Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky
Scr: Fridrikh Gorenshtein & Andrei Tarkovsky (from novel by Stanislaw Lem)
The plot of Solyaris concerns the arrival of psychologist Kris Kelvin to a space station that orbits the planet Solyaris, a constantly shifting, liquid world that – as Kelvin soon discovers – is a conscious entity capable of manifesting human memories as apparitions. Kelvin’s investigation into the value of continued study of Solyaris is interrupted when he is visited by his own apparition, that of his wife Hari, who committed suicide following the failure of their marriage ten years ago. As the apparition evolves to conform more closely to Kelvin’s memory of Hari, the activity of Solyaris’ surface increases and a debate between Kelvin and the scientists as to the nature of the planet and the apparitions begins.
Throughout the film, Tarkovsky uses the trope of duality to analyse the connections and disparities between two worlds, the inner space of the mind and the outer space of the cosmos. These worlds are both to be read as is, but also as analogous to philosophies and states of mind. The natural environments on Earth, in which the film begins, and that of the space station orbiting Solyaris, can be interpreted as representing two opposing philosophies - spirituality in opposition to scientific humanism, respectively - as well as the two states of mind that occupy the character of Kelvin throughout the film - emotional detachment in opposition to emotional sensitivity. With clear visual delineation between the lush, shifting and predominantly green environment of Earth and the cold, static and predominantly grey environment of the Solyaris station, Tarkovsky communicates that the Earth provides something that is unavailable elsewhere. The reflective walk through nature that Kelvin takes before leaving for the station suggests that there is a strong connection between us and nature, and a longing not to be parted from it. The film argues that a focus on scientific advancement perhaps moves humanity further from this connection; in other words, the price of progress – in this case, space exploration and search for intelligent life other than ourselves – is what is most fundamental; humanity’s spiritual and moral well-being. The signs of life evident on Earth, but so lacking on the Solyaris station, signify how technology and scientific advancement can dampen these primary aspects of humanity.
This is further expressed throughout the film in dialogue, such as in the library debate between Kelvin and the scientists, the pessimistic Snaut and Sartorius, the rationalist technocrat. Snaut states:
“We have no ambition to conquer any cosmos. We just want to extend Earth up to the Cosmos’ borders. We don’t want any more worlds, only a mirror to see our own in. We try so hard to make contact, but we’re doomed to failure. We look ridiculous pursuing a goal we fear and that we don’t really need. Man needs man!”
“I wished to make the Earth the equivalent of something beautiful in the viewer’s mind. A subject of one’s longing. So that after he [Kelvin] plunges into the mysterious, fantastic atmosphere of Solyaris, when he suddenly glimpses Earth again he is home.”
The themes of guilt and absolution are explored through the developing relationship between Kelvin and his apparition, the emotional center of the film and a metaphor for Kelvin's struggle through painful memories and repressed emotions. While at first appearing cold and indifferent, to the point that he pitilessly kills the first apparition that visits him by tricking her into a rocket and sending her to the surface of Solyaris, Tarkovsky slowly reveals Kelvin to be more sensitive than previously thought. We learn he is troubled by Hari’s suicide and the role he played. This character arc is conveyed through dreamlike imagery and the progression of Solyaris’ effect on the station and its inhabitants; the role of the planet is, as the American critic Jack Kroll notes, that of “ a giant space mirror of [the scientists’] own fractured consciousness.”
Kelvin, now less reluctant to relive the experience of Hari’s suicide, describes how, after his leaving and her suicide, he discovered Hari’s body. We learn in conversation between Kelvin and his apparition that Hari killed herself by injecting something from Kelvin’s laboratory and, upon hearing this, the apparition notes that the injection mark has appeared on her arm. This reveal exposes the true depth and impact of Kelvin’s trauma, as well as Tarkovsky’s wider message, allowing the viewer to see behind his mask of detachment. Kelvin, now stripped of repression and unable to deny his feelings, is forced to accept the consequences of his actions and the pain that he has suppressed. Though Kelvin left Tarkovsky’s Eden-like Earth and ventured into a situation that is spiritually bereft and an emotional void, this is where his emotions find their fullest expression.
The apparition of Hari states during the library scene that Kelvin stays “human in an inhuman situation” by embracing the lessons of forgiveness and acceptance taught to him by Solyaris, as opposed to the other scientists who ignore or distance themselves from their apparitions. Kelvin’s transformation from detached stoicism to emotional sensitivity and spiritual understanding, accepting the god-like Solyaris as a mirror for what he cannot accept, is complete when he admits to Hari that “you mean more to me than any scientific truth." Tarkovsky presents the philosophical elements of the film, exposing the dangers of emotional and spiritual detachment, and Kelvin’s story as a single progression, personalising the universal and generalising the individual. Kelvin’s development mirrors the philosophical development of the film and vice versa, much like how Solyaris acts as a mirror for those who travel to it. Solyaris changes the space station and its inhabitants but is also altered itself, as seen in the final reveal of the surface of the planet. In this way, the film’s intent is clearly intelligible beneath a complex plot, the sentiment of the film loses nothing to the substantial philosophical arguments and, equally, the intellectualism of the film is not diminished by the need to affect the audience emotionally.
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