A few weeks after I first watched the film, I read the novel on which it is based, published in Polish in 1961 and in English in 1970. Sections of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris consist of discussions of ‘Solaristics’, a research programme attempting to understand how contact with an alien intelligence might be achieved. It was a project, the narrator tells us, which seemed to its critics to be ‘the space era’s equivalent of religion: faith disguised as science’. The struggle to contact an alien mind is a surrogate for the mystical quest for God.
In another interpretation, also suggested in the book, those who claim to be trying to understand the water-covered planet are not attempting to contact an alien mind at all. They are only ‘seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors’. The struggle to understand an inhuman intelligence then becomes a critique of solipsism, the inability or unwillingness of the human mind to move outside itself. For Lem, this may have been the meaning of the book.
Tarkovsky’s Solaris is different. It is a stream of numinous images, which – as we see them on the screen – seem intermingled with our memories and desires. Yet what we see is not manufactured by our conscious selves. Instead, film releases parts of ourselves we had not known before. We cannot fully articulate what they tell us. For me, though, the epiphanies evoked by Tarkovsky are revelations of the dream-like transience of the human world.
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