(A poster by Victo Ngai as seen on Chrome Yellow)
The Projector theatre in Singapore is currently doing a run of Tarkovsky’s movies – and I couldn’t resist the chance to watch Solaris a second time. There was a time when I was devouring everything from Tarkovsky – Stalker, Mirrors, Andrei Rublev, his writings on cinema. Since then, my attention span has gone through a significant contraction and I now stay drugged in the great melodrama of streaming television. A call for Solaris was also a call from the past. One I am glad I answered.
Before watching the movie, I picked up the original story from Stanislaw Lem, the Polish writer. I found a BBC audio rendition of it, which was a delight to hear. Lem’s Solaris was a scientific exploration of an alien existence. A psychologist travels to a space station orbiting a celestial system Solaris. The Scientists on the space station are studying Solaris, particularly its deceptive ocean. When Kris, the psychologist arrives on the station, he meets only one of the three Scientists. One has killed himself and another refuses to come out to meet Kris. The third, Snow, is shifty, drunk and paranoid. By the next day, Kris begins to experience strange events when he wakes from his sleep to find his ex-Wife in his room. He kills this apparition by sending her into space, but another apparition returns. As he talks to the other Scientists, he realises that they have guests of their own and think that Solaris’ enigmatic ocean is reading their minds during sleep and conjuring images from their conscience. Kris begins to fall in love with his apparition, but at the same time works with the Scientists in defeating the ocean.
Lem’s story is focused on man’s attempt at communicating with an alien entity. The attempt seems futile because we expect communication to be in our own perception, our own language. When the alien communicates through a different mechanism (like manifesting our own conscience), we see it as hostile and want to destroy it.
While listening to the book, I remembered similar themes from Tarkovsky’s movie. However, when I began to watch it, I realised that I had forgotten the overwhelming emphasis on human connections that this adaptation had. The movie adds a long prologue in an idyllic country home where Kris remembers his mother and his ex-Wife. He spends an emotional evening with his father and aunt, as he purges some of the old memories in a bonfire.
In the space station, while the main plot points remain similar to the original story – much of Kris’ focus is on understanding his relation to his Wife Hari than in understanding the alien entity. He is annoyingly absorbed in his romance, connecting back with a woman whose death he feels responsible for. In a slight exaggeration to Lem’s story, Hari continues to die, and though she regenerates every time, each of her deaths casts another shadow of guilt on Kris.
Kris’s illusions illustrates how a lot of our relationships and people around us exist only in our own perceptions. Strangely, Kris never seems to doubt the authenticity of Hari’s love, but he is afraid of killing her again by leaving the planet. He has already done this in the real world when Hari commits suicide after he left to another city for his job.
The Scientists decide that they can counter these apparitions by telling the ocean their conscious thoughts instead of just their dreams. “Be careful what you wish for”. This to me is the convergence between Lem’s story and Tarkovsky”s adaptation where man tries to bring back the communication to his own terms, even though Solaris was offering it a chance to understand their own dreams and desires. It highlights again in the voice of Snaut, the futility of exploration when we are only looking for mirrors.
The original story returns Kris back to earth where he writes two reports – one that narrates reality and another which reports no anomalies at the space station. However, in the movie Tarkovsky leaves us with a doubt on whether the Scientists ever leave and whether even the idea of their victory and their return is a dream that the ocean throws back at them. Perhaps our entire reality is an illusion- a product of someone creating a virtual world with the thoughts in our own heads. A matrix. And in this one, Kris is happy to take the blue pill, but most of us go chasing down the rabbit hole.