Friday, March 29, 2013

Film Review: Solaris for Rabelais Magazine

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

An article I wrote for the La Trobe University magazine, Rabelais. Published in the 2013 second edition.


By Olivia Maria Hărşan

The infamous race to space affair between the Soviet Union and the United States not only provoked the launching of rockets at the height of Cold War tensions, but also the boom of the sci-fi genre within novels, comic books, television series and films. It was during this time, that cultural theories belonging to philosophical and literary thought were increasing at a rate equivalent to scientific advancements.

Eight years prior to what has become the most remembered space expedition, the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969, the Polish writer, Stanislaw Lem published a multifaceted novel called Solaris (1961). The story has since inspired three adaptations, all of which, according to Lem, fail to delve entirely into the essence of the realm of Solaris as depicted in the book. It is rare that an author will give their blessing to a visual interpretation of their writing, as though they opt to completely disregard the reality that a film could never manifest as a direct copy – word for word and image for image – of a book. Nevertheless, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) is a remarkable accomplishment, maybe not so much as an interpretation of the text, but certainly notable for its artistic aesthetics and philosophical undertones.

The plot follows the mental degeneration of a group of scientists while aboard the space station Solaris. The psychologist, Dr. Kris Kelvin, is asked to regain order on board after a series of strange occurrences are reported. Kelvin arrives to a state of chaos – objects scattered across the corridors while the scientists demonstrate odd behaviour, responding vaguely to Kelvin’s inquiries. What is at the centre of the madness is the morbid appearance of Kelvin’s deceased wife, Hari. Throughout the film, the existence of Hari as an entity that relies on Kelvin’s presence to survive is examined and weighed according to the principles of human supremacy. The remaining two scientists, Dr. Snaut and Dr. Sartorius assess Hari’s lack of worth as a reproduction while Kelvin strives to defend his wife. The story of Solaris thus establishes the notion of existential crisis – the questioning of the meaning of life and its value via the backstory of Kelvin’s tragic loss.

The richness of Tarkovsky’s symbolic representation is often discussed in reference to his oeuvre. Solaris, like most if not all of his films, is comprised of conceptual elements, which ultimately warps the viewer’s perception. For instance, during the beginning of Kelvin’s hallucinations, a woman dressed in a negligee drifts across the rooms of the spaceship, her bracelet jingling as she walks.  She leads Kelvin to the dead body of his friend, Gibarian and then disappears. The bell-like sound of her bracelet is reminiscent of a thurible (a metal censer in which incense is burned during religious services). Tarkovsky continues the religious allegory by placing an Orthodox icon on the mantelpiece in Kelvin’s room. Tarkovsky thus formulates a mix between science and religion, distorting the line between organic, logical evidence and manufactured beliefs.

Religion becomes juxtaposed with references to existentialism and the underlying theme of science. At one point, Kelvin engages in philosophical conversation with the two other inhabitants of the spaceship, the sceptical, Dr. Snaut and the more contemplative Dr. Sartorius.  The camera follows the characters as they move around the library debating whether or not Kelvin’s wife, Hari, is human or a duplicate. At this point, Hari begins to cry revealing an obvious signal of her ability to feel and respond emotionally. It is in this scene that Tarkovsky has presented eloquently the connection between reality, as we know it, and extra-terrestrial existence –an idea explored from two perspectives, of philosophy and of science.

Apart from the striking visual qualities, Solaris employs an impressive soundtrack that deserves its own extensive analysis. The film begins in the serene countryside and cuts to a futuristic metropolis as it tracks a video call between Kelvin’s father and an old friend. The sound here fluctuates between the peaceful diegetic sounds of a rural landscape to the transgressive noise of an industrial city tunnel. Later, the eerie presence of Hari is placed against an ominous score reminiscent of an unnerving psychological thriller – something that extends to the unconventional filming techniques. Panoramas, invasive zooming, unusual angles and other experimental frames frequent the film, effectively supporting the psychological mind-warping factor and recalling the essence of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

The film concludes in a somewhat ambiguous fashion. Kelvin returns back to earth but things are not as they seem. As he peers through the window of his father’s house, he notices that it is raining inside and yet his father seems oblivious to the matter. Perhaps Kelvin hoped that it was all a dream – the expedition and Hari’s death – only to find out the inevitable. Whether Solaris is predominantly about the impossible interaction between humans and non-humans or an effort to rationalize the meaning of reincarnation through a science vs. philosophy paradigm, it is ultimately a story about a man learning to accept the untimely death of his wife. 

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