‘Solaris’: 50 Years of the Ultimate Sci-FI Movie

The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.

– Andrei Tarkvosky

In the darkness of a hostel room, it was in the winter of 2010 that I had the fortune of watching an Andrei Tarkvosky movie on DVD for the first time. Like many, my journey of treading a career in cinema was augmented by the promise of a higher purpose in the art of cinema that Tarkovsky offered us. The movie was Solaris (1972), Tarkvosky’s enigmatic story of pain and memory that wholly moves from outer space to inner space in a divine banter of high art.

Solaris starts as mission control begins to receive mysterious transmissions from the residents of the Solaris space station. This is when the hero cosmonaut and psychologist Kris are sent to investigate. Upon reaching Solaris, Kris discovers that the ocean on the planet is a sentient being that brings out repressed memories and past pain of its human visitors. He experiences the same strange phenomena that afflict the Solaris crew, sending him on an inner journey.

It should be highlighted that Tarkvosky was a highly religious person of Abrahamic moorings whose strong belief was that art is true only when it has a higher spiritual objective.

In the setup of the movie, Kris lives with his father and shares a relationship that is only superficially cordial. There is also a sense of loss and gloom, the source of which is not discernible to the audience. A former cosmonaut, Burton, comes to visit them. Upon his visit, they watch the footage of the enquiry commission from Burton’s incorporeal experiences on Solaris many years ago.

Kris does not entertain Burton’s testimony of what he witnessed on Solaris. Hurt, Burton leaves. The father tells Kris that he is too insensitive and people like him should not be sent to the cosmos. It is too fragile for him. Only Earth could tolerate people like him.

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In his book, Sculpting in Time, Tarkvosky states,

Touched by a masterpiece, a person begins to hear in himself that same call of truth which prompted the artist to his creative act. When a link is established between the work and its beholder, the latter experiences a sublime, purging trauma. Within that aura which unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognize and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions.

While a dispirited Burton takes a long bit of screen time to get back to the city in his automated car, it takes Kris very little time to arrive on Solaris from Earth. This skewed temporality can be understood by exploring Tarkvosky’s book, Sculpting in Time. In the book, he says that all art forms have their exclusive formative factors such as the word in a novel, a character in a drama and colour in a painting. Tarkvosky argues that for cinema, this element is time.

At this point, Kris is willing to stifle the exploration of the unknown. He is unmoved by Burton and moved by the belief that human emotion has no role to play in the discovery of the Truth. Not only does he show the inclination to abandon the Solaris mission, but also suggests bombarding the ocean planet with X-rays to destroy its baffling encroachments. However, once Kris arrives at the space station, he is greeted with indifference and avoidance. It is after a bad night’s sleep that Kris encounters the validity of Burton’s perspective when his dead wife, Hari, inexplicably appears at the station.

After the appearance of Hari, Kris prefers sending her away in a crew escape pod instead of exploring the truth of her suicide. By beaming x-rays at the surface of the Solaris ocean, the human crew has crossed the limits of the mission’s artificial exploratory boundaries. The radiation has resulted in a figurative cerebral probe into the depths of the primal consciousness of Solaris.

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This depth is being bounced as a reflection of their subconscious mind. Soon Hari reappears on the spaceship. She is indestructible because she is not made of normal atoms, rather she is made of neutrinos. She is a matrix. The crew informs Kris that by generating in him a compassion for Hari, the planet has successfully established first contact with humans.

Soon, Kris falls into a deep sleep. He dreams of his childhood and his mother. When he wakes up, Hari is gone. She has left behind a note which says she appealed to the scientists to annihilate her. Kris also comes to know that the crew had been broadcasting his brainwaves into Solaris while he slept, and since then, the visitors have ceased to manifest on the spaceship. Instead, islands have started forming on the planet’s surface. Kris decides to return to Earth after much introspection over the nature of reality and what he experienced.

In the most masterful climax that has enchanted popular imagination ever since, Kris is found back on Earth at the family home. He falls to his knees and embraces his father in a deep finale of reconciliation. Yet as the camera gradually zooms away, it is revealed that the house and its adjoining pond are not on Earth but actually on a tiny island on the ocean of Solaris.

Fifty years old and freely available on YouTube, Solaris is master filmmaker Tarkvosky’s truly original portal of sci-fi that has become far bigger than just a thinking man’s movie and has gone on to shape cinema, gaming and pop culture – existentially, silently and endlessly.

Ali Kirmani is a film scenarist based out of Mumbai.

Featured image: MX Player