Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Memory Is A Bitch

"Don't turn a scientific problem into a common love story."

"What a ghastly sight. I can never get used to all these resurrections."

Solaris is perhaps the Soviet Union's best modern film. Based on Stanislaw Lem's science fiction masterpiece of the same name, the 1972 film deals with inter-species communication and, more importantly, humankind's relationship to the past. The planet Solaris is home to a living sea, a vast pink fluid with some indeterminate level of cerebral activity or consciousness. The sea has made contact with the men who occupy the station that orbits the planet, but its message is ambiguous, impossible to decipher.

Over time, the scientists of Solaris lost patience with their mysterious host, and decided to irradiate it. The planet's reaction, while not perfectly comprehended, is decidedly hostile: the pink sea enters into the individual memories of the station's crew members, with disturbing results. Shockingly, the planet has the ability to create physical manifestations of a human being's most personal memories. Over time, Solaris' scientists are driven insane by these tangible memories. By the time the film's protagonist, Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, arrives at the station, only two other crew members are left at the station to welcome him. His close friend has only recently committed suicide.

The meaning of the film, Solaris, is as open-ended as the planet's mode of communication. Is the film about how we necessarily fail to communicate effectively with one another? Is it about the power of the past to subvert the present? In the film, Kris Kelvin encounters his wife, Haris, who committed suicide ten years previously. Hari represents the planet's best effort to communicate with Kris, although it's impossible to say whether the planet has a positive or negative message for its most recent visitor: the deceased woman, after all, is both a source of intense joy and intense pain for Kris. Presumably, she reminds Kris of good times, bad times, love, and brutal separation. In any event, Hari incarnates another type of communication, or perhaps miscommunication. This is the inevitable flawed intercourse (pardon the expression) between man and woman. Although Tarkovsky's style is always elliptical, one senses that Kris and the original Hari understood each other almost as poorly as Kris now understands the pink sea below him.

The darkly comic essence of memory in Solaris is encapsulated by Kris Kelvin's doomed efforts to overcome the past by shoving this alien avatar of his ex wife into a rocket in order to ship it into outer space. Needless to say, Kris burns himself in the process. But who wouldn't like to do as Kris did and ship the memory of a beloved girlfriend to a distant star?

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