To think about it is to know the day of one’s death. Not knowing that day makes us practically immortal.

As Dr. Snart says, what dire questions. Is there no chance of objectivity, of an answer to such questions? Kelvin’s dissatisfaction implies he seeks some non-materialistic metaphysical answer. Kelvin’s statement about mystery is like Snart’s about Sisyphus above: our situation is simply the nature of things, and it is our lack of knowledge about our ends that forces us to make use of what we have. But does it really make us practically immortal?

Why does Kelvin stay on Solaris? Is it for the hope of seeing Hari again? To experience the reunification (however artificial) with his father? To interact with the entity? He says he could return to Earth, “But I won’t be able to give myself to them fully. Never.” Why is that?

III. Many Questions

Interaction with the alien entity is an even greater source of questions in Solaris. Are we really capable of understanding with it? Clearly scientific testing has failed to provide any insight. It certainly has some basic understanding of us, yet it does not (at first) understand that the hallucinations it is conjuring are unasked for and painful, and it does not recreate the images perfectly (e.g. the solid lake and indoor rain.) Are the scientists' interactions with the hallucinations (“guests” as they refer to them) interactions with the Solaris entity or are they solely experiences between the scientists and their own consciousness? Are we capable of understanding the Solaris entity on its own terms or only when it creates something from our body of preconceptions about the universe?

Early in the film, a scientist says, “But what we’re talking about is far more serious than just the study of Solaristics. We’re talking about the boundaries of human knowledge. Don’t [you] think by establishing artificial barriers we deliver a blow to the idea of limitless thought? By limiting our movement forward, we facilitate moving backwards.” Is it inherently limitless, or limited? Some phenomena correspond to predictions, others do not. What are the tools of predicting?

What of how technology is portrayed in the film? On the one hand man’s technical abilities have brought him the ability to travel far from home. Yet in Solaris man’s technical skill has clearly outpaced his philosophical comprehension, evidenced by the scientists’ extremely limited approaches toward understanding the entity on the planet. Is technology helping, hindering, neutral? Has it brought the scientists to this great challenge, is it what is now holding them back (compare their distance on the space station to Dr. Kelvin finally going down to the planet at the end), is it incidental?

The final scene generates perhaps the most questions of all. Does Dr. Kelvin choosing to remain on Solaris represent a tragic inability to embrace reality? Or is it a spiritual communion between man and the entity? Is it an act of supplication of man toward a being of far higher understanding or an instance of imperfectly rationalizing phenomena and ignoring the inconsistencies?

Should we infer that Dr. Kelvin may one day come to understand the entity, is it simply beyond human understanding, are we limited to understanding it only in a certain, limited, way? If it is wholly, or partially, unknowable, is the notion of the incomprehensible foolish, awe-inspiring, or terrifying? Is there a middle ground between positions of conceiving of our surroundings as inherently unknowable or inherently knowable? Does the final scene suggest a dialectical or phenomenological method of inquiry? How do all of these metaphysical questions affect the issue of self-reflection discussed above?

IV. Conclusion

I suspect for many viewers Solaris will appear an impenetrable mass of questions and vagaries, useless perhaps for suggesting both nothing and everything. I hope it is evident, though, the film raises many important questions. Indeed in raising so many questions and presenting them in a manner inviting, indeed requiring, repeated consideration, Solaris achieves what few films do, being about the questioning itself. As such, it is the philosophically-minded film goer that will get the most from Solaris, and it is the individual for whom philosophy is a necessary part of life that it should most affect.

- Quotations from the film taken from the English subtitles of the November 2002 Criterion Edition DVD of Solaris.

Other writing on Solaris:

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