PRESENT COMPANY | Solaris

While the astronauts try to ascertain the apparent sentience of Solaris’s oceans, director Andrei Tarkovsky coaxes us into speculating on the sentience of his camera. By Louis Rogers

 

It’s around the one-hour mark that Kelvin speaks the ominous, inevitable words that distinguish any space drama worth its salt: “is there anyone else on this station?” Having come to investigate reports of strange psychological afflictions among the crew, Kelvin has found them aloof and despondent, wandering around the craft without paying him attention. But he’s also had a creeping conviction that there is some other presence aboard. His question is half-answered when he gets his own “visitor” – an apparition from his past, seemingly produced by the radiation from the swirling seas of the planet Solaris below. But this redoubles rather than resolves the sense of mysterious presence that permeates the spacecraft, and the film.

While the astronauts are trying to ascertain the apparent sentience of Solaris’s oceans, director Andrei Tarkovsky coaxes us into speculating on the sentience of his camera, which floats, swerves, and zooms around the film’s scenes. As if to intensify the suggestion of some deliberate hand, Solaris is repeatedly intercut by footage taken by its characters, who are watching it back. But these moments of explicit authorship are complicated too: in the characters’ recordings of the planet Solaris there is always the suggestion that their eye and attention are being manipulated. Scientists at home are dismayed by their dreamy, idling footage of mists and water.

All these provocations play into Tarkovsky’s wider probing of how we conceive of reality. His subtle formal disruptions of the film itself go beyond asserting that reality is subjective: they present the alarming, alluring possibility that subjectivity is itself prone to being objectified. It’s a telling moment when the moribund Dr Snaut quotes a line from that most persuasive of world-makers, Don Quixote: “Never before, Sancho, have I heard you speak so elegantly as now.”

 

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