Adapted from: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
Starring: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet, Anatoli Solonitsyn
Written by: Fridikh Gorenshtein, Andrei Tarkovsky
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky
I began this piece on the day that the robotic spacecraft Cassini finished its thirteen-year mission around Saturn, a groundbreaking exercise that has returned some astonishing images of the ringed planet and captured the imagination of space enthusiasts around the world. That same week, a programme from Professor Stephen Hawking aired, discussing the need and ongoing efforts for humans to work towards finding another home planet as Earth begins to crumble under the weight of our expansion as a species.
Exploration has always been a key human endeavor and fascination, one which has yielded incredible discoveries and terrible consequences. In science fiction, it’s a constant source of inspiration, a tried and tested method of not only exploring the galaxy, but what it means to be human in the face of such a vast and unknowable universe. It’s a big question, a huge question. One that we will likely never be done with answering.
In their respective versions of Solaris, both Stanislaw Lem and Andrei Tarkovsky wrestle with this question, but approach it from different but related directions. For Lem, his story is about the difficulty humans might have in understanding an alien territory and lifeforms and in turn, how they might fail to understand us. In Tarkovsky’s, Solaris represents the potential for a loss of humanity as we venture further away from Earth; how do we hold on to our humanity and what makes us human in the first place? Both narratives choose to subtly emphasise the horror and trauma of the situation through the scientists’ relationships with Solaris and the visitors it sends.
During one scene in the film, Snaut, a resident scientist aboard Solaris station, advises the main character Kelvin and says “don’t turn a scientific problem into a bedroom story” (depending on the translation from Russian, but it's roughly the same meaning in others). It’s a sombre word of warning in the film, but also a wry comment on its narrative. Lem, and in turn Tarkovsky, do just that. Kelvin finds himself aboard Solaris station to investigate why the three remaining scientists, Snow/Snaut, Gibarian and Sartorius, have slowed in their research of the planet. Solaris is covered by an ocean that appears to be one giant organism that might be studying those sent to study it. By the time Kelvin arrives at the station, one scientist, Gibarian, is dead and the other two, Snow/Snaut and Sartorius, seem too preoccupied to be working on anything in particular.
Kelvin is warned of visitors, but it’s only when his wife Rheya/Harey/Hari (depending on which version you're reading) appears in his room, a woman who has been dead for many years, that he begins to understand why his colleagues are distracted. That is when the scientific problem becomes a bedroom story, an intimate relationship drama between two people who don’t understand each other and the wider ramifications of their ongoing interactions. These long-dead visitors are of Solaris and they began appearing after an x-ray experiment on the ocean. Manifestations of their guiltiest secrets, Kelvin and his companions can’t work out if their new companions are sent to torment or to connect. Focalising the story through Kelvin and his wife’s relationship allows Lem and Tarkovsky the chance to be both expansive and intimate, objective and emotive.
Lem’s description of Kelvin’s arrival happens in media res as he begins his descent. As the psychologist makes his way through the abandoned corridors, it feels like an entry into a haunted house, all shadows and dark corners. It’s an astonishing opening sequence, one which emphasises the gloomy and alien nature of the planet as well as the station’s isolation within it. In the novel, Solaris is orbited by two suns, one red and one blue, which gives the station an odd lighting. It also creates a sense that Solaris often exists between two extremes, a liminal space where human and alien meet.
In the novel, the encounters with the Ocean are conveyed by a sense of sublime, an experience of something immeasurably great and in turn terrifying: “Now [Solaris] was spread out before my eyes; flat, and already immense.” This continues through a fantastic manipulation of language during the novel. Lem discusses the ocean during his response to Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation, stating:
The Solarian globe was not just any sphere surrounded by some jelly - it was an active being (although a non-human one). It neither built nor created anything translatable into our language that could have been "explained in translation". Hence a description had to be replaced by analysis - (obviously an impossible task) - of the internal workings of the Ocean's ego. This gave rise to symetriads, asymetriads and mimoids - strange semi-constructions scientists were unable to understand; they could only describe them in a mathematically meticulous manner, and this was the sole purpose of the growing Solarian library - the result of over a hundred years' efforts to enclose in folios what was not human and beyond human comprehension; what could not have been translated into human language - or into anything else.
The passages in which Lem describes the ocean are suitably dense, full of technical terminology that, as he mentions, are ‘strange semi-constructions,’ at once both dizzying and frustrating. The disconnect is where that sense of alienation is wrought. As a reader, it can be difficult to follow and understand. In this, Lem captures the Ocean’s elusiveness perfectly; if the scientists studying it cannot hope to quantify it, then for the reader, it represents something even further away from our own understanding.
For Tarkovsky, the Ocean was not as important as the moral dilemmas and ethical questions its existence would give rise to. The Ocean in the film is briefly seen in flashes during human encounters with it and its visiting representatives. While it is recognisably of Earth to anyone who has done a chemistry class or meddled with marbling ink, it is just uncanny enough to render it alien to evoke the sublime that Lem creates. Tarkovsky said that he would “like to film Solaris in such a way as to avoid inducing in the viewer a feeling of anything exotic.” He argued that the narrative would “need to put the characters in real, not exotic, scenery because it is only through the perception of the former by the characters in the film that it will become comprehensible to the viewer.”
Tarkovsky’s way of introducing the disquieting nature of the Ocean is more in keeping with his focus on the human characters in the story, rather than its setting. The film opens on Earth, the day before Kelvin’s departure for Solaris, and offers up a warning about the psychologist’s destination. Tarkovsky keeps the environment pastoral with little technology beyond the widescreen TV the characters use to watch pilot Henri Burton’s testimony about his encounter with the Ocean. His description of his failed mission and the brief images of the planet that Tarkovsky allows to break through feel sinister enough to cast a shadow over Kelvin’s impending mission.
The music, particularly during the opening credits, is also essential to establishing this atmosphere as well as bringing in a religious element. ‘Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639’, is used. It is a choral prelude by Johann Sebastien Bach is taken from his Little Organ Book and offers up a prayer for strength: “Let not my heart and hope grow faint/But deign Thy grace to send me.” It is fitting for Kelvin’s journey, a man who not only faces the daunting planet, but also the guilt of his past.
The religious allusion is something made in the opening of the novel too. Kelvin describes his arrival thus: “I found myself inside a vast, silver funnel, as high as a cathedral nave.” It is a brief moment, but as with Tarkovsky, the idea of an unknowable and higher power is an undercurrent throughout. The State Committee of Cinematography requested that Tarkovsky delete the allusions to God made during the film, a change the director resisted. These religious connotations add to the enormity of humanity’s confrontation with Solaris, a profound experience and one that questions mankind’s place in the universe.
Lem was not impressed by Tarkosvky’s interpretation of his book, having read the screenplay and seen just twenty minutes of the film, describing it more as a version of Crime & Punishment than of Solaris. In truth, I would probably side with Lem on this one. Tarkovksy’s film is slow and sometimes laborious, a place in which the science in science fiction has to be displaced in order to somehow make it more literary and the dilemmas more worthy of exploration. However, I can also appreciate Tarkovksy’s ability to root out a deeper meaning in Lem’s text and bring it to the forefront. Where they both succeed is in establishing the horror of the situation that Kelvin finds himself in, whether it is in confronting the alien majesty of the Ocean or the guilt from his past that prompts all kinds of moral torment.
The film ends with the suggestion that Kelvin succumbs to Solaris and chooses to remain with the facsimile of his aging father who he likely won't see again. Like Cassini, Kelvin takes his place as part of the planet that he has been studying. It's an ambiguous moment, one which can be read in myriad of ways, but I choose to go with a little optimism here; a human and an alien lifeform have found some kind of common ground, a way to communicate, and a way to connect in the vastness of space.