Outer Space Psycho Drama
Donatas Banionis, 1924-2014
little over an hour into Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris, Kris Kelvin nervously tells Hari, his wife, that he has to leave the space station he is on but that she is welcome to come along. She agrees, but when she asks him to help her take her dress off so she can change into a space suit, Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) loosens a few rows of laces at the back of the dress before he realizes that there is no seam there to be opened—the laces aren’t functional. Kelvin tears the dress open from the neck to the shoulder; Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) doesn’t flinch. When he pauses at her lack of reaction, she looks at him, baffled. “What are you looking at?” she asks.
What he is looking at is a woman who—like the dress she is wearing—is impossible. Kelvin came to the space station alone; his wife has been dead for years. But it’s telling that Tarkovsky has amplified not the pages (and pages) of scientific speculation present in Stanislaw Lem’s 1960s novel of the same name, but this single, inspired sartorial moment, and the familiar fear we see in response to it in Kelvin’s eyes: This woman is not who I think she is.
We know that though science fiction dramatizes stories that take place in the future—it’s how they make the science fictional—the genre actually delivers cloaked versions of some contemporary moment: Planet of the Apes riffs on civil rights, Star Wars recasts World War II, and Blade Runner suggests transportation solutions for the mess that is downtown Los Angeles. In Solaris, though, Tarkovsky curtails dramatization of the future to such an extraordinary degree—and so expediently shrugs off any of the genre’s typical conventions—that it’s tempting to suggest the film isn’t science fiction at all. We open on shots of plants, water, and sunlight, so that our expectations of a technological backdrop or alien environment are immediately thwarted. The soundtrack begins with Bach, and the film’s first hour—this material is not in Lem’s novel—concentrates on the natural world: a stream, fields, a house, children, and a horse. Viewers hoping to be dropped into the usual science fiction milieu of future time or extraterrestrial place will be disappointed, and maybe even angered, by the degree to which Tarkovsky withholds those items.
This extended opening takes place at the country home of Kelvin’s father. Kelvin is scheduled to leave on a flight to a troubled space station orbiting Solaris, a planet covered by a possibly-sentient ocean composed of a mysterious material. The space-time realities of space travel mean that this is the last time Kelvin will ever see his father—the older man will be dead long before Kelvin ever returns. The two have trouble talking, and are then interrupted by a visit from a man named Burton, who had been at the space station long ago and had a hair-raising experience there. He wants to prepare Kelvin and influence his belief in the importance of studying the planet. There is a young boy with him whose identity is left a mystery.
There was certainly precedent for opening your science fiction epic in the countryside—Kubrick, of course, has us spend the opening section of 2001 with the apes, and there’s no way to watch Solaris without thinking of its mod sci-fi cousin. The sterility, absence of women, and antiseptic formalism that Kubrick brought to 2001 couldn’t be further from Tarkovsky’s vision, though. The characters in 2001—the ones we watch after “The Dawn of Man,” at least—operate with an all-encompassing, unquestioned resolve. The astronauts headed to Jupiter, especially, have no uncertainty regarding their mission, and they do exactly what they’re supposed to do. The drama arises from an external, machine-oriented issue: Kubrick’s astronauts are engineers, and their computer fails, so they have to take steps. The dramatically-gripping parts of 2001—as opposed to the technically-, philosophically-, or psychedelically-gripping sections—form what is essentially the first and greatest Information Technology drama in the history of cinema: Can something be done to fix this computer?
Audiences felt—and still feel—that Kubrick finds all sorts of fascinating material, both narratively and visually, in this. Tarkovsky didn’t share this opinion. “The film has made on me an impression of something artificial,” he said of 2001. “It was as if I have found myself in a museum where they demonstrate the newest technological achievements. Kubrick is intoxicated with all this and he forgets about man, about his moral problems. And without that, true art cannot exist.” Tarkovsky’s claim that Kubrick “forgets about man” seems, at first, odd. For all of 2001’s opacity or psychedelic suggestion—it’s easily one of the top scoring “What did that mean?” films of all time—one thing that seems clear is its focus on possibilities for where humanity is headed. But man’s “moral problems” are not necessarily the same as the possibilities for his species, and therein lies Tarkovsky’s complaint. The motor that drives 2001 is essentially anthropological: We are a species, the film suggests. We came from somewhere, and we’ll head somewhere. The forces behind this are monolithic.
The motor that runs Solaris, though, is psychological. Tarkovsky draws the tension in his film from guilt, doubt, and shame. The discovery of an exotic extraterrestrial landscape and intelligence is, in this story, old news. The planet Solaris has been discovered, explored, studied, and theorized about for decades and decades before the story even opens, and it has led to no particular insights about humanity, and even fewer about Solaris. “Why is it that in all the science fiction films I’ve seen the authors force the viewer to watch the material details of the future?” Tarkovsky asked. “Why do they call their films—as Stanley Kubrick did—prophetic? Not to mention that to specialists, 2001 is in many instances a bluff, and there is no place for that in a work of art.” This complaint is in many ways the one Kelvin finds himself investigating at the opening of the film: people have already taken their prophetic stances on this space ocean. They have examined its composition and speculated about what—or who—it is. But the science of “Solaristics” has come to nothing, and Kelvin openly doubts whether the study of this place he’s being sent to is even intellectually important. It’s possible the whole thing is just a waste of time.
And then he reaches the station and finds an environment he is entirely unprepared for. “I’d like to film Solaris in such a way as to avoid inducing in the viewer a feeling of anything exotic. Technologically exotic, that is,” Tarkovsky said. The refinement in the second sentence there is crucial. Because rather than the clean, computer-controlled mod-pad of 2001, the space station in Solaris is a disordered site of grotesquerie, mortification, and shame, in which the two remaining crew members (a third has committed suicide just before Kelvin’s arrival) are being visited by corporeal manifestations of people or creatures from their thoughts and memories. And the first time Kelvin falls asleep, even though he barricades the door before climbing into bed, he wakes up to find that he’s sharing his cabin with his late wife. She seems a bit disoriented, but she is wearing that lovely dress, and it’s a perfect fit. Though the manufacturer—of the dress and of the woman—apparently doesn’t realize that human clothing is supposed to come on and off.
his is a ommonplace, but it should be said that both Solaris and 2001 are formidable works of art in part because they allow for multiple readings. Watch 2001 when you’re a child, for instance, and the shutdown of HAL can feel like the silencing of the astronauts’ child: he said something wrong, and now he can’t live with them anymore. Watch it when you’re older, though, and another metaphor feels equally viable: these men are taking their parent off life-support, and they’re going to have to live without him now. The tensions in these films—and the ways in which those tensions and situations, because they’ve been dislocated to outer space and the future—allow us to project our own particular assumptions and preoccupations onto them.
What’s interesting in Solaris is how, though the problem is located on a space station, the problem doesn’t, even within the world of the story, have anything to do with space or the future. The men call the manifestations visiting them “guests.” We learn very little about the other crew members’ guests, though, because each man seems either to be ashamed of the identity of his guest, or to be doing physical battle with and possibly “murdering” his guest as a way of getting rid of it. (Kelvin isn’t innocent of the latter strategy. He shoots the first Hari into space, but a new Hari—with no memory of the previous one—shows up the next night.) The men aren’t battling a technology, so they aren’t sure whether they should respond with technology. They discuss whether to bombard the ocean with radiation, but they’re grasping at straws. When the guests stop appearing, one crew member hypothesizes that this might be because the ocean has read something in Kelvin’s mind that has made this form of communication—which the men experience as psychological torture, though the ocean probably isn’t aware that it is considered poor form to communicate with humans by sending them manifestations of their dead wives—no longer necessary.
By that point in the film, though, we’ve watched what has primarily been a story about a relationship between a man and a woman. The ocean is just the MacGuffin that sets everything in motion, and we don’t know what’s in that ocean any more than we know what’s in the monolith in 2001. Both films circle an enigma.
It’s surprising, when thinking about how useful these MacGuffins are in the context of science fiction, that the auteurs of the 1960s and 70s didn’t work in the genre more often. The Birds wanders in that direction, but Hitchcock always keeps a tight rein on his material—it never moves beyond the bounds of suspense. Antonioni was asked more than once if and when he would make a science fiction film, because his examinations of relationships between men and women were often so uncompromising that they unnerved audiences, or moved into perceptual territory—one usually says “visual,” but Antonioni’s obsession with the instability of any one person’s vision makes “perceptual” seem more accurate—that felt alien and unsettling in a way we associate more closely with science fiction than with traditional relationship films. Antonioni’s response to the question of whether he’d like to make a science fiction film is revealing of his characteristic dourness, as well as of the falseness, even at the practical level, of thinking that the genre is somehow different. “Actually, there is a science fiction film in the works,” he said. “But I’m not entirely happy with it yet. I would like to, though—who knows? Perhaps one day. Most likely, we’ll still come up against the same problems.”
Antonioni never made his sci-fi movie (unless you count the end of Identification of a Woman, though that’s more a reference to science fiction rather than its actual presence), but it’s the terrain Antonioni already shared with Tarkovsky that interests here. One of the insights of Antonioni’s films is that falling into or out of love with someone always already involves entering an altered state. Antonioni likes to have one or more characters who are so keenly aware of this fact that they’re distressed by it. Regardless of the character Monica Vitti plays, for instance, the woman knows she is losing herself. Knowing you’re high on someone doesn’t necessarily make the high go away, though, and Antonioni so aggressively interrogates the notions of identity and desire bound up in relationships that he eventually pushes his characters—and thus his narratives—into modes of perceptual disorientation that viewers often had no words to describe outside of the vocabulary of psychedelia or…science fiction. But Antonioni’s characters don’t do drugs (sit down, fans of Red Desert: quail eggs don’t count) or go into space, and the films take place in the present.
In Solaris, however, Tarkovsky had the opportunity to go ahead and start with the preconditions of science fiction—travel in a spaceship; to an extraterrestrial location; to meet an alien consciousness—but then allow the narrative to pursue questions not merely of that alien ocean, but of what it means to love. Can you love a simulacra drawn from patterns in your head? Or are we only ever in love with simulacra—the things we project onto people, drawn from patterns in our heads? Solaris begins with talk of a space station in the future, but ends in the territory of relationships and the past.
here Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Stephen Soderbergh’s 2004 remake is forgettable) and Antonioni’s Red Desert meet is the narrative location that gives the lie to genre as a useful organizing principle in the first place. Genre may be a way of categorizing our thoughts in addition to our DVD stores and websites, and we of course already have a common phrasing for what many great films do: “transcend” genre. Even that metaphor is loaded, though, suggesting as it does that genre works are somehow babbling down in the inferno, and we require a brilliant Virgil to help us escape upward to paradise. It’s more accurate to suggest that some directors simply operate independently of genre considerations. In Solaris, for instance, in the space of a few seconds we are thrilled by a vision of weightlessness, moved by a man and woman embracing, entranced by the image of the convulsing ocean, absorbed in the details of a Bruegel painting, stirred by images of Kelvin’s parents and childhood, and still cognizant of the struggle these men on the space station are engaged in with their situation. The moves Tarkovsky makes between these kinds of material feel entirely natural. The film is devoid of any particular show-off sensationalism, pulp-exhibitionism, or winking suggestions of being somehow “post-modern.” Things proceed quietly, and watching the film, one is reminded that to move so smoothly between these supposedly disparate states is in fact entirely natural—that thoughts like these are not disparate, but the natural process of our minds at work and play. We think about all sorts of things each day, and experience all sorts of moments, and most days move through these thoughts and states fairly naturally. In the bookstore and at the theater, however, we accept the market’s claim that these are very different things—that science fiction isn’t about relationships, that psychedelia can only be the result of psychotropics, that mysteries must include detectives, and if there are more than a few laughs, it must be a comedy. It’s the parsing out of material into these rigid categories, however, that is the artificial or stylized act, and not any author or auteur’s failure to conform to the rules of the game.
In other words, it isn’t the authors who make odd moves, it’s the marketplace. It’s genre as a concept that is weird, not intergenre or genre-crossing work. And the enmity that genres often feel for one another—the way in which “literary fiction” sniffs at “memoir” (two terms whose use to indicate discrete genres is recent enough that people in publishing as recently as the 1980s still found the term “literary fiction” odd), while they both condescend to science fiction and fantasy, who then look down upon the detective novel, which looks down upon the romance novel, which looks down upon pornography (a genre which is happy to complete the cycle by accusing literary fiction of being repressed, affected, uptight, and therefore something to be looked down upon)—points us straight toward the old narcissism of slight difference. It’s so easy for material operating in one genre to slip into another genre because the boundaries are illusory in the first place. You’re trapped on a space station investigating a mystery, and what appears is the simulacra of a beautiful young woman whom you loved in the past—and the simulacra says that she loves you now, and cannot bear to sleep anywhere other than with you. We have a science fiction setting, the investigation component of a detective narrative, the emotional conflicts of a relationship narrative, and the naturally resulting sleeping arrangement decisions to be made.
So when claiming that Solaris is one of the best science fiction films ever made—and it is; I am—the problem is that one of the methods Tarkovsky uses to achieve this greatness is to make the film not particularly science-fictional. A character wears a space suit for a bit; we see some stars and an ocean; there are hallways we understand form a circle. That’s it. But while we’re dazzled by those distractions and our own expectations, Tarkovsky uses sleight of hand to simultaneously work with all sorts of other material, as well. And though it’s fine—and fun—to distract an audience with a puff of smoke, the best magicians appear to be doing nothing in particular. Tarkovsky knows how people’s eyes track across a frame (one of his favorite moves is to have a character exit a shot, then re-enter moments later from a surprising direction), and he knows what their minds hope to derive from a story. In science fiction, we expect a rocket ship and a space station mystery with alien creatures. And we get that here, but slant. We get it, but so in the end we’re moved not because an alien has been defeated, but instead because the film has somehow become a meditation on how badly we miss childhood, how intensely we love our parents, and how powerfully we regret the ways in which our own attempts at love have failed or gone wrong. By the end of Solaris, we occupy Kelvin’s position: we don’t understand what machine or entity has taken us to this surprising place, but we feel we belong here.
he fate of the woman with the odd dress is similarly arresting. In this case, unfortunately, ingenuity finds a unique path to heartbreak rather than home. Like Antonioni and Bergman, Tarkovsky’s talents seem particularly enlivened when there is a woman at the center of his films. (Mirror, the lovely, languorous film he made after Solaris, features Margarita Terekhova in what may be the sexiest fully-clothed hair-washing scene you’re ever likely to see, at least in any film in which the same actress plays the roles of a man’s wife and of his mother.) It’s not terribly surprising that Kelvin, knowing full well his space station girlfriend is a counterfeit, becomes taken with her anyway. When we see that Hari is developing the ability to be away from Kelvin, though—to live, if only for moments, on her own—she becomes even more fascinating. Loosening herself from whatever alien force has bound her to this man seems a noble struggle.
But with neither a personal past nor an identity, the independence Hari develops while stranded on a space station offers limited consolation. Kelvin finds the flaw in the dress, but it’s Hari who sees a way out. Because though weightlessness is lovely to watch and perhaps a brief thrill, no one wants to float forever.
Dan DeWeese is the author of the story collection Disorder and the novel You Don’t Love This Man. He is the founding editor of Propeller and publisher of the magazine’s book imprint, Propeller Books.