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"Yet I am aware how susceptible to illusion we all are. How disturbing it is that our illusions are often our most important beliefs." - Hanif Kureishi

Andrei Tarkovsky's film Solaris is a three hour meditation on the nature of our perceptions and how they keep us from communicating with foreign entities. It is a highly emotional piece, about an Orpheus who can't keep from looking back at his grief until he is trapped in it entirely. Visually mesmerizing, Tarkovsky references Rembrandt and other painters to imply that cinema is worthy of brilliance as those artists were.

It's a film about our plight as human beings, condemned to freedom and our perceptions, condemned to reflection and trapping ourselves in a moment we thought we had passed. Solaris left a mark on me, that image of seaweed undulating in the river. And when I sleep at night, at times my dreams bring that image back to me. It's a brilliant film, worthy of analysis.

Solaris is a planet that reads the unconscious thoughts of those who study it. The people of Earth have spent decades studying Solaris, waiting for the moment when communication will be possible. But for those sent to Solaris to study it lies emotional peril. Psychologist Kris Kelvin is soon to be sent to the space station, to evaluate the mental faculties of those aboard it and decide whether the study should continue.

He spends his last day with his father in the country. Henri Berton, a space pilot who was once ridiculed, is with them as well, to give further information on Solaris to Kris. When Berton was on Solaris, two of the scientists went missing. He went down to the planet's surface to find them and ran into a boy who was four meters tall. Having recorded his venture, the film shows only clouds. His report was chalked up to hallucinations. Berton later reveals to Kris that when he went back to Earth, he discovered that the son of one of those lost scientists looked exactly like the "hallucination" he saw.

On Solaris, Kris discovers that Dr. Gibarian has committed suicide and the other doctors are quite sketchy. He sees other people roaming about the station, a woman ghosting through halls. Dr. Snaut and Dr. Sartorius reveal nothing. When Kris falls asleep, his dreams are laid open for Solaris to read. And upon waking, he finds his deceased wife Hari sitting across from his bed. She isn't a hallucination, Kris discovers. Hari doesn't know much about her previous life, doesn't even recognize her face when she sees a photograph of herself. Nor does she remember committing suicide, but understands that there is a dark, grave secret within herself that is kept even from her. Much like Silent Hill 2's Maria, Hari is self-aware of her relation to the planet Solaris.

Initially, Kris tries to get rid of her. Hari always comes back to life painfully, though. She always returns. One particular scene shows Hari coming back to life after drinking liquid oxygen. Her convulsions as she revives are difficult to watch. The longer Hari is alive, Dr. Sanut informs Kris, the more human she becomes. Hari begins to understand the grief she brings Kris and in loving him, wants to destroy herself. For Kris is lucky, he's told. Dr. Snaut and Dr. Sartorius have their thoughts and desires brought to life by Solaris; Kris has a memory.

Kris is happy to have Hari back and introduces her to the doctors as his wife. Once he has her back, he realizes that he loves her. When Hari was alive, Kris wasn't sure if he did love her but in hindsight, in having her again, he understands just how much he loves her. Just as it had done while Hari was living though, grief is tearing them apart again. In the end, Hari's decision is made by herself, like it was while she was alive. And despite being a "hallucination" of Kris', she's human enough to decide that her living isn't good for him.

I could go in many ways with this film. I know they don't list it in references, but I'm certain Silent Hill 2 references this film by having Maria killed in front of James' eyes and then brought back to life (also in a town that reflects the character's mental status, much like Solaris). I could analyze the paintings in this film and what they mean in relation. I could analyze this film as an adaptation, because there were massive changes from book to film (Tarkovsky was upset with author Stanislaw Lem, who appeared to think that adaptations were meant solely for the book to be brought to life by film). But I'd like to focus on what is truly important to this film which is the inability to communicate with non-human life forms and the emotional conflict that Kris suffers.

Reflection is perhaps the most apparent theme in Tarkovsky's Solaris. Upon dying again, Hari's glassy eyes are reflected in a mirror which are then reflected again by the angle, somehow meeting Kris' gaze. The planet Solaris is Kris' underworld and though years have made the pain he felt for Hari's death dull, it hasn't gone away. Dr. Snaut tells Kris, "We don't need other worlds. We need mirrors." Man studies the cosmos in order to get further and further away from himself. We're so focused on what's beyond ourselves, so that we never have to look inside and feel that pain. By studying Solaris, the scientists are forced to look deep into a reflection. And it appears that when one goes that deeply into the underworld, it's difficult to come back out. Kris talks about leaving for Earth afterwards, but he has only delved deeper into the planet of Solaris, trapping himself in grief.

For Snaut and Sartorius, their id-like thoughts are brought to life. As such, they're always trying to hide them or shoo them away. We only see their "hallucinations" in glimpses, as if the doctors are still trying desperately to hide those thoughts away. Kris' Hari is out in the open for everyone to see. She forces Kris to reflect on his life and his relationship with her. He believes that he can take her back to Earth and live with her, but the doctors insist that the second she's on Earth, she won't exist anymore. Kris reflects, but he isn't able to come out of that underworld. The point of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth is that you have to look back. Our human nature makes us look back, but you also have to reflect and you have to be able to move forward afterwards. Kris can't move forward anymore. All the space travel in the world couldn't bring him out of the grasps of grief.

Kris is condemned to his illusions. In the same way that the little boy at the beginning is condemned to his illusions. He's spooked by something in the stables, but when Kris' mother takes him back, it's revealed that it was just a horse. We tend to refer to these illusions as "perceptions." Illusions, hallucinations, perceptions. Ions and ions. The word "ion" comes from Greek, the present participle of ienai which meant "go." In essence, "I go." Kris moves forward, but is always anchored by his illusions, which are steeped in the past. This is true of all of us. We carry our perceptions, hallucinations, and illusions that are drenched in waters too old for us to understand while we believe we move forward. In truth, we're stuck deep in the mud. But alas, we go forward.

It's made mention in the film that we sometimes see figments in nature. Solaris provides ample shots of nature, as if willing you to see figments in the wavering branches. When I first watched it, I kept waiting for a hand to appear amidst the seaweed. As Albert Camus once noted, there is no meaning in the universe but man is condemned to find meaning. That is our human condition, that we must eke out meaning. I always go back to Jack Skellington and his enthused cries of, "What does it mean? What does it mean?" As we're only allowed to see what our perceptions allow us, there is always something lost in translation.

Perhaps this is a comment on the nature of adaptation by Tarkovsky. Solaris is a translation of Lem's novel through a different set of eyes. And I really think that this is what Tarkovsky imbues in his shots, following narrow halls until we find Kris. It gives the feeling of trained eyes, leading us to the vision. Just as Hari is self-aware of her role to the planet Solaris, Tarkovsky is self-aware of his role as the director.

As human beings, we are beset with illusions. The problem is when we begin to believe those illusions. Communication with nature is impossible because we will always see what we want out of it. And while Solaris was criticized for not following this theme that was in Lem's novel, it's hinted at subtly in this film. Yes, no one is going to make a big speech about perceptions. But there is something quite poignant about the horse translated on the space station as a crudely drawn horse. There is something about the relation of Kris' memories of childhood, fully realized images of snow, juxtaposed with Hari's memories, paintings and picture books about snow.

We can choose to believe our illusions and suffer loss of communication. Or we can choose to live with those illusions, as Snaut and Sartorius live while hiding hallucinations behind curtains. There is no cutting one's self away from illusions. For to do so would be inhuman.


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February 2013

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