EPIC JOURNEY: Kris Kelvin inside the space station in a still from Solaris.

By Anand Holla

As a film genre, science fiction, or say space sci-fi in particular, has increasingly become a vehicle for awe-inspiring entertainment than elaborate exploratory forays into mankind’s new leaps in outer space. While recent films such as Interstellar and Edge of Tomorrow have managed to pack in both substance and swagger, a close look at some of the classics that spawned the genre was certainly what the cinephile ordered.
Over the weekend, the Doha Film Institute (DFI) hosted a special programme of films and master classes “that explore the representation of spaceships in cinema” at Katara Drama Theatre to eager film-lovers. “Since the early days of cinema, spacecraft have regularly featured in films of all genres,” the DFI said, explaining their showcasing of a selection of films depicting spacecraft.
The schedule featured Stanley Kubrick’s path-breaking 2001: A Space Odyssey, Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita: Queen of Mars, a Director’s Cut of Ridley Scott’s sophomore feature Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Robert Wise, and the last film of the programme, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which was screened on Saturday night.
Now regarded as epic, Solaris is a 1972 Russian sci-fi art film adaptation of Polish author Stanis?aw Lem’s novel Solaris (1961). The meditative psychological drama directed by the Russian auteur Tarkovsky uses the fictional planet Solaris to find out more about ourselves and what we know.
Psychologist Kris Kelvin, played by Donatas Banionis, is sent to a space station orbiting Solaris, so as to discover what has caused the crew of three scientists aboard to lose their minds. But he, too, would undergo the same emotional upheaval that they have endured.
Often called Tarkovsky’s response to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris demands a lot of patience as it unfolds at a languid pace, slowing down the very process of how we intake cinema. The great Roger Ebert, in his review of Solaris, pointed out the underlying similarity and difference in the two classics.
“Both films involve human space journeys and encounters with a transforming alien intelligence, which creates places (2001) or people (Solaris) from clues apparently obtained by reading minds. But Kubrick’s film is outward, charting man’s next step in the universe, while Tarkovsky’s is inward, asking about the nature and reality of the human personality,” wrote Ebert.
Just as Solaris dissects the minds of the scientists aboard the space station and turns some of their memories real, Kelvin, too, must deal with a prototype of his late wife Hari, who is exactly the same except for her memories.
As Ebert points out, Hari isn’t simply a physical manifestation; she has intelligence, self-consciousness, memory, and lack of memories. This Hari is unaware that the original Hari committed suicide and keeps questioning Kelvin so as to discover who she is. Unfortunately, it seems that since she is a product of Kelvin’s memory, her being is limited by how much he knows about her – Solaris can know only what Kevin knows.
Ebert goes on to masterfully explain this point that rests at the heart of the film: “When we love someone, who do we love? That person, or our idea of that person? Some years before virtual reality became a byword, Tarkovsky was exploring its implications. Although other persons no doubt exist in independent physical space, our entire relationship with them exists in our minds. When we touch them, it is not the touch we experience, but our consciousness of the touch. To some extent, then, the second Hari is as ‘real’ as the first, although different.”
After the screening of the film, Richard Pena, Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University who earlier in the day helmed the masterclass, went through the finer points of Solaris and answered questions from the audience.
Pena said that the film explores the core idea of what journey is. “We are both outside in some world and yet inside. We have taken a journey across space. We have taken a journey into ourselves,” he said, “Solaris (the planet) reads people’s conscience in a way. It sends them a projection of their desires, fears, what they want, what they don’t want.”
In the end, the film, Pena said, makes a point that the greatest journey that we could possibly take would be to know ourselves. Solaris premiered at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. In 2002, Steven Soderbergh wrote and directed an American adaptation of Solaris, which starred George Clooney.