Movies that are religious experiences, Part 2 (Solaris)

Movies that are religious experiences, Part 2 (Solaris) October 19, 2011

A little while ago, I posted about my favorite movie, The Fountain.  It is one of three of my all time favorite movies.  The second one is Solaris.  I first saw Solaris at the international film theater as an undergraduate.  It was the 1972 Russian version by Andrei Tarkovsky.

Solaris (1972)

I went right out at read the book by Stanislav Lem, which became one of my favorite books. It was remade in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh, and starred George Clooney.

Solaris (2002)

The remake is actually pretty good, with the exception of the last scene — but I will get to that.

The basic plot of Solaris is this: there is a distant planet, Solaris, which is circled by a space station.  On the station, there is a miracle happening.  And somehow the planet is causing it.  Each of the inhabitants of the station has a “visitor”.  The planet spontaneously generates these persons using information from the minds of the inhabitants while they are sleeping.  In some instances, these visitors are unwanted.  In the case of the main character, Kelvin, who is visited by his dead wife, the visitor is desired.  It eventually becomes apparent that the visitors are not strictly-speaking human.  They are immortal and will resurrect if they are killed.

What I get from the movie is summed up in a phrase from the last line of the book: “I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.”  Cruel miracles.  The miracles in Solaris were cruel because they took place without regard for the wishes of the human beings involved.  They were cruel because they were unpredictable.  And they were cruel because their meaning was inscrutable.  The humans could not communicate with Solaris and the planet seemed indifferent to human desires or needs.  In short, Solaris is a metaphor for God.

Cruel miracles is perfect expression my understanding of divinity.  Not only because I identify God with Nature, and Nature can seem cruel, but also because Nature is wonderful and awe-inspiring, so that it seems “miraculous”.  Not “miraculous” in the sense of violating natural laws, obviously, but seemingly extra-ordinary, even when it is not.  But throughout all this wonder and awe is threaded the “cruel” reality that Nature is ultimately indifferent to human life and unresponsive to our search for meaning.

In the movie, each of the characters copes with these miracles in different ways.  One tries to destroy the miracle.  One commits suicide.  Only Kelvin, in the end, embraces the mystery, and persists “in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.”  Having faith in cruel miracles means, I think, just being willing to be present, as a witness to the wonder and beauty and terror of this world.  As Annie Dillard in  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek writes when she catches the awe-inspiring sight of a mockingbird’s descent:

“The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

The following excerpt comes from a critical analysis of the book Solaris.  Unfortunately I have lost the source, but it sums up why I love Solaris:

“Terror for man arises from the universe’s inability or unwillingness to communicate with him.  It is the tragedy of man’s imperfect machinery for gaining knowledge.  The alien represents the limits of man’s knowledge and the implacable silence of the universe.  The silence alludes to nature’s indifference about establishing contact with man and, on a deeper level, the fundamental nothingness of the universe.  It symbolizes existential absurdity.  When man exceeds these boundaries, he lapses into anthropomorphism.  How does man react when confronted with the incomprehensible and uncommunicative, but benign?  He may commit suicide, or try to destroy the alien, or refuse to acknowledge the validity of the alien.  Each represents a capitulation or a refusal to come to terms with the new world.  But the hero is transformed by the events.  The change is to accept a new posture and a new world in which man is not supreme and must instead wait expectantly while believing in cruel miracles.  The alien presents a challenge to man that frustrates while also elevating him so that he may pursue ever higher goals.  The key to this philosophical puzzle is that man must eventually learn in certain situations to forgo control and to give into the subconscious aspects of his personality and the world.  The hero is willing as no other to go with the mystery and chaos of the alien and, in the process of yielding ‘control’ over his destiny, to renounce his anthropomorphic vision of the universe.  The possibility is that he will learn of an entirely new mode of being, which the other control-obsessed typical human beings could never entertain.”

When confronted with the silence of Nature in response to our pleas, for answers or salvation, we can despair, we can try to destroy Nature, we can imagine another world where human beings are supreme, i.e., heaven (what the writer above calls a lapse into “anthropomorphism”), or we can embrace the mystery that is this life.  I wonder if our undeclared war on our planet is not a product of an unconscious desire to destroy the “alien” so to speak.  Solaris challenges us to look the alien other in the face, and accept the miracle that is Nature (or God), in spite of the concomitant cruelty of its silence.

The reason why I don’t like the last scene of the American remake is because it implies that Kelvin and his deceased wife are in some kind of heaven, at least some place beyond death, where love endures.  Where the Russian film ends, the American remake adds one more scene, the happy ending that seems to be obligatory in all American dramas.  The American version tries to tie a bow on what is otherwise a perfectly framed unanswered question mark.  To pose any kind of heaven as an answer to the fundamental mystery that is Solaris is, I think, to betray the real message of the movie/book: that if we are not to capitulate to the meaningless of life, then all we can do is “persist in the faith that the time of cruel miracles is not past.”

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