Compare it, for example, to 2001: A Space Odyssey, that old sci-fi warhorse, in which we travel across the universe, through a wormhole to who knows where, only to encounter, ultimately, a giant human baby. Talk about mirrors. The implication of the film is that the entire history of the universe is driving towards creating some kind of refined form of humanity. Even HAL has a human personality with very human motivations and instincts; that’s precisely what makes him so dangerous. It’s ironic then that Tarkovsky’s film was a response to Kubrick’s 2001, which Tarkovsky deemed too inhuman, too cold and clinical. He wanted to make a film about space travel that focused more on human emotions and psychology as affected by space and the prospect of alien life. But the film also contains a very interesting scene that echoes Kubrick’s space baby, when Kelvin watches a video in which a frazzled space pilot describes seeing the giant form of a human baby being constructed on the surface of Solaris. In Tarkovsky’s film, it’s just a way of exciting interest about the alien planet, a shorthand method of communicating just how weird the place is. In Lem’s novel, it’s more explicit that this incident is the planet’s first trial run of sorts for extracting memories from human minds; the baby is the result of a very creepy “psychic dissection” process. Thus, though both 2001 and Solaris involve traveling across space to encounter an image of a human child, the implications of the two scenes are very different: one assumes human superiority while the other is rather conclusive evidence of something greater than us.
Another figure to think about in relation to all this is Dr. Manhattan, the most fascinating conceptual character from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. He’s an ordinary guy who, after a lab accident that seemingly disintegrates him, reconstitutes himself as this glowing blue inhuman being with tremendous powers. He’s different from other superheroes in that what’s interesting about him is not actually his power, but the way his experience alters his outlook on life and the universe. He becomes distanced from humanity, from emotions, and comes to believe that subatomic particles only he can see are as valuable and beautiful as the entirety of human life, that inanimate rock formations on Mars dwarf all the achievements of man. Maybe that’s the key to getting beyond a human perspective. It’s hard for us to imagine valuing an infinitesimal quark as highly as even a single human life, let alone all life, but that perspective is certainly one step towards the incommunicative distance of the ocean on Solaris.
JB: I haven’t had time yet to see Watchmen, and I didn’t read the graphic novel, but I’m glad you’ve brought up 2001. I wonder if Kubrick’s space baby a) reveals an uninspired storyteller (Pauline Kael called 2001 “monumentally unimaginative”), b) acquiesces to the limited adaptability of audiences in a way David Lynch rarely does, or c) intentionally comments on man’s repeated insistence to figure human life as we know it into any rendering of progress (fuck Darwin, I guess).
As we float farther away from Solaris itself, I’m reminded of a concept that has been raised before in books ranging from Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies to Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live. In a nutshell, does the way we dream enable our ability to understand movies, or have movies (and television) shaped the way we dream? Watching films, are we able to follow immediate (one-cut) leaps in time and space because our dreams include similar leaps? Or do our dreams include such leaps because of the impact of cinema and television? Put another way: Did primordial man dream about anything other than what he knew firsthand—the search for food, the fight for survival—in linear episodes? If so, when did that change?
For the moment, these are rhetorical questions. I’m not looking to send us down a rabb—, er, wormhole. But this transformation of human understanding is what Kubrick is getting at in the moment when the obelisk first appears in 2001. At some point, this scene suggests, human (or pre-human) awareness went beyond what we actually knew firsthand. Then again, as the conclusion of 2001 proves, there’s a limit to what we can imagine. More often than not, we build our otherworldly visions out of familiar materials that we have stockpiled on “islands of memory,” to borrow a phrase from Tarkovsky’s film that should keep this conversation from drifting endlessly into space.
Before I miss the opportunity, I want to be sure to say that I admire Tarkovsky’s film, especially in light of the obstacles he faced in the form of government censors. His film is indeed less inhuman, less cold and less clinical than 2001. (Of course, so is a morgue.) There are many elements of Tarkovsky’s Solaris that succeed in revealing the human spirit—the evolution of Hari (Tarkovsky’s Rheya) being my favorite. Yet while I acknowledge that Tarkovsky’s Solaris is of a different era and a different culture, there’s a hollowness to many of its scenes that makes it hard to get close to. Additionally, I question the decision to spend almost 45 minutes on Earth at the start of the story, because I don’t believe it achieves Tarkovsky’s stated intent, which was to make us long for home once the story reached space. In the Earth scenes, Kelvin is seen at a pleasant cottage that sits next to a tranquil pond, around which he likes to take walks, with a horse roaming free on the grounds. Removed from the film, it’s a rather idyllic setting. But something about the way Tarkovsky films these scenes makes it seem like Kelvin is confined there under house arrest. In any case, when Kelvin leaves Earth for the space station it feels to me like liberation—though perhaps that reveals my own impatience.
Is Soderbergh’s film better than Tarkovsky’s, or the other way around? To me it’s apples and oranges. The scenarios in which the films were made are too different. It would be like comparing a baseball slugger’s stats in the recent (current?) steroids era to those of a hitter in the “dead-ball era” of the early 1900s. In terms of reflecting Lem’s original story, it sounds as if Tarkovsky has the edge, though perhaps only slightly. If I understand you correctly, Lem’s Solaris is about the process as much as anything, the same way that All the President’s Men is about what Woodward and Bernstein do to uncover Watergate more so than it’s about what they uncover; I don’t think either Solaris film gets at that. Still, on its own terms, I find Soderbergh’s Solaris to be nearly flawless. It’s on the short list of films from the past decade that remain as engrossing to me today as it was on my initial viewing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the score by Cliff Martinez, which is nearly as significant to the effectiveness of this picture as Clint Mansell’s Kronos Quartet-powered score is to The Fountain (for my money, the best score of this young century), but mostly I think the film succeeds because Soderbergh takes so many compelling dramatic elements and philosophical teasers and forces them through a tiny aperture. I see how coming to Soderbergh’s picture having already been exposed to Lem and Tarkovsky has a way of revealing what his Solaris isn’t. But coming from the other direction, I can’t help loving what it is.
EH: Well said. You’re right that Lem’s Solaris is about the (thought) process as much as anything, with the emphasis on concepts rather than characters. Neither film captures that, and really why should they? Neither Tarkovsky nor Soderbergh were setting out to make a Zack Snyder-style “faithful” adaptation of Lem’s work, but to create original aesthetic statements of their own using the novel as source material. You’re also right that even the two films, though similar in some ways, are fairly distinct in terms of their intentions and aesthetics. Tarkovsky’s film certainly has its problems, and I’d agree that the long opening section on Earth doesn’t really achieve what the director wanted it to: Kelvin is just so obviously miserable, sleepwalking through life, that the beautiful surroundings hardly create an idyllic portrait of life on Earth. One gets the sense that it doesn’t matter to Kelvin where he is. Still, there’s a sensual quality to these early scenes—like the one where Kelvin stands outside in a rainstorm and Tarkovsky lingers on the impacts of raindrops in a teacup—that does provide a meaningful contrast to the coldness of the Solaris station and the isolation of space. I think the early scenes are crucially important for letting us slowly acclimate to the texture of Kelvin’s life, getting a feel for his loneliness and depression and, simultaneously, his appreciation of simple sensual pleasures. It doesn’t make us long for home, that’s true, but it does align us with the film’s sad sack protagonist, and it adds poignancy to the later scenes of Kelvin’s dreamlike nostalgia for his mother, and his conflation of her with Hari—scenes that, like the lengthy opening, weren’t in the book at all.
As for Soderbergh’s Solaris, maybe I just can’t escape approaching it through the lens of the two other versions of this story, but this, not the Tarkovsky film, is the one that feels “hollow” to me. There are plenty of things to like here, of course. Martinez’s propulsive Philip Glass-like score is one of them, though few scores could match the ethereal beauty of Eduard Artemyev’s ANS synthesizer score to the first film, one of the greatest electronic scores of all time. Soderbergh for the most part gets richer and more complex performances than the flatter acting of Tarkovsky’s cast. The imagery is often stunning. I just can’t get past the impression that the film is lovingly crafted but ultimately empty, presenting a beautiful surface that’s as slick and impenetrable as the oscillations of Solaris’ ocean.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.