17 Nov 2014

An Initial Response to Interstellar

By Peter Krämer

This is a report on my experiences with, and initial thoughts about, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. As I am writing this on 10 November, I have seen the film twice. The second time was yesterday, in the context of one of the regular ‘Philosophers at the Cinema’ events at Cinema City in Norwich, which included a panel discussion chaired by Vincent M. Gaine and featuring Rupert Read, Elena Nardi and myself.

At my first viewing of Interstellar – it was the first screening on the first day of its UK release (7 November), on a huge, curved IMAX screen - I was at times deeply moved by the film, at other times simply stunned and at yet other times more intellectually engaged – and occasionally rather troubled.

Before seeing the film, I had managed to avoid almost all publicity and advertising, except for short and rather cryptic trailers, thus knowing as little as possible about its story. While watching the film, I was not just following its story and giving in to its audiovisual spectacle, but also mobilising various frames of reference within which I thought one might productively place the film. As someone who has spent several years researching and writing about 2001: A Space Odyssey (See, for example, my Introduction to 2001 here on thinkingfilm), while also having spent a lot of time last year with the films of Terrence Malick, I was bound to consider Kubrick’s film as well as Malick’s work as important reference points.

The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick (2011)
Perhaps it was the appearance of Jessica Chastain halfway through Interstellar which cemented the link to Malick’s films, especially The Tree of Life, which is the first film in which I had ever encountered the actress. In The Tree of Life an intimate family drama is puzzlingly connected to a spectacular presentation of cosmic history, especially the history of life on our planet. Interstellar uses a Science Fiction story to make a similar connection between the most intense human connections and the vastness of the universe. Furthermore, the drama unfolding in the Midwestern scenes of Interstellar increasingly reminded me of Malick’s Days of Heaven – especially the image of endless fields, and the spectacle of a cataclysmic fire.

Days of Heaven, dir. Terrence Malick (1978)
There is much to be said about how Interstellar relates to the key characteristics of Malick’s work as a whole, such as the following:
1) The prominence of voiceovers
2) The use of pre-recorded classical music on the soundtrack
3) An emphasis on extreme long shots displaying landscapes, often with tiny human figures or comparatively small buildings visible within these landscapes
4) The foregrounding of the human transformation and/or destruction of natural environments (through agriculture, buildings, fire, war and chemical pollution),
5) A primary focus on American characters and/or American geography (across Malick’s work, these are increasingly put into an international context),
6) The exploration of incomplete or dysfunctional families,
7) The presence of young children and/or teenagers, often at the very centre of the story (in three of Malick’s films a voiceover associated with a teenage girl dominates),
8) The centrality of male violence,
9) References to spiritual and religious matters (these become ever more explicit and dominant across Malick’s work).
For the time being, I have to leave it to the reader to consider the many parallels to Interstellar (points 3-8) and also the glaring differences (points 1-2 and 9). I do want to note, however, that what is perhaps most strikingly missing from Interstellar is (this would be my tenth point) Malick’s detailed attention to, and celebration of, the complexity, beauty and diversity of the Earth’s living environment (exemplified by his close-ups of streams of water, low angle shots of trees etc.).


2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)
Interstellar’s links to 2001 are manifold. Some of them would appear to be unavoidable, given 2001’s central place in the Science Fiction genre: spacecraft moving towards each other and docking, panoramic views of planets, trips through punctures in the space-time-continuum, the interaction between astronauts and human-like computers/robots – all of these inevitably evoke the iconic images of Kubrick’s film. There is also the overall structure of Interstellar, which is so similar to that of 2001 (although, there are also, of course, important differences): the protagonist leaves home to go on a space adventure during which most of his travel companions die; with little hope ever to be able to make it back to Earth, he then goes on an utterly mysterious journey through space and time which does eventually, and rather magically, return him home. In 2001 this journey is facilitated by the technology of an unknown alien civilisation, whereas in Interstellar it is revealed to be masterminded by humans of the distant future.
Throughout the early parts of the protagonist’s adventure in Interstellar, video messages from Earth serve to remind us (and him) both of his human connections back on Earth and of his separation from the people he loves. Much of this could be said, with some modifications, about the journeys of Heywood Floyd, David Bowman and Frank Poole in 2001. For example, 2001 features one videophone conversation between Floyd and his daughter on Earth, and one video message Poole receives from his parents. In both cases, the subject is a birthday (the little girl’s, the astronaut’s). The video messages featured in Interstellar also involve parents and their children, and one of the most memorable of these messages concerns a birthday (that of the protagonist’s daughter, who is reaching the same age his father was when he left her). Indeed, it eventually turns out that the ‘poltergeist’ whose messages set the film’s story about family separation and space adventure in motion, and also provide the daughter with all the information she needs to achieve a momentous scientific breakthrough, is in fact a future version of the very father who goes on the adventure.

Interstellar has multiple endings – in one the father has a final encounter, and reconciliation, with his dying daughter; in another he is on his way to the woman he has grown to love during his space adventure, the implication being that the two of them will begin to populate an alien planet. The emphasis in both endings is, more or less explicitly, on human fertility: the daughter is surrounded by all her descendants (who are now living in giant space stations), and the woman the adventurer loves is storing hundreds of embryos. The ending of 2001, by comparison, features a foetus returning to the vicinity of Mother Earth – but this foetus is not the result of human reproduction, and its future trajectory is left completely open. (Indeed, the film links this trajectory to that of the audience insofar as the film’s action ends with the foetus turning towards, and staring into, the camera.)

2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Kubrick (1968)
Thus, the link between father and daughter is running through all of Interstellar, and the hole in their lives created by the death of the adventurer’s wife, which is mentioned towards the beginning of the film, is about to be filled (at least as far as the father is concerned) at the end. Throughout the film, the emphasis is on the need to keep the cycle of human biological reproduction going. At the same time, the whole story is shaped by the interaction between father and daughter (with a little help from humans of the distant future). By contrast, 2001 has different protagonists for its different parts, never shows the people who are separated being reunited, focuses on processes of transformation (from pre-human hominid to human, from astronaut to Star-Child) rather than biological reproduction, and shows humans (as well as pre-human hominids) to be subjected to higher forces in the universe, rather than presenting them as being perfectly able to shape their own destiny.


Contact, dir. Robert Zemeckis (1997)
Interstellar also evokes more recent Science Fiction films which were in turn heavily influenced by 2001, notably Contact in which a mysterious message from the stars allows one woman to travel across the cosmos (in a spectacular wormhole sequence); she then encounters an alien intelligence taking the shape of her dead father. Gravity also comes to mind: a woman who has lost her young daughter tries to escape from her grief-stricken life on Earth into space, yet returns to the surface with what appears to be a renewed sense of purpose and a keen appreciation of the beauty of nature and life (cp. http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/gravitys-pull.html). Last but not least, there is Avatar, which features humans leaving Earth to colonise another world, the inhabitants of which, it is suggested, they will destroy in the process of exploiting its natural resources, just like they killed the non-human natural world on their home planet. These three examples begin to hint at what is, at first sight, a rather old-fashioned, even retrograde thematic and narrative emphasis in Interstellar.

The main protagonist is a male adventurer, who is forced by circumstances to work the land as a farmer – which he hates (as the film repeatedly makes clear, from the very beginning to the very end). Then, a sudden shift in circumstances (NASA scientists reveal to him that life on Earth will soon become impossible and he is needed to prepare a future for humankind in space), allows him, even pushes him, to embark on the grandest of adventures, leaving behind his farming work and also his family. Despite all the communicative and emotional connections he maintains with his family, and despite a temporary return to that family, he ultimately leaves family and Earth behind. (Upon his return, he appears to have no interest in connecting with his grandchildren, and he never asks what the situation on Earth is like, now that many humans have moved into space.)

This contrasts sharply with Contact‘s and Gravity’s focus on female protagonists, the processing of the loss of family members, the enduring link with those who have been lost, and the space adventure’s ultimate purpose to enhance the protagonist’s (and indeed, potentially, everyone else’s) life on Earth. Perhaps not coincidentally, Matthew McConaughey, who appears as the female adventurer’s love interest in Contact and is excluded from the space adventure there, takes centre stage in Interstellar. Relatedly, in Gravity George Clooney plays a character that one would expect to be at the centre of a space adventure – and who then becomes a ghostly presence in the adventure of a female protagonist. Interstellar puts the male adventurer firmly back at the centre.

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)
Another curiously retrograde element of Interstellar is its exclusive focus on the United States and Americans. Both on Earth and in space, we only ever encounter Americans (Michael Caine’s performance as Professor Brand suggests that he might be a former Brit who has lived in the US for a long time). Indeed the scenes on Earth are presented in such a way that one might think that only Americans have survived the catastrophe (which appears to be a combination of war, naturally occurring – as well as perhaps weaponised - plant diseases and general environmental degradation, mainly to do with soil erosion) that has befallen life on Earth. This contrasts sharply with the global effort made in Contact to build the alien machine (although here as well Americans are absolutely central to this effort), and with the emphasis in Gravity on the international nature of space exploration (the film features the International Space Station and also a Chinese space station).

When comparing Interstellar to Avatar in this respect, we find that in James Cameron’s film the human characters also appear to be Americans – yet they are contrasted, and largely found wanting in comparison, with an alien humanoid species. Where Avatar associates Americans (and an American-identified military-industrial complex) first of all with the destruction of natural habitats and ways of life, even of Mother Earth itself, Interstellar emphasises that Americans are the only ones who can even try to save the day – through science, technology, ‘bravery’ and exploration. What is more, the mysterious force that drives the narrative in Interstellar is, as already mentioned, ultimately claimed to be a future version of humanity, or rather: the American people – whereas the story of Avatar is largely controlled by a kind of planetary consciousness in the form of Eywa who is worshipped as a goddess by the natives (See collective member Rupert Read's discussion of Avatar on thinkingfim here).

Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
Going against important trends in recent Science Fiction cinema, then, Interstellar would appear to put the heroic and expansionist American male back at the centre, telling a story about the need to abandon efforts to take care of the Earth (because it is too late for these), and about the possibilities of finding alternative living arrangements beyond the Earth (in the form of huge space stations and other planets). The time travel element of the story allows for a fantastic (and deeply paradoxical) kind of self-reliance and self-help: The future version of the adventurer travels back in time to make himself go on the big adventure, and to provide his daughter with all the necessary information for her to be able, much later on, to unravel the mysteries of the universe which in turn allows NASA to launch its space stations.

The above three sections were written before I saw Interstellar for the second time. Seeing it again on a much smaller screen and knowing exactly what to expect, I was quite detached for much of the film. During my first viewing, I was initially quite moved by Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Coop, a reluctant, yet apparently quite competent farmer, who is obviously very close to his daughter but also gets along well with his son and his father-in-law, is easy-going and patient when dealing with the challenges of everyday life (bad dreams, a daughter who talks about a ghost, a flat tire), and also has experienced great loss (an accident in the skies appears to have cut short his career as a space pilot, his wife is dead). The second time, I knew from the outset that the film was setting him up as an outward (and upward) looking, expansionist American hero, and setting him against all those who think that directly taking care of life on Earth is people’s primary responsibility. As a consequence, I felt little empathy with, and even less sympathy for, him.

Interstellar, dir. Christopher Nolan (2014)
The strange early scene, in which an Indian drone, left over from what may have been a global war, crosses his path, and he chases after it in his truck, recklessly ploughing through the fields, now came across less as a nostalgic evocation of a by-gone high-tech era and also perhaps an ominous reminder of his former life as a pilot (which foreshadowed his return to that life); instead I just saw his careless destruction of parts of the harvest which it is his responsibility as a farmer to bring in. Similarly, I no longer found his discussion with a teacher and a school administrator about the problems his daughter Murph is having at school at all humorous, because it was so obvious to me now that the purpose of this scene was to characterise those who made farming an absolute priority so as to feed the remnant of humanity that has survived, in an extremely negative manner. They deny his son what he regards as a proper university education (because what is most needed are farmers); persecute his daughter because she knows and speaks the truth whereas the new school textbooks revise history in an Orwellian fashion (claiming that the moon landings were just a hoax); and are so ignorant or deluded that (once again in an Orwellian fashion) they believe their own lies. Indeed, because of their obvious bias against science and technology (unless it is in the service of food production), he holds them – and people like them – responsible for the death of his wife, whose medical condition could have been diagnosed with an MRI scanner, if such scanners had still been around.

This negative characterisation of farmers and those who support them continues in the rest of the film. Along the way, as an audience we are invited to agree with Coop when he states that ‘we’ (human beings? men? Americans?) were meant to be explorers and adventurers, not ‘caretakers’ (this last word uttered very dismissively). There is also, from the outset, a big question mark around his son, who is – as everyone acknowledges – very good at being a farmer (although Coop thinks that he could and should aim higher). It turns out that, as an adult, he becomes so wedded to the farming way of life that he ignores the welfare of his wife and children. Even after his first child has died, he is unwilling to grant his second child and his wife, both of whom are dying from the dust in their lungs, any medical care. He is last seen in an embrace with his sister, apparently accepting her revelation that somehow their father’s bold adventure in space – rather than the work of farmers on Earth - has saved them and the rest of humanity. Afterwards he appears to be forgotten – by his sister, his father, the film.

Following various conversations after my second viewing of Interstellar, I also began to wonder about the father-daughter dynamics in the film (and about the absent mothers). When Coop says goodbye to ten-year old Murph, who is devastated by his imminent departure, he mentions, rather thoughtlessly, that due to the time-distorting effects of relativity, upon his return he might be the same age as she – in other words, he admits that he might be gone from her life for as long as whatever their age difference is (presumably about thirty years). Afterwards she refuses to look at him again, and she also refuses to send him video messages once he has embarked on his journey into space – until the day at which she reaches the age her father was when he left her. She does not want to reconnect with him, but merely to remind him of the fact that he cruelly abandoned her. When Coop receives the message, he is still close to the age he was when he left (due to the enormous stretching of time he experienced while landing on a planet near a black hole) – as a consequence, they no longer look like father and daughter but more like potential romantic partners.

Young Murph (Mackenzie Foy)
Adult Murph (Jessica Chastain)
In an inspired piece of casting, an impressive match is established between the facial features of the young Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy) and those of the older version (Chastain) – but, it was pointed out to me by other viewers of the film, this match also extends to an uncomfortable degree to Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the woman accompanying Coop on his journey, indeed the woman he will fall in love with. At the end of the film, the dying Murph (Ellen Burstyn) tells Coop, who still has not aged very much, not to stay at her deathbed (because no parent should see a child of theirs die) but instead to return to Amelia; the way she says this strongly implies that she expects the two of them to form a romantic couple and, presumably, to have children together. So what we have here is the story of a man who loses his wife, forms a perhaps unusually intense emotional bond with his daughter (who, for a while, is the same age he is) and then gets her advice to ‘marry’ a kind of lookalike.

Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway)
Amelia Brand’s relationship with her father also is rather peculiar. Presumably, he was instrumental in getting her a scientific education (which, the film tells us, is hard to come by). This is the foundation for her inclusion in the mission to find another planet for humans to live on. The elder Brand talks about his two plans for saving the species (Plan A: to work out how gravity can be suspended so that huge space ships can be moved off the surface of the Earth and then towards an inhabitable planet; Plan B: to establish a human colony on another planet with the help of hundreds of frozen embryos). But he is convinced that only the second plan has any chance. He thus envisions his daughter being the only adult female on another planet, growing human embryos in a vat, but also, at some point, having to raise them as if they were her own children. Of course, she is also likely to form a romantic relationship with one of her fellow explorers, most likely Dr. Edmunds, the man she loves, who is stranded on one of the planets that might be suitable for human colonisation, or, failing that, perhaps Coop, who Professor Brand knows, and clearly admires, from his days as NASA’s most gifted pilot. In other words, there is a sense that Brand gives his daughter to Coop, potentially so as to fill, one might say, the void created by his separation from Murph (and the death of his wife).

At the same time, Murph has been raised by Coop to become a scientist. After Coop, having worked out that the ‘ghost’ communicating with his daughter has left behind geographical coordinates, has stumbled on a base where NASA continues to operate in secret, Murph meets both Amelia Brand (who immediately adopts a quite maternal attitude towards her) and her father. Once Coop has left the Earth, Murph is visited by Professor Brand who eventually takes her under his wings, making it possible for her to get a scientific education and becoming his closest collaborator, indeed the person who appears to be closer to him than anyone else, so that it is she who sits at his deathbed (on which he reveals that he never believed in Plan A, thus having fully intended to send his own daughter and Murph’s father away forever). In a sense, then, Professor Brand takes over Murph from Coop so that Brand can fill the void that Coop’s departure has left in her life and she can fill the void that Amelia’s departure (and the curious absence of her mother) has left in his.

Thus, while the absence of Murph’s and Amelia’s mothers is never properly dealt with, the film shows daughters slipping into the position of their mothers and then being exchanged between their fathers, destined to become mothers themselves (at the end Murph is shown in the midst of many descendants and Amelia is closely associated with the embryos she will use to populate a whole planet, with a little help from Coop).

There is so much more to be said about Interstellar. One might wonder, for example, about the symbolism of ‘wormholes’ and ‘black holes’. These are ultimately used to facilitate a kind of birthing process: they allow humans to travel across the universe so as to relaunch the species on another planet; more particularly, they eventually enable Coop to return to the past so as to facilitate both his own rebirth as an adventurer and the rebirth of humankind off the Earth. Is there some symbolic connection, then, between these ‘holes’ (which are pictured as tunnels) and the female reproductive system? This would put an interesting slant on the fact that the plans of the predominantly male scientists and adventurers revolve around penetrating these holes - which requires them to be, temporarily, fully immersed in them: cosmic intercourse thus also appears to be a return to the womb; the path to rebirth would seem to be a backwards journey through a giant birth canal.

Interstellar, dir. Nolan (2014)
There are other elements in this film which could be seen as a counterweight to its emphasis on male, and masculine, agency. To begin with, there is the opening narration: an old woman (who later is identified as old Murph) starts talking about her father, directly addressing the camera. This initially suggests that what we are about to see arises from her memories and narration. Of course, she is soon displaced from centre stage by images of her father’s aerial accident and by other people remembering the old days, and it is eventually revealed that the recording we saw is on display in the reconstruction of her (and her father’s) home on a space station – yet she is first established as the storyteller behind the story we will see.

Similarly, despite the fact that the ‘ghost’ that young Murph is so curious about at the beginning of the film is later revealed to be (a future version of) her father giving her vital information, on first viewing Interstellar, we see that she is indeed the one who gets the story going. Her openness to what appears to be a supernatural phenomenon, her willingness (after getting some advice from her father) to approach this phenomenon scientifically and thus to determine that it may contain crucial information (an idea her father then picks up on when decoding piles of dust so as to get the coordinates for the secret NASA base) – these are crucial for the male adventure to come, and also for her own intellectual adventure. By returning home, as an adult, to reexamine the traces the ghostly presence has left in the room, she eventually is able to make an unprecedented scientific breakthrough which saves the lives of many thousands of people.

There is also the rather awkward moment in which Amelia responds to Coop’s accusation that her judgment about which of two remaining planets to approach is clouded by the fact that she is in love with Dr. Edmunds, who landed on the planet she suggests they go to. Instead of just claiming that she can retain her scientific objectivity despite her emotional involvement, she argues that ‘love’ itself is a powerful reality that transcends space and time and higher dimensions, and may reveal important truths about the physical universe. Although Coop decides that they should spend their remaining fuel to go to the other planet, later developments would seem to confirm Amelia’s claim. The planet they go to has no life, because Dr. Mann (!), who initiated the original project of searching for inhabitable planets, has been faking data so as to be rescued. What is more, he eventually tries to kill his rescuers in the hope of being able to relaunch humanity all on his own (with the help of nine hundred frozen embryos). This does put the masculinist, expansionist, high-tech vision underpinning the film’s main adventure in a very negative light indeed. By contrast, after Dr. Mann dies in an accident he himself is responsible for, Amelia makes it to Dr. Edmunds’ planet which does indeed have breathable air and plant life. What is more, when Coop enters the black hole (so as to give Amelia a chance to make it to Dr. Edmunds’ planet and also to explore the black hole’s inner workings), he is drawn back – presumably by his intense love - to the childhood of his daughter, which then enables him to close the temporal loop and give her the information she receives at the beginning of the film. It would appear then that love does indeed conquer all, a curiously feminine twist in what is otherwise such a macho tale.

Many more issues remain to be discussed with regards to Interstellar:
- the paradoxes of time travel, the idea of a completely predetermined universe and the alternative (but equally troubling) vision of an infinity of parallel universes;
- the significance of Murph’s name (Murphy’s Law being referenced on several occasions, in two variants: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong; everthing that can happen, will happen);
- the importance of faith (Professor Brand has long lost faith in making the scientific breakthrough necessary for Plan A, Amelia keeps her faith in the possibility of this breakthrough and does achieve it);
- the ability of human beings to make sacrifices for others (for their own children, for all of humankind on Earth right now, for future generations, for the human ‘species’ – there is considerable disagreement between characters in the film about who and what humans are willing to make sacrifices for).
But I will have to leave the discussion of these issues to other writers.

Interstellar, dir. Nolan (2014)

19 Aug 2014

Communion with Nature in The Grey and Godzilla

By Vincent M. Gaine

“The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.”
Ishiro Serizawa

The Grey (Joe Carnahan, 2011) and Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014) are both stories of conflict between human and the Other, and the Other takes the form of dangerous animals, wolves in The Grey and prehistoric monsters in Godzilla. Throughout both films, humans are in danger and both films maintain a consistent mood of dread and menace. However, closer inspection reveals an underlying interest in communion between humanity and nature, although it takes different forms in the two films.


The Grey, based on a short story Ghost Walker by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, is explicitly philosophical. It concerns a group of plane crash survivors who are marooned in the Arctic wilderness and must contend with killer wolves. The protagonist, John Ottway, was hired by the oil company that employs all the men to protect oil workers against wolf attack, so he understands the animals as well as how to survive in the wilderness. Zoologically, the film is pure fiction, as the wolves that appear are far larger than any actual wolf and their behaviour as described by Ottway does not correspond with any actual research into wolves – specifically, wolves tend to avoid humans and attacks are extremely rare. This inaccuracy led to criticisms against the film for a misleading and therefore damaging depiction of wolves, an interesting view but not one I agree with. Wolves have been persecuted and exterminated for centuries, mainly because of competition for food, to protect livestock and for “sport”. One more fictional representation is not likely to change that. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the wolves in The Grey do not really represent wolves – they represent untamed, unmitigated nature, a manifestation of nature’s savagery and indifference that is more killable (and therefore useful for narratives) than an avalanche or a snowstorm. Faced with the power of nature, the men are far removed from civilisation and must become as savage as their surroundings in order to survive.

In Godzilla, nature invades civilisation as monsters stomp through cities as if they were tall grass, demonstrating humanity’s insignificance. Military firepower is of little consequence, including nuclear weapons - both Godzilla and the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) barely notice bullets and explosive shells. Their regard for humans is similar to that of our own regard for ants – they barely notice us. Whereas previous Godzilla films featured monsters destroying cities (usually Tokyo) because they were there, or because the monsters were controlled by aliens bent on conquest, in Edwards’ film the destruction is incidental. While the monsters are clearly dangerous and destructive, they are not vicious or malevolent – they are simply doing what they do. There is a mating ritual between the two MUTOs that recalls a scene in Edwards’ debut, the low budget romance/science fiction/road movie Monsters, which features an eerily beautiful sequence between two alien creatures. Despite the gulf between their production contexts, Godzilla echoes the director’s earlier effort in its dwarfing of humanity within landscapes, much as The Grey takes place almost entirely in external locations.

The cinematography of both films includes multiple wide shots of natural landscapes, often placing humans and animals within them. Godzilla begins and ends with images of water – the title sequence features imitation stock footage of 1950s nuclear tests in the South Pacific, with huge reptilian scales breaking the surface of the sea. In the final shot, Godzilla plunges back into the ocean, returning to his habitat having restored the balance of nature. While the viewer could be left with a sense of triumph and awe at Godzilla’s besting of the MUTOs, this final image is remarkably tranquil, suggesting that ferocity and serenity are part of the same balance. In much the same way, humanity is a part of nature, as evidenced by the continued mise-en-scene that incorporates Godzilla and the humans in the same wide shots. The MUTO are not included in these shots, ensuring that they remain Other and threatening. Similarly, the wolves of The Grey are hardly ever seen clearly, mostly appearing as dark shapes or glowing eyes. But the men of The Grey cannot escape this creeping presence, and over the course of the film are gradually integrated into their environment.

The Grey, dir. Joe Carnahan (2011)
This integration is violent and enforced in The Grey, as the group of survivors are steadily picked off. Ottway does what he can to keep them alive: making fire, seeking out water and defensible positions as well as improvising weapons, but it proves futile as he is unable to keep any of his companions alive. The Grey presents nature as irresistible and all consuming, and death is a constant presence that must be acknowledged. This is the film’s existential conceit, as the survivors of the crash each encounter death in their own way. For most of the film, this involves a desperate fight to stay alive, but at the beginning and towards the end, death is embraced as the natural conclusion of life. In an early scene, before the plane crash, Ottway almost kills himself with his own rifle but is interrupted. His motivation is essentially grief – he lost his wife and would rather die than continue living without her. Later, when only Ottway and two other survivors, Diaz and Henrick, are left, Diaz opts to die rather than push on. He decides that his life has been meaningless and he would rather die in the wilderness than go back to his worthless life. Diaz finds meaning in death, crucially because he is in a natural environment. He tells Ottway and Henrick that he will never live so well, never taste his own existence so acutely, as he has after fighting for their lives so hard, and he will never be anywhere better than the Alaskan mountains. The film shows us nature at its most beautiful and terrible, and Diaz communes with it for literally the rest of his life. As Diaz is left alone, the sound of wolves approaching offscreen is heard, but the viewer does not see them because it would be unnecessary. Whereas the other men died fighting nature, Diaz simply accepts nature, and we see his communion in a single shot in which we share his view of the mountains.

Shortly after this, Henrick drowns and Ottway is left alone. Furious at the unfairness and indifference of the world, he bellows at God:

Do something. Do something. You phony prick fraudulent motherfucker. Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. Now! Show me and I'll believe in you until the day I die. I swear. I'm calling on you. I'm calling on you!
[receives no response]
Fuck it. I'll do it myself.

That is the view of the world in The Grey – do it yourself or something else will do it to you. In the final scene, Ottway faces the wolf pack alpha and readies himself for a final battle. Much as a wolf is armed with teeth and claws, Ottway tapes a knife and broken bottles to his hands, making himself into as savage a beast as that which confronts him. His communion with nature is a savage one, all pretence of civilisation or humanity stripped away. Significantly, before the fight he abandons the wallets of the men who have died, that he carried in the vain hope that he could tell the victims’ families what happened. Hope is lost, all that remains is the Wild, a wild that Ottway willingly embraces.

This embrace is the film’s communion with nature – from nature we come and to it we must return. The final responses of Ottway and Diaz are quite literally poetic, encapsulated by Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”. Diaz does exactly what Thomas urged against, going gentle into the good night, while Ottway rages against the dying of the light. Of course, poetry runs through the film as well, Ottway repeating a poem that his father wrote:

Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I'll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day.

Is it a good fight? It is at best a fight to stay alive, and to fight for life is to live and die, experience everything, feel life in the moments of death. Ultimately it does not matter – nature will consume all within it whatever we do. There is purity in Ottway’s final declaration of existence. He is nothing but a desire to survive, and whether he survives or not (the film is ambiguous in this respect), he embraces the savagery of the world without hesitation. Communion with nature can be a savage business, but The Grey presents it in a way that is honest in its brutality.

Godzilla, dir. Gareth Edwards (2014)
Godzilla is far gentler in its communion with nature, and cynically this can be credited to the film’s status as a major commercial product by its studio. It is available to a wider cinema audience than The Grey and remains open for a sequel (which has been green lit). But despite commercial concerns, Godzilla’s interest in communion with nature is consistent. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (a direct homage to a character in the original) warns Admiral William Stenz: “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around” and that, rather than trying to intervene in the course of natural events by attacking Godzilla and the MUTO, the best thing for the humans to do is “Let them fight”. Godzilla demonstrates that nature is beyond humans, and the best we can do is try to survive it, much like the men in The Grey and, indeed, any animal. Godzilla himself is closely associated with elemental forces, such as a great sea swell that surges through Honolulu and heralds his arrival. He seems of the earth, or more precisely of the ocean – great, mysterious and powerful. Very little is seen of Godzilla in the first hour, until he confronts the male MUTO at Honolulu Airport, after his arrival flooded most of the city. This further associates him with the forces of nature, which largely remain invisible except to sophisticated equipment. We see the results of nature, such as rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns, tremors in the earth and volcanic ash and lava, but the forces which cause these changes are generally hidden, such as increased CO2 in the atmosphere, changes in ocean salinity, and a giant monster that normally lives on the sea bed.

The contrast between human insignificance and nature’s power reaches its climax in San Francisco, where the MUTO attempt to breed. Their spawn will doom for humanity and so must be stopped, but initially the military effort is misguided. Serizawa urges against the use of nuclear weapons, and the audience are allied with him because it has been made clear that the monsters feed off radiation so assurances that the blast itself will kill them are unconvincing. The film quickly proves the scientists correct as the female MUTO uses the bomb to fertilise herself while it ticks down towards detonation, which will kill thousands. But before her eggs can hatch, both the US military and Godzilla intervene. The joint effort is incidental – Godzilla attacks the MUTO because they are competition for him while a bomb disposal unit attempts to disarm the warhead. But the incidental nature of this joint effort is crucial. Godzilla and the MUTOs fight because that it is what nature intends for them, and the humans’ contribution is to remove the intrusion of the nuke. Furthermore, while Godzilla fights the MUTO, the lead human character, Lieutenant Ford Brody, destroys the eggs with fire. The technology of the nuclear warhead is out of place in Nature’s Battle of the Titans, but fire is primal and basic, Ford completing the film’s movement back to nature. Across the film, there is a steady reduction of technology – the MUTO can release an electromagnetic pulse as a weapon that renders all electronics useless. To protect the nuke against this pulse, a mechanical timer is used, which also proves to be a mistake as Ford’s disposal team cannot disarm it in time. But with the bomb being carried away from a populated area, Ford resorts to the elemental force of fire to protect his species and fight his enemy, which proves effective as the eggs are engulfed in flame.

Godzilla’s most important moment of communion comes shortly after the destruction of the eggs, as Godzilla defeats and kills the male MUTO. Exhausted by the battle, the giant monster collapses into the rubble and is swallowed by billowing clouds of dust. Ford witnesses this collapse in awe, much like the audience. But before Godzilla disappears, he appears to see Ford and the two share a look and have a moment. It is brief but significant, Ford and Godzilla seeming to recognise their kindred spirits, their shared involvement in the current situation. There is communion between man and monster, not because Ford has tried to get closer but because nature has brought them together. Nature’s power and might is emphasised throughout Godzilla, but this moment highlights that humans are not separate from nature, but as much a part of it as these great creatures.

The communion reappears (again incidentally) at the film’s climax, as Ford is trying to get the nuke away from San Francisco by boat. The female MUTO seems to attack him as if in revenge for the destruction of her offspring, but Godzilla saves Ford by attacking and finally killing the female. Godzilla collapses and appears to have died, but then rises and departs, TV reports describing him as “Savior of Our City?” As he leaves San Francisco, he causes no further destruction, wide shots capturing him as well as the people he has saved, albeit incidentally, before he plunges back into the sea as mentioned earlier.

Godzilla demonstrates that nature is beyond human control, and the best we can do is try to survive it. In this regard, the film illustrates communion and, like The Grey, a journey to a place outside of normal human experience. Stenz explains to his troops that no one is prepared for the situation they face, before Ford and his team perform a halo jump from high above the city. The jump sequence is both terrible and beautiful, and uses the musical piece Gyorgy Ligeti's Requiem, a piece also used in key sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much as Stanley Kubrick’s film presented travelling “beyond the infinite”, so Edwards’ film presents travelling outside of human experience. Rather than travelling forward to a further stage of human evolution, Ford and his team are travelling backwards, literally away from human technology as they jump out of a plane into a battleground between forces of nature. Similarly, technology in The Grey fails to protect its characters as a plane crashes, forcing the men to rejoin nature however hard they fight it. Both films demand reconnection with nature and, while it may not be pretty, it is inevitable and a powerful reminder that, indeed, nature is never in our control.

Godzilla, dir. Gareth Edwards (2014)

21 Jul 2014

Solaris, Or, Do We Really Want To Make Contact?

By Paul Johnston

On Earth
As with many of his films, the opening section of Tarkovsky’s Solaris sets the scene for what is to come. Almost inevitably it starts with water. The camera lingers on a leaf floating down a stream, then on the weeds and reeds, pulled into movement by the flowing water. Slowly, insistently, the camera explores the peace and mystery of a world without humans - until we chance on part of a human figure and the camera pulls up to reveal the film’s protagonist, Kris Kelvin. This solitary individual may be vaguely aware of the beauty that surrounds him, but he is unable to draw any sustenance from it. It’s there, but it can’t help or really touch him. He is trapped in a world where there are always things to be done, but not much to be gained from doing them. A black horse trots by, magnificently at home in the world. Kelvin notices it and moves wearily on. In the distance a car draws up at the house and his father calls out to him, but Kelvin would rather be alone. And if the rain pours down on him until he is soaked, what difference does it make? He stands resolute, brooding emptily on his pain but determined to go on. After all, what else can he do?

Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Kelvin is staying with his father and his aunt and, despite the civilised atmosphere, it’s tense. He will soon leave on a mission that probably means he will never see his father again, but it is more than that. There is a sense of conflict and misunderstandings. Kelvin’s mother is dead and the house seems haunted by an absence that both father and son must have struggled with, but which hasn’t brought them together. It’s a large house with three people who are constantly getting in each other’s way. Everyone seems too full of his or her own emotions to have time for anyone else’s.

The arrival of Berton, a friend of the father’s who wants to talk to Kelvin about his mission, is another unwelcome intrusion. There were already too many people before he arrived. He brings his young son, who we see shyly and silently meeting the aunt’s young daughter - at least in this human contact, there is still something innocent and hopeful. The boy is alarmed when he sees the horse, now in its stable, but the aunt takes him by the hand and helps him to see that the horse is a beautiful creature and nothing to be frightened of. Meanwhile Berton insists on having a one-to-one conversation with Kelvin, but the discussion quickly goes wrong and Berton storms off, telling the father that, since their 20-year friendship had to end sometime, it might as well end now. The father in turn lambasts the son, saying that he shouldn’t be allowed into space because things out there are too fragile. The earth has adapted to people like him at a price, but they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere else. The tentative efforts of father and son to reach out to each other collapse.

Berton’s Unnerving Experience. 
Kelvin’s mission is to the planet Solaris and Berton visits him because he had an experience on that planet that he has never recovered from. Solaris is a paradox and an irritation - it is possible the planet may harbour some form of super-intelligence, but years of research have not been able to get beyond the initial promising but confusing signs. Has humanity finally come into contact with another intelligent form of life or is Solaris just another nondescript planet among countless others? Berton worked on the research station as a pilot and when an aircraft containing two scientists went missing, he was part of the search and rescue mission. His craft got separated from the others and he was sucked into a strange, swirling fog above the planet’s ocean. When he returned, he was in a state of shock and ran to his cabin, frightened at the idea of going outside the space station and terrified even to look out of a porthole.

Some time later when he had partially recovered, he insisted on making a formal statement about a discovery that he believes will change the future of the whole Solaris research project. Dressed in his military uniform and just about holding it together, he describes how, when he was sucked down into the fog, the surface of the ocean began to change and then formed itself into something that looked like a garden. The assembled scientists are shocked - it’s a big claim, but a weirdly senseless one: what would a garden be doing on the surface of a planet millions of miles from Earth? Berton appeals to the evidence of his video camera, which recorded everything he saw - except it didn’t; the film just shows clouds. Now it is Berton who is confused - did he really experience what he thought he experienced? To a sceptical audience and increasingly agitated, he continues his account. The garden was only the start. Shortly, after he saw a human figure, moving and being moved on the ever-changing ocean. But there was something horrible about the figure. It had no helmet or space suit - in fact, it was a child, a baby and huge, gigantic - something like four metres tall. And naked, absolutely naked, but with a horrible, sticky liquid, glistening all over its body. It was an image of human vulnerability turned into something horribly alien, which wasn’t dead but which also wasn’t fully alive.

Solaris, dir, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Berton can’t cope with his experience, but neither can his audience. The majority conclusion is that, despite all his years of service and his professional discipline, Berton had a hallucination. His experience had no (or virtually no) relation to reality and so has no implications for research into the nature of the planet. Berton’s pathetic protests that he saw it all with his own eyes cut no ice - after all, haven’t we all mistaken a bush for an animal when it is dark and we are tired? Berton should just put everything behind him and move on - nothing or virtually nothing happened and it is certainly not worth thinking or worrying about. Ironically (or perhaps predictably) Berton’s discussion with Kelvin follows the same pattern - Berton feels he has something very important to say, his attempt to explain gets interrupted and the conclusion is that probably nothing happened, and even if it did, it does not have any significance and won’t affect the plans of the people who count. The reality of Berton’s experience - the moment that shattered a lifetime of disciplined professionalism - is denied, derided and discounted. What a ridiculous man!

Actually, he is a generous man. Humiliated (again), and confused and full of doubt, he doesn’t abandon his mission and, after storming off, makes a video call to pass on the information he hadn’t succeeded in sharing. After he left Solaris, he made contact with the family of one of the missing scientists whom he had been searching for when he got pulled into the fog. The scientist had separated from his wife shortly before or after the birth of their son, a child whose features were those of the baby Berton had seen bobbing on the ocean on Solaris. More Berton nonsense? Perhaps, but Kelvin should bear it in mind when he gets to the planet.

So what should we, the viewer, make of Berton’s experience? Later we learnt that the Ocean can project ideas from an individual’s unconscious, so perhaps the garden and the baby reflect what the missing scientists were longing for or were worried they would never see again. But why is this experience so destabilising for Berton? Later, he himself has a son and, although he is a rather preoccupied father, the boy offers him love and comfort, which he appreciates. (Interestingly, the mother is again very absent). In fact, babies and children are wildly out of place in the world of Solaris research and exploration, and in Berton’s world of technical proficiency and professional duty. What place in these worlds for vulnerability, growth and uncertainty? Really there should be no baby, but there is - only it’s a monster. It hasn’t developed, it has just grown; but growth without development is a horrible distortion. This is not a baby that warms the heart - it’s a baby that makes you wish you had never been born. (And why, one might ask, is that?)

More Unwanted Guests

Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972
When Kelvin gets to the Solaris space station, there are only two men on it - the loveable Snaut and the ruthless Sartorius. There was a third man - Giberian, a sensitive, philosophical type who was the first person to be sent Ocean-created “guests” and who committed suicide. Why? Sartorius’s verdict is clear - he was a coward. When the team’s research started to generate difficult-to-deal-with effects, he lost his scientific discipline, wallowed in his emotions and then gave up. An alternative explanation is loneliness and fear of madness. Giberian was the first person to be affected, so maybe he thought it was just something to do with him or that there was something wrong with him. There is an element of truth in this, but from a video message he left for his friend Kelvin it is clear that he recognised that others were also likely to get visitors. So perhaps it was the nature of his visitor? But we see her - a young girl in a blue negligee. Hardly a frightening apparition and she seems devoted to Giberian - in the video we see her bringing him a glass of milk. But he pushes her away and doesn’t want to have anything to do with her. Is this a guilty conscience? Is she someone he was involved with or wanted to be involved with in a way he now condemns? Or is it just that her innocence and submissiveness is painfully out of kilter with where he is and whom he feels he is? Whatever the detailed explanation, Giberian's conclusion is that he does not deserve to be alive.

Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Giberian’s response to his visitor is one extreme - he accepts the visitation as a judgement, tries to live with it but is unable to do so. Sartorius goes to the other extreme - he denies the visitors any significance. They are an irritation, a nuisance, and a trial or rather, since those words are already too emotional a description, they are a phenomenon that we must seek to understand and then learn to control. In the face of this crisis, Sartorius jettisons his humanity and clings to his role as a scientist. It is not hard to see whose response Tarkovsky has most sympathy with. At least, Giberian was brave enough and human enough to acknowledge that the appearance of his visitor raised questions about who he was; and if he could not unravel those questions in a positive way, at least he confronted them and make a choice that was real and his, even if despairing.

Snaut handles things differently from both of his colleagues. He is a man of compromise. He does not deny his humanity or seek to block out the reality and the meaning of the visitors; he just tries to find ways to get by. In part, he does this by not taking things too seriously. He pretends that his visitor’s being there is not that unusual, and he keeps himself constantly busy in a manic attempt to distract himself. When he can, he tries to laugh about the situation or see the irony in it. But his struggle is as desperate as Sartorius’s (or for that matter, Gibarian’s); and, while the violence of Sartorius’ denial is repulsive, the pathos of Snaut’s attempt to cope is deeply moving. The man is a wreck and, although his intelligence and his resilience are impressive, it really doesn’t look as if he is going to hold out much longer.

Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Kelvin, of course, is the one who finds a way through. His first response to the appearance of his dead wife Hari is Sartorius-like - he locks her in a rocket and, despite her screams, blasts her into space. But he is fortunate in who his visitor is - or perhaps the Ocean has finally worked out how to choose the right visitor. Kelvin is a well-defended man, but he has one weak spot (or possibly two) - his love for his wife meant something to him and he can’t quite reconcile himself to throwing it away (just as he can’t quite draw the line under his love for his lost mother). Kelvin makes a serious attempt to come to terms with his visitor. That involves taking them both seriously, being open to the pain of experiencing and thinking about things. 

Ironically (and in a way that creates some difficulties for the viewer), Kelvin is not a very sympathetic character - he is arrogant, narcissistic and a bit superficial. He is the hero of the film, but he is also the hardest character to admire. He does work hard on his relationship with Hari, but it is a struggle for him to admit his feelings for her, and even by the end of the film he still doesn’t seem to have taken on board the idea that a relationship involves two people and that you should at least try to see things from two perspectives rather than just one. So Kelvin and Hari never make it to a happy relationship - in fact, towards the end they are arguing just as much ever. But they do have a relationship and Kelvin does acknowledge both his need for contact and his difficulty in sustaining it. He is a wiser man at the end of the film - still sad, but able to experience his sadness and to try to make sense of it, so there is hope and an openness to the possibility of growth. 

The Problem of Hari. 
Kelvin’s dead wife Hari (or the Ocean’s recreation of her) is at the emotional heart of the film. Philosophically, one might think the big question she raises is: “What makes a living entity a human being?” or “When should we treat a living entity as human?”, but Tarkovsky is not very interested in that sort of question. In fact, Hari is the most human person in the whole film - she certainly serves as a role model for the men as to what being human does (or could) involve. Sartorius, of course, tells her that she is nothing - a matrix, a mechanical reproduction of the past. It is a brutal assault on her vulnerability, and she staggers under the blow; but she doesn’t take refuge in denial and she stays committed to thinking and feeling - unlike Sartorius, who smashes his glasses in pain and frustration and wanders off, muttering unconvincingly about others taking the easy route. 

Are we nothing? And if we are something, can we accept the something we are? The Ocean’s actions pose these questions to everyone on the space station, and the person who grapples with them most directly and most honestly is Hari. As a result, she learns and grows through the film, so that eventually she is much more than the Hari that was. Her first incarnation is child-like - unfazed by the strange situation she finds herself in, she accepts the good things it has to offer and seems to have little sense that anything could go wrong. She cannot explain her need to be in visual contact with Kelvin at all times, but she loves him and she trusts him - until he shuts the rocket door and blasts her screaming into space. Her second incarnation is more knowing and more painfully aware of her need for Kelvin - when he accidentally shuts another door on her, she is torn to pieces by her desperate need for him. 

Hari’s search to understand who (or what) she is has a terrible pathos, which is itself hard to endure. At times - for example, when she suggests to Kelvin that she may have epilepsy - we risk slipping into Sartorius-like complacency and forgetting that her situation of not knowing is not so different from our own. Generally, however, what we experience is sympathy with her pain and admiration for her willingness to face up to the truth. At one point Hari finds a picture of herself and only by looking in the mirror does she recognise who the photo depicts - it’s a heart-rending moment. We may like to think that “finding ourselves” is an exciting voyage of discovery, but as Hari’s experience demonstrates, recognising that you don’t know who you are is a terrifying experience. Instinctively, she turns to Kelvin for companionship - “Do you know yourself?” she asks, to which his defensive and not very convincing answer is: “As much as any Man does”. 

Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Hari’s search for truth may make her seem like Sartorius, but Sartorius does not want to understand, he wants to control. In fact, the response of Sartorius (and the other scientists) to the Ocean shows that it is not knowledge itself that they want; rather what they cannot cope with is not knowing, not understanding. If the Ocean is a mystery, an Other that cannot be subsumed into the reassuring conformity of the known, then it would be better it was destroyed. The Ocean is not seen as something that we might enter into dialogue with; rather it is a threat to the idea that Man knows (or one day will know) everything. Science is supposed to be about going beyond our own limitations and seeing the world objectively, but in Solaris that search for knowledge does not look very open-minded; on the contrary, as exemplified in the character of Sartorius, it looks like a blind and desperate insistence that the only right way to see the world is the way we humans see it.

By contrast, Hari is open to difference. While the men argue over which of them is right, she highlights the different way each of them reacts and sees this as something to accept and to welcome. While Kelvin strives to live in an impossible (and potentially rather bland) harmony with her, Hari wants to face up to their differences in the past and their difficulties in the present. She is also prepared to recognise the wider context of her relationship with Kelvin and the fact that this can generate conflict. After seeing a video in which Kelvin’s mother appears, she says, hurt and confused: “That woman hated me”. Kelvin, of course, wants to sweep everything under the carpet: “But you never met her”. To which Hari replies: “Why are you trying to confuse me? I remember perfectly well how we had tea together. And how she told me to go away”. 

The Ocean’s visitors confront Kelvin and his colleagues with aspects of themselves that they are reluctant to recognise or have anything to do with. Ironically, Hari faces a similar sort of issue in relation to her past. As Sartorius’s laboratory tests confirm, she is not Hari - if you prick her finger to take a “blood” sample, there is no need (and no point) in giving her cotton wool to staunch the bleeding. So how can “Hari” relate to Hari? At some points in the film, she relates with hate and envy - the only way she could be herself would be if she could kill the other Hari and destroy all trace of her. Later, she seems to come to terms with her own identity (and her difference), but is haunted by the fear that Kelvin won't be able to deal with her 'otherness': “I disgust myself. You must find me disgusting too. You do find me disgusting”, she screams. Part of the difficulty of real contact with others is that it puts you in contact with yourself. 

Solaris, dir Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972 

Hari has one other problem - she cannot die. Snaut, of course, jokes about this and talks about Satorius working on the Faustian problem of how to find a remedy for immortality; but when he is confronted with Hari coming back to life, he runs away - he cannot stand to watch these pseudo- resurrections. They make a joke of death and even for Snaut that is a joke too far. Towards the end of the film, Hari tries to choose suicide, but all she achieves is a painful death and an even more painful revival. Unlike Giberian’s suicide, Hari’s suicide attempt seems abrupt - an impulsive suicide of despair. She has reached a point where she no longer has the strength to go any further. But she has no choice but to go on. Her suicide would have been less meaningful than Giberian’s, but her inability to die made the attempt transparently meaningless. By the end of the film, she does achieve death, and this time it is a chosen death based on an understanding of who she is and what she wants. Eventually, Hari dies but she dies with dignity, and it is a better death than all her previous deaths including the death on Earth of the real Hari.

Coming Home
At the end of the film, as they reflect on all that has happened, Snaut tells Kelvin that it is time for him to return to Earth. The question is raised of whether Snaut still has a connection to earth (and so whether it will ever be time for him to return), but the focus is Kelvin, and it is clear that he will go back and go back a different man. The theme of homecoming is highlighted in the meditation on Brueghel’s Return of the Hunters painting. Interestingly (and appropriately), Hari is first draws our attention to it. What can a scene of medieval hunters returning to the warmth of their homes in the depth of winter mean to her? 

Pieter Bruegel (the Elder) 'The Return of the Hunters/Hunters in the Snow', 1565

At the beginning of the film, Kelvin has no thoughts for his home - insofar as he seems capable of thinking of anything, it is of his mission and its challenges. Sartorius too has no time to think of home. He thinks only of expanding the certainties of human knowledge until the whole universe is swallowed up. He is typically contemptuous of Giberian’s wish to be buried on Earth - what sense does that make? Is he missing the worms? But from Tarkovsky’s perspective, it is vital to have a sense of where you come from. As Hari looks at the picture, she clearly understands what it is like to come home, although perhaps she feels sad at the thought that there is nowhere for her to come home to or that her sense of what it might be like to come home is something she has stolen from someone else (the “real” Hari).

Kelvin’s sense of where he comes from grows during the film. He (and the other scientists on Solaris) learn many painful lessons, but being so far from the Earth also teaches them to love it and to accept their need for it. Giberian comes up with the idea of tying bits of paper around the ventilation ducts to create a noise that sounds like the rustling of leaves, and, while Snaut and Kelvin embrace this simple innovation openly even Sartorius makes use of it on the quiet. It is a noble thing to go where no Man has gone before, but it looks more like a flight than a sacrifice if you refuse to accept the loss this means for you. How can you know whom you are or what you are doing if you have lost any sense of connection to where you came from?

More positively, Kelvin’s experience of Solaris allows him to see the Earth and humanity as something that can be loved precisely because it is something that could be lost. We like to think that in a sense the world did not exist before we humans became conscious of it; and similarly, it suits our narcissism to see the Ocean as passive and to focus on our efforts to make contact with it. But this is a one-sided and defensive perspective. The unfathomable mystery of Solaris confronts us with a world that does not need us. Sartorius thinks we must understand the Ocean because it is Man’s destiny to understand Nature - as if our not understanding Solaris is Solaris’ or the universe’s problem rather than our own. Kelvin comes to understand that we ourselves are just a small part of Nature, but that still makes us something precious and worthy of love.

Sartre said that hell is other people, but he was wrong. Hell is our difficulty in dealing with our need for other people. This is the slow and painful journey Kelvin takes. He starts the film an intensely lonely figure, but his experiences on Solaris force him to confront the reality of his relationship with Hari. They also bring him back to earlier relationships and earlier losses. It is hard to know quite what to make of Kelvin’s mother and of his relationship to her - she is loving and beautiful, but she also seems slightly cold and distant. Kelvin clearly loved his mother, but while she was alive, he seems to have resented his need for her and when she died, he seems to have felt desperately abandoned. After a radiogram of his thoughts have been transmitted to the Ocean, he falls into a fever and in a strange dream is at last able to have contact with his mother that goes beyond his anger and recognises his need, but in a realistic way that his loving and not-too-bad mother can actually meet.

And then there’s the father. If Kelvin’s relationship to his mother is troubled, what hope is there for his relationship to his father? As with his mother, Kelvin has great difficulty acknowledging what his father means to him or the pain he feels at the distance between them. But, unlike his colleagues, Kelvin has a chance to go home; and the film ends with an image of him accepting his father and his father accepting him. So perhaps life is not just about focussing on your mission and forgetting everything else, maybe it is about feeling things and growing. Maybe contact with the Other is possible and bearable after all.

Solaris, dir, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972