catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 3 :: 2003.01.31 — 2003.02.13


The future of life

A review of Tarkovsky?s Solaris

The newest film adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's science fiction novel, Solaris, directed by Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven), provides a perfect opportunity to look back at the first version to hit the big screen. Now on DVD, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris came out only a few years after Stanley Kubrick released his adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's book on the future of space travel. Both films are considered by many to be two of the best science fiction films ever made. Despite having similar subject matter, however, the two films differ in their approach to life and the future.

When Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey opened in 1968, audiences were struck not only by the film's special effects, technological innovations and stylistic advances, but by its enormous scope. Assembled in four movements, Space Odyssey dares to tell the story of humankind's achievements from beginning to end. Starting with that first beam of light and the emergent tones of Richard Strauss' famous composition taken from the pages of Nietsche's Thus Sprach Zarathustra, the film explores mankind's evolution from the discovery of tools to the ability to journey into the farthest reaches of space. When the film finally reaches its conclusion, the expansiveness of time seems as frightening and as beautiful as the luminous fetus depicted in the last scene, which drifts like a planet in a cosmic womb.

Kubrick's sweeping spectacle maintains an awful distance from the human condition. The characters of his film appear as mere representatives of humanity caught up in an endless struggle to achieve the unattainable. At least, that?s the way 2001 seems after watching Tarkovsky's Solaris.

Contrasting the grand overture of Kubrick's Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky's Solaris commences on a quiet, contemplative note. Supported by J.S. Bach's organic—almost fragile—Choral Prelude in F Minor, the film's opening images capture the serenity of earth in its natural state. Dark green reeds bend and sway in a stream. The tops of tall wildflowers bow back and forth against gentle breezes. Dewdrops glisten in the sun. Birds twitter in the trees that surround the film's main character, Kris Kelvin, as he considers his forthcoming journey into space. A horse gallops into the frame, plants its clomping hooves into the moist soil and turns, mane swinging, out of sight again, like a ghost or a fleeting memory of earth.

Kelvin's ponderous mind-set is expertly revealed in this affectionate treatment of the lushness of earth. These tender opening images establish a reflective mood appropriate to the story's introspective meditation on life. Rather than move from one momentous event to the next, as Kubrick does in 2001, Tarkovsky zooms in on each moment, examining the mysterious nature of time as human beings experience it. Instead of viewing the earth from a God's eye view, the audience is brought further into Kelvin's own inner world as he leaves Earth behind and journeys to outer space.

As a psychologist, Kelvin has been selected to visit a Russian space station floating atop an alien sea. He is sent to investigate apparent delusions suffered by scientists aboard the space station. However, the psychologist soon discovers that the ocean is some sort of higher intelligence, a monstrous brain capable of bringing the dreams or memories of the scientists into being.

Shortly after he arrives, Kelvin's dead wife Hari appears to him in the flesh. This is the first of many resurrections experienced by Kelvin on the space station. Despite Kelvin's effort to get rid of the apparition and Hari's attempting to take her own life, she continues to return from the dead time and time again. Kelvin quickly grows to love his resurrected wife and is faced with a difficult decision in the end: should he return to Earth, where life continues to move on, or should he stay on this strange planet, where his most treasured memories are ceaselessly re-created for him?

Kelvin's confusion displays the perplexity of man when faced with the strangeness and foreignness of his own self. Placed in such an unearthly environment where different rules of nature apply, Kelvin is faced directly with the complex workings of consciousness and the incalculable mysteries of human nature. Having been welcomed into the inner world of Kris Kelvin's dreams and memories, the audience is meant to feel the strangeness too. Within the fabric of the film, the question begins to emerge: how can human beings expect to explain the unexplainable in space if they can't even explain themselves?

The effect of Tarkovsky's film leaves no room for the grandiose, though perhaps ironic, view of human life exhibited in 2001. In Tarkovsky's film, time does not tell a story of perpetual progress or of mankind's continual evolutionary rise to achieving previously unattainable goals. Instead, Tarkovsky's Solaris asks the audience to see the world close-up, in all its nuance and mystery, as humans ought to see it, as humans actually experience it. The fetus of the new man depicted in Kubrick's 2001 can be observed from a distance, can be held in an other-worldly gaze that sees the entire history of mankind in one broad sweep, but life, as it appears in Tarkovsky's Solaris, can never be wrapped up in this way. Despite all human history, time has not revealed anything more to us than the mystery of living within time. The expanse of human history has not changed the immediacy of life experience since the dawn of man. And so, according to Tarkovsky's Solaris, it's not likely the future will be any different.

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