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Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky - 1972)


The first time I saw this film was on TV. I was maybe 14 years old and thought it was incredibly dull and slow, but I liked the scene where the hero's wife shakes and convulses back to life and you can see her nipples through her wet blouse. Actually, I did like the film at age 14, and I was struck by the stark, bleached out cinematography. I just didn't know what the film was about and I thought it didn't have much of a plot.

Last time I saw it, I think I got more of the point. I saw it on video, so I could rewind to catch all the (very dense) philosophical dialogue in the subtitles. The film is about a planet which may (or may not) be conscious - a vast watery world. We never discover the real nature of this planet, but those who inhabit the orbiting space station find their thoughts and memories coming to life as real, physical beings. The question - the reason the hero, Kris, is sent to the planet - is to determine whether the cost of studying the planet is justified. The planet is clearly a metaphor for ourselves. Do we make the journey into ourselves - or is that strange and disturbing place best left alone?

I find it dificult to explain exactly why I like this film so much, because it does have an touch of the 'interminables' about it. It's a film with a very strong 'sense of place' about it - even though that place is a fictional planet that is (mostly) only seen through the porthole of an orbitting space station. When I think of the film, I have an image of the surface of the planet - the slowly swirling waters of the ocean. I find a deep resonance with this image. I think it is something to do with the effect the moon can have when it is full - like a tidal pull on the brain.

Also, the coming-to-life-of-memories reminds me of the Bardo states as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a book I find very inspiring.


Solaris is my favourite of Tarkovsky's films. The last time I saw it was on the big screen at London's National Film Theatre in February 2005. I saw it with my friend Christian, and although intellectually I can't remember the effect it had on me, just thinking of it now is making my heart jump. The great goal of the scientists on board the space station orbiting Solaris is 'contact' with the alien intelligent life form. I know that the film did to me what the planet Solaris did to the characters in the film: it stretched open my heart, reached inside and touched me. I know it made 'contact' with me, and I am profoundly grateful, though I have no idea how that happened.


That photo - the famous one taken from the Moon of the Earth - is said to have contributed to a shift in the way we see ourselves and our home planet. To set this story on a distant planet inhabited by an incomprehensible yet sentient and intelligent being has the effect of highlighting what it is to be human - and our relationship to the Earth. On Solaris we discover what it is to be a human being.

I saw Solaris again recently with Rachel. I'm not sure what she made of it. We had been walking down by the river, and at my favourite bend I noticed the weeds flowing in the current, in just the way they flow in the opening shot of Solaris. I wanted to show Rachel that opening shot, and then we ended up watching the whole film.

This time I got a feeling of 'humanity' from the film - that, in a sense, we are not born human, but we are capable of becoming human. Through hope and fear, we imagine we can overcome our limitations and escape our fate. This idea separates us from each other, as it is the common fate of humanity and our common human limitations we are trying to get away from. It is in giving up those ideas of escape that we find ourselves free-falling towards our doom - for however much time remains - and, looking around, we find we are not alone.

We are not alive through any act of will. The most we can truthfully say is, "I am alive, ...but I don't know how I got here, or even who I am." Hari is very obviously in this position, as she literally comes into being overnight, fully formed as an adult, but we are all in the same existential boat. Although not technically a human being, Hari is the most humane of the space station's occupants.

When we realise that our inability to make sense of our existence is not some private failing or accident, but is inherent in being alive, then we come closest to finding that longed-for 'contact', and closest to finding our own humanity.

Copyright 1999-2008 Paul Mackilligin