Film Review: Solaris (1972)

When it comes to the “science and technology” part of Science Fiction, there tend to be three axis of thought, that end up forming into a sort of spectrum-ish thing – like those charts used in some video games where your character’s stats are portrayed in context of a geometric shape, with portions sticking out in different directions based on how you’ve chosen to weight things. There’s a technical term for this, but I don’t know what its.

The first of the axis is one where science serves a set dressing, with little to do with the actual narrative. Star Wars, Flash Gordon, and other works of Space Opera are classic examples of this. The other two axis are what I’d call “Technophobic” and “Technophilic” commentary.  “Technophilic” commentary takes the tone that science and scientific progress is at best a net win for society, and is at worst not harmful – with any detriments coming from mankind itself (but with the potential for humanity to benefit from these technologies in the future). Star Trek is a great example of this, with other works of this tone including 2001 (Technology will be a vehicle for our growth beyond ourselves), and Interstellar.

On the other side of things, with Technophobic SF, they run the gamut of “I Am Play Gods/Me Go Too Far” SF (as parodied in this Dresden Codak strip), to “Technology Separates Us From Our World And Ourselves” – in other words the science fiction equivalent of the slew of “Old Man Yells At Cloud” articles throughout history.

Solaris falls into that latter category. The film is a Soviet produced adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem. I’d read Lem’s Cyberiad before this, and had enjoyed it somewhat. The book is a collection of absurdist science fiction stories, based around two traveling “Constructors” asked to build various tasks, and running into trouble based on either their own lack of common sense, or the lack of common sense of their clients.

From my understanding, Solaris, the original work, was more technophobic, with the speech of the character of Sartorius about “We don’t need other worlds, we need a mirror,” being the character speaking on behalf of Lem. However, director Andrei Tarkovsky and the film’s co-writer Fridrikh Gorenshteyn, are… less sympathetic for that mindset. Lem’s position is that we don’t understand each other, why should we seek out life on other worlds. In Tarkovsky’s film, the we see the “visitors” from Solaris – or the visitor in the case of Hari – as more appealing and sympathetic than the rest of the station’s crew.

As far as the rest of the film’s cast is concerned, Kris Kelvin, our audience perspective character, is the one who has come to the station with perhaps the most open mind of the est of the humans there. Of the remaining cast, the rest of the “Solarians”, as they’re described by people on earth, have basically made up their minds – and have given up on making contact with the life form that is the planet. Consequently, when we get the most definitive attempt to make contact – when Hari appears shortly after Kelvin’s arrival – rather than accepting her, as Kelvin does, they reject her outright – speaking around her as if she’s not present, and denying her.

In the original work, the focus is on the impossibility to communicate with alien races, because they are totally alien in both physiology and psychology. Yet, ironically, in Tarkovsky’s adaptation, it is the psychologist of the three scientists on Solaris station who able to truly reach to their visitor, and ultimately the planet – leading to what I might describe as the point of Tartovsky’s adaptation. Specifically, the idea that humans seek out alien life because we are so consistently horrible to each other. As Kelvin says (paraphrasing), “We love what we know we can lose – ourselves, those close to us, a country.” In Tartovsky’s view, by going into the stars, encountering other races, and risking losing our humanity in the process, only then can we truly love humanity.

It is a sentiment I don’t entirely agree with, but it’s a sentiment that takes a story that was somewhat technophobic and turns it almost backhandedly technophilic.

Other than the narrative and direction, the film is very well done – the acting performances of the film’s cast are fantastic, and the sets for Solaris Station are wonderfully done, getting across a station that is both intricate and spartan, with a few more luxurious living spaces.

Solaris is a film that fans of SF should definitely watch at least once, much like 2001 and Blade Runner. It may not merit a lasting place in your film collection, but it’s worth your time anyway.