Planet Earth & Replicants (The View From Solaris)



The plot of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) is basic enough. Sometime in the near future, Soviet psychologist Kris Kelvin goes to investigate goings on at the space station orbiting the planet Solaris. A massive churning sea with a mind of its own and no stable ground, planet Solaris, sludge and slime of hot molasses,  is itself a mind-reader, projecting live, conscious, thinking, feeling replicants onboard. Without their own memory, each replicant is a fully humanoid copy of a loved one drawn from the painful past back home that trouble and sear the conscience of the individual cosmonaut to the point of madness.

The shots have their own visual logic that set the narrative arc. The opening shots are from planet Earth, primarily in nature visualized as lush, green, rainy and wet. The majority of the film is shot on the derelict space station illuminated by dim artificial light and by the sick light reflected off the the planet surface outside the windows and haunted by the replicants. The tentative green shoot of plantling in a tin onboard the station recalls the opening Edenic scene of the film. It figures a concluding dialogue between two scientists about the future of the mission, about new life and searching for miracles. The closing scene resembles something from planet earth.

Throughout the film, art on the wall (of the dacha back home and onboard the station) stitches the thought of the film together. In the spirit of things, these are reproductions. Among many others, they include a nineteenth century picture of hot air balloons suggesting flight, reproductions of two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (The Hunters in The Snow and The Corn Harvest) suggesting something about the human, and a reproduction of The Trinity by Andrei Rublev, suggesting something by way of a metaphysics, also by way of distant memory.

In the closing scene, we think we’re back on planet earth; there’s a dog and the pond and the family dacha from the opening scenes of the film. Something is, of course, wrong. The green is muted somewhat. As Kelvin peers at his father through the window he sees that it’s raining inside the family dacha (which is itself, we already know from earlier in the film is a reproduction of his father’s father’s country house). The simulation is imperfect. Completing the idea of the film, Kelvin falls to his knees before his father as they embrace in a gesture of reconciliation. The camera is joyless, pulling off the ground to show from above that the garden-like scene is an island, a small psychic garden spot stabilized in the vast hot miasma of planet Solaris.

[[Most of images I grabbed here from the cinema section at the marvelous “Atlas of Places,” billed as “a public educational collection of AcademiaArchitectureCartographyCinemaEssaysPaintingPhotographyResearch“]]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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