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Earth and Solaris

March 28, 2012

The University of Chicago’s on-campus movie theater (!) chooses each quarter a different theme for each night of the week. Spring Quarter began this week, and it seems Tuesdays are “Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick: the Sacred and the Dasein”. Since I’ve seen little of both, but loved what I’ve seen (of Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev and Stalker; of Malick, only The Tree of Life), I of course decided to get a season pass and go only and every Tuesday night.

Well, last night I saw Solaris. A good movie, all told; amazing, at parts; but immensely frustrating.

It’s no spoiler to say that it’s about aliens, literal and figurative. It follows a Kris Kelvin, a cosmonaut-slash-psychologist (whose name suggests both Christ and cold science), who travels to an understaffed research colony located above the titular planet whose Ocean it attempts to study. The nature of this Ocean remains vague till the very end; we might think of it as Being. We learn early on that it may be sentient and can either cause hallucinations or create human-like life, we don’t know which; and that the researchers have all but given up discovering its secrets, wanting now to just blast it with radiation and leave. Since the few scientists who remain are having psychological difficulties (this is one key detail I didn’t pick up on until long after I should have), Kelvin has been sent to try to rescue the mission. Instead, as one might expect, he encounters “psychological difficulties” of his own, which turn out to not be somatic (leading to an exploration of madness) so much as existential (leading to an exploration of philosophy).

Perhaps because it was Russian with imperfect English subtitles, the plot was difficult to follow, which matters only in that I often couldn’t tell what the stakes were. For too much of the film the characters were speaking in such philosophical abstractions that I couldn’t tell what they saw themselves as disagreeing about or why they were getting angry. This also led to the problem of all philosophical film, that straight philosophical pronouncements always sound simplistic when made on-screen:

Science? Nonsense! In this situation mediocrity and genius are equally useless! I must tell you that we really have no desire to conquer any cosmos. We want to extend the Earth up to its borders. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle to make contact, but we’ll never achieve it. We are in a ridiculous predicament of man pursuing a goal that he fears and that he really does not need. Man needs man!

This gets at the heart of the film, and I can convince myself to accept it, but I would rather it had been only hinted at. Perhaps this is just my preference for American metaphysical obscurity over Russians soul-baring.

I don’t know if I would have made any sense of the film without these pronouncements. At times, though, they almost obscure the film’s true scope. Solaris confronts us with the impossibility of communication with a completely alien form of life, and the impossibility of ignoring it; and with the impossibility of preserving a loved one forever, and the impossibility of forgetting her; and through these, with both the desire for universal love and the temptation to philosophical abstraction. Kelvin ends up having to confront not only the ineffability of the Ocean, but the memory of his dead wife; nor are the two unrelated. Solaris came after 2001: A Space Odyssey and before Tree of Life, and, with its themes of theomachy and theodicy, alienation and mourning, it might be seen as in the spirit of them both.

Unlike either, however, it incorporates an erotic element, and an exploration of the nature of art. The former enters, of course, through the dead wife. The latter is never mentioned, but always present in the viewer’s mind, once he notices that the film includes several films within it (and films within those films) and that Tarkovsky lets the camera linger on paintings by Bruegel, most memorably this one, and brings in this organ piece by Bach. I want to take the memory of the dead wife as an exemplar of how art helps us to mourn.

As one might expect given the comparisons to Kubrick and Malick, plot matters less in this film than cinematography. There are many lengthy shots of Kelvin standing beside a lake with half-submerged trees, and of the roiling Ocean itself, and of water flowing and falling. If nothing else, it is a beautiful movie. Also a strangely stationary one; the camera moves even less than Malick’s (which at least slowly rotates and moves in and out). As if what Tarkovsky wants is to dilate time. When I came out of the theater and began the twenty-minute walk home I found myself looking up at the trees silhouetted against the night sky and noticing the vast emptiness dividing them, how while the trees moved the sky remained stationary. An uncanny feeling, and, I think, what the film was meant to inspire.

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