“We want to extend the earth to the borders of the cosmos.”
Surrounded by sublime vegetation, trees and earth, a lake spans forth caressing the traditional architecture of a home. Rain comes heavy overshadowing the minor footsteps of humanity. There’s subtle references to a far off world called Solaris thrown into the picture, each suffocated by the remaining humanity within Tarkovsky’s writing and cinematography. There’s a sense that the question Kelvin poses, namely whether or not science can be moral or immoral needn’t matter here, for these grandiose questions are juxtaposed against the timeless tranquillity of the traditional countryside, a cliché that only someone with Tarkovsky’s skill could make original once more.
We’re introduced to Berton, a pilot who previously witnessed a four-meter-tall child on Solaris, slimy, nude and creating a waves within the ocean, a horror which was dismissed by the masses as a hallucination, and in a typically Kafka-esque manner Berton’s life and story has become the subject of ridicule, yet needless to say, the man himself is wary to bring the nauseous memory to the surface once more, for fear of its induction into the plane of reality, or at least, whatever remains of reality for our horror-stricken Berton. The opening to Solaris acts as a grounding for a past, one that teases little and is sincere in its acceptance of animals. An element of contrast that thematically resides at the back of one’s memory throughout viewing, against the coming madness fades a memory of normality.
Upon arrival to the station Kelvin is greeted by little hospitality, all that awaits him within the station hovering above the ocean is paranoia. Consistently placed circular windows look out onto Solaris’s surface, a surface entirely oceanic and irradiated. A pulsating behemoth of water emanating a desire to the lesser to prod its potential mysteries. Kelvin soon learns his only acquaintance upon the station, Gibarian, has committed suicide, reportedly he entered into a perpetual state of depression “since the disturbances began.”
Before long such ‘disturbances’ become apparent to Kelvin and the viewer, hallucinations appear which are collectively shared by those aboard the station. Materializations of a conception of memory, or the memory of a person are brought to life on Solaris. Kelvin’s deceased lover Hari has returned and as such he decides to fire her away in the knowledge that she is dead, yet Kelvin soon learns that the hallucinations will never fully leave, and they are to return time and time again, each time learning more and more from the matter of your memory. The infinitesimal corpses of your memories materializations pile up as the ocean continues to probe your mind for the most minute of details. Each hallucination only as much of that ‘memory’ or that ‘person’ as one’s mind can muster, as such, our crew are left with ghost like visions of their past loves and experiences.
These abstract horrors cling to nothing but their provider for life, and so the lives of hallucinations are entirely burdened to their creator, as such they will do what they can to convince your of their reality. As the 20 years deceased relative you once knew attempts to convince you of their reality, piecing together fragments of your own mind, be reminded that you are not going insane, you’re merely being probed by a planetary ocean with a consciousness, one that’s far more advanced than your own, humanities’ hardware is outdated and so you shall only receive packets of information caught in an empirical feedback loop. Attend to your own madness, and be kind as to not step upon others’.
Of late and of the past there has always been the unspoken idea that space exploration will act as a form of physical transcendence for humanity, wherein upon our ascent into the cosmos our limitations shall leave us behind, an ignorance so pure as to imagine that merely some form of empirical travel could remove our horizon when in actuality we’re still within it. It is not ourselves that have changed, only our position relative to our birth.
Tarkovsky’s vision of Lem’s Solaris is unapologetically anti-2001. 2001: A Space Odyssey is mistaken in attending the idea that humans could outsmart technology, 2001 goes as far as to imply the reversal of Solaris wherein it is Hal whose memory is slave to its fragmentation as opposed to humanity. Solaris from its very beginnings fully integrates the natural flaw that is humanity into the perfected systems that either they’ve created, or exist elsewhere, outside or noumenally. 2001 at its core is a story of man’s mastery over space, to argue this point I put forth Ebert’s explanation of 2001’s ending:
“By now, man is intelligent enough to realize that the monolith was planted by another intelligent race, and that is an awesome blow to man’s ego. So he sets out toward Jupiter because the monolith beams signals in that direction. And man takes along “Hal 9000,” a computer (or tool) so complex that it may, even surpass the human intelligence. The ultimate tool.
But Hal 9000, made by man in his own image and likeness, shares man’s ego and pride. What is finally necessary is the destruction of Hal – after he nearly destroys the mission – and that leaves one man, alone, at the outer edge of the Solar System to face the third monolith.
And here man undergoes a transformation as important as when he became a tool-user. He becomes a natural being again, having used his tools for hundreds of thousands of years to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Now he no longer needs them. He has transcended his own nature, as that original ape did, and now he is no longer a “man.”
Instead, having grown old and died, he is reborn as a child of the universe. As a solemn, wide-eyed infant who slowly looks over the stars and the Earth and then turns his eyes on the audience.
These last 20 seconds, as the child of man looks down on his ancestral parents, are the most important in the film. We in the audience are men, and here is the liberated, natural being, Kubrick believes we will someday become.” – Roger Ebert
Ultimately at the end of 2001 it is man who ‘succeeds’ or transcends, man achieves mastery over his literal creator somehow and in quite a sentimental way becomes a dough-eyed infant looking down upon Earth. The ending is a Kubrickian rarity, it is – debatably – positive. Humanity overcomes space, a superhuman AI and eventually overcomes their own limitations.
If we’re to return to Solaris however one realises from the very beginning that such a case was never going to be put forth. Where Kubrick has apes utilizing tools, Tarkovsky has man pondering his morals, Kubrick gives us Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, the dawn of something great. Tarkovsky originally wanted nothing, but allowed us schizo electronic sounds as an opposition to unbridled hope. Where 2001 is forgiving, Solaris is vindictive and condemning. Tarkovsky understood that not matter how far we travel, nor in what vessel or whom with, we will always be dragging along with us the vicious memories of humanity.
In their cluttered and confused attempts at grasping the teasing’s of those superior to them humanity only claws back its own insecurities. If for one moment, man, you thought you were going to outsmart a concentrated planetary conscious you are mistaken, for it need only to remind you of a character in your own play to make you grovel and retreat. You might declare as Gibrarian did in a fit of madness “I am my own judge!” but be warned, for on your return to home you shall find no need for pleasantries, for you’ve entered into a labyrinth of horror wherein your worst fears are realised for eternity.
You arrive home to find all has been replaced by a perfect replica, each inch of the supposed matter attending to your reality instils a deep sense of the uncanny. Your dead wife runs to your side, your memory of her lost to time and so she too is lost to time, you’re left eternally with a cast without a script nor characterisation. You are left with only that which you created. An eternity without anything new. The slow death of mystery.