clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Movie Talk - Solaris

Remember literature classes where some crazy allegory was pointed out in an otherwise interesting book (i.e. "The Nautilus represents Verne’s expressions of inadequacy as a man."), and you thought, "Man, they are really making too much out of this."? I’m about to do that with "Solaris", the 1972 Russian film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem.

Please bear with me- there is a point to this exercise.

Here’s the setup- the basic story is about a planet named Solaris. Humans have been studying it for years, and have determined that the huge ocean covering it is probably alive, and may be sentient. The crew of the orbiting station is having severe problems, and a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, is sent to evaluate the situation. Lem’s motive in writing this was his interest in the big idea of humanity encountering a truly alien life form, and being unable to comprehend it due to the significant differences in perception and understanding. Tarkovsky is more interested in exploring the personal story of Kelvin in order to derive understanding about the self, conscience, and morality in an age of ever-increasing knowledge, and is less interested in Lem’s overall narrative. Get it? Same narrative, but one guy is using it to look outward and the other is using it to look inward.

OK, let’s back up 200 years to Edinburgh, Scotland. David Hume was dissatisfied with the basis of philosophical thought. In the prior several millennia of human existence, mankind’s curiosity about the world had far outstripped the ability to gain knowledge about existence. This had shaped philosophy/theology to rely heavily on received wisdom. Up until the time of Socrates, the answer to the question of "Why are we here?" was found by consulting the local priests.

Theology and philosophy were strongly intertwined, and focused much more on social relations than individual enlightenment. This was by necessity- for the vast majority of human existence, the worst thing that could happen for anybody was to encounter a group of people from another tribe or nation. Very rarely did anything good come from such experiences, and most of human development concentrated on understanding and managing those encounters (i.e. war, laws, economics and government).

In real life, David hume wore a shirt.

And a do-rag, evidently.

By the late 18th century, the British Isles had become a place where a thoughtful individual was free to work on a philosophy that didn’t emphasize social structures so much (i.e. the Vikings had stopped invading, and the religious wars had settled down). David Hume took advantage of this happy situation, and decided to examine the assumptions and constructions that governed the science of thought to that point. He wrote some truly brilliant treatises on the very nature of facts, truth, causality, determination- basically he set the foundation on which all future logical thinking and philosophy would be based. Hume established distinctions between truths/claims established by definition, experience, or derivation, and explained how those distinctions supported various arguments. After Hume, it was no longer intellectually or logically acceptable to answer a "why" with "because it is written…" or "because so-and-so said…". In an age and part of the world dominated by Calvin’s ideas of predestination, this was very significant. Pretty much every modern atheist draws on Hume’s criticism of religious belief, whether they are aware of it or not (disclosure- TTR is not an atheist).

Why should we care about philosophy? Well, if it was football season, we wouldn’t. But it’s not, and we should care. A society’s choice of philosophy permeates almost every aspect of their relations and worldviews. Want an example? Have you ever dealt with the French, and wondered why they were so difficult? It’s because of Cartesian reasoning, which dominates the Francosphere. This is a philosophy that includes a very useful application for personal decision making. Cartesian reasoning emphasizes understanding what’s in your own personal best interest, and de-emphasizes that which is valuable to others. Are you starting to see why to societies, one influenced by John Locke and Adam Smith, and the other by Rene Descartes, can be so different? I really believe that we reason, value, and decide the way we are taught to reason, value and decide, to a very large extent.

There are issues with Hume’s work, as brilliant as it is. Since data that is personally experienced (or sensed) is valued so much more strongly than data received from somebody else’s experiences, philosophies resulting from Hume’s framework tend to be very self-centric. It is very difficult to work with ideas like love or religious devotion in a consistent manner. Once you start to test the basis of your personal beliefs and understandings, how can you give credence to another person’s? If you are skeptical of your own emotions, what can you think of those voiced by another?
These are the same issues Kelvin has to deal with in Solaris, whether intended by Tarkovsky or not (Ha! You thought I forgot about the movie.). When he arrives at the planet’s space station, he finds only two survivors.

Now, to get this movie, at this point you have to realize this is not a Hollywood film, and Kelvin does not intend to take charge of the group, and convene a meeting "TO GET TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS". This is a very personal film, and the characters care more about their own needs and desires than any mission. Kelvin checks in with each of the survivors, notes that they want nothing to do with anybody else,

and catches a fleeting glimpse of a couple of small, trollish characters hidden in the survivors’ staterooms. He views a video message from one of the recent deceased (a friend from home) and he starts to learn that the crew has been bedeviled by "guests" – living, physical personifications of guilty memories and conscience. Kelvin is warned that he, too, may expect a guest.
The next morning, she arrives. Her name is Hari, and she is an exact representation of his dead wife, who committed suicide 20 years earlier when he left her. At first horrified, he slowly begins to engage Hari as a person. The rest of the movie deals with the implications of that.

This deals with a very Humesian (is that a word?) question- if all we know of somebody else’s existence and reality is what we perceive of them, how real is a construct that acts and responds exactly per our perception of another person? Science fiction is the perfect venue to entertain such an issue. You may scoff, saying this is a manufactured issue and unimportant outside the narrative of this piece of fiction. Yeah? Well, isn’t memory and perception all we have of any of the dead that we have ever cared for? This really is a significant question, as it deals with the reflection in eternity of all we, as individuals, have ever been or known. In other words- in the end, is there any point to life? Our lives in particular? In "Solaris", Kelvin has to decide how to apportion weight between his rationality and his morality, and in doing so answers the question.

There is no evidence that Tarkovsky focused on philosophical dilemmas branching from Hume’s work. He intended to go deep with this film, certainly, but most critics agree that he was more interested in matters relating to the human conscience in a modern age, rather than the solution of philosophical issues of definition (can you imagine pitching such a movie to Hollywood? "Wittgenstein? Is he that cinematographer?"). Isn’t that a sign of successful art- that Tarkovsky intended to comment on one aspect of humanity and managed to address coherently and successfully a separate existential issue as well?

So, you’re thinking, "That sounds deep, but I’m a smart guy, and if I have to learn about philosophy, I would rather do it with a movie than a book. I’ll bet "Solaris" is one of those movies that has an entertaining story while it works a deep sub-plot." You would be wrong. "Blade Runner" is the movie you’re describing, not "Solaris". "Solaris" is three hours long, and a full one hour involves silent footage of water ripples and Tokyo traffic. Tarkovsky liked to use footage without action (or interaction) to force the viewer to adjust to his pace, and reflect. Tarkovsky also randomly (as near as I can tell) flipped between monochrome and color. There’s also the issue that when characters speak, you only get sub-titles about 80% of the time, and they seem shorter than the spoken dialogue would indicate. In other words, "Solaris" is a movie you have to want to see in order to finish. If you’re up to it, and this sounds interesting at all, go for it, but you have to engage it.

You get a lot of this in "Solaris"

Ebert lists it as a Great Movie. I like to link his reviews because I have found that he has interesting content for before and after viewing a movie.

A few years ago, Stephen Soderbergh made a new version of "Solaris". I haven’t seen it yet, but have it DVR’ed and hope to see it soon. I understand he comes at the source material from a slightly different direction. Thoughts?