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Culture Warrior: Kubrick’s ‘2001’ vs. Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’

With the weekend’s release of the much-celebrated sci-fi indie Moon, Culture Warrior compares and contrasts two classic films of the genre made by two essential filmmakers.
By  · Published on June 15th, 2009

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) was initially billed in America (and has been continuously referred to since) as the Soviet Union’s answer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). On first look, this comparison—and the cultural-historical context informing it—makes perfect sense. The films were released a short time apart from each other, one before and the other after the peak of the USA-USSR space race during the Cold War. So the films have been seen in some respects as the definitive cinematic reflection of the space race from two competing world superpowers, and thus each film is posited to “say” what each country supposedly has to say about mankind’s future role as privileged explorer of the cosmos from each of their specific national perspectives.

There are several obvious similarities on initial comparison between these two films. Both are largely considered definitive classics in the history of sci-fi movies, and both are based on books from established and respected novelists (and theorists) of the genre (2001 by Arthur C. Clarke, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem). Both pieces of source material and their adaptations addressed in equal measure questions usually not anticipated in the generic sci-fi B-movie at this time, exploring mankind’s uncertain role in the universe and the consequences of separation from his natural habitat.

Furthermore, the directors of each film had their striking similarities. Both Kubrick and Tarkovsky are hugely respected and venerated cinematic authors known for their striking visuals and celebrated as true artists of the medium. Both made a criminally small number of feature films before their deaths, were known for making long and often deliberately paced films, and were notorious perfectionists. And when examining the films themselves, several similarities emerge: both are well-over two hours, and both make inventive use of the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio to give a full effect of the role of the human within the intimidating outreaches of infinity. Oddly enough, both films also notably use footage of earthly landscapes to convey alien landscapes—the film negatives of canyons during the climactic “Star Gate” sequence in 2001, and the mysterious ocean informing the title of Solaris.

But these initial comparisons are skin-deep and arguably coincidental. If one truly examines the presumption that 2001 and Solaris are the cinematic statements echoing each competing side of the space race, it becomes evident that each film’s view on space, and humankind’s role within it, could not be more different.

From the appropriation of a bone as a weapon in the “Dawn of Man” sequence to the Jupiter-bound spaceship carrying the menacing artificial intelligence of HAL, 2001 explores the necessity of forward-moving innovative technology for human evolution as well as the unavoidable potential for such innovation to damage man in the process. This is not, of course, a blatant criticism or condemnation of such technology, as the filmmaker who also gave us the most elegant atom bomb montage ever in Dr. Strangelove (1964) saw the potential for beauty in both creation and destruction. The use of Johann Strauss during 2001’s spaceship docking montage suggests a beauty to be celebrated in innovation, even if that innovation has the potential to turn back on man. 2001 seems to compromise the risks of technology with its possibilities, as Dr. Bowman’s “success” on the Jupiter Mission in reaching the far ends of the universe attests that, while innovation may involve risk, it can also allow man to conquer the end of the unknown and explore the vastness of the great beyond. 2001 forsakes a traditional character-driven narrative for an episodic, distant meditation on the human promise of innovation and exploration, with the monolith present at mankind’s first major evolutionary step (the invention of the weapon) to his final accomplishment (conquering the outer reaches of time and space). Through technology and the advantages of space travel, man is rendered capable of achieving anything, signaled by the reunion with the monolith, that mysterious figure present at the onset of manmade innovation.

To examine Solaris as the Soviet answer to 2001 presumes that the former film takes an optimistic nationalist perspective on conquering space, which is doubtful at best. Tarkovsky was no stranger to the Russian censors, as his films often explored theological questions and focused on individual needs rather than the good of the collective, both of which ran in sharp discord with traditional Communist ideology. Solaris was no exception. Where 2001 examined the technological progress of man through a notably distant lens from its characters, Solaris devastatingly explores the inner psychology of its protagonist (scientist Kris Kelvin), who is tortured by phantom images of his dead wife aboard a spaceship hovering the Solaris ocean, which is argued to have the special ability to accommodate the most desperate human desires.

Where 2001 can be argued as having a relatively positive view towards progressing space travel and thus forwarding to Apollo agenda (also supported by its popularity during the space race and NASA’s embrace of the film), Solaris is quite pessimistic towards human space travel. Where technology in 2001 is intended an awe-inspiring display of choreographed beauty, the technology of Solaris is decrepit and useless, and the halls of the spaceship act as largely abandoned canals of depression and defeat rather than a locale for progressive innovation (one doesn’t need a HAL on this spacecraft to go insane). Space travel is viewed in Solaris as a largely futile, lonely, and unattractive venture. Human space exploration has not lead to a final accomplishment here as much as it has simply come to a standstill. The scientists who argue for no limits in space exploration are portrayed as naïve and bloated with misguided, grandiose ideas of potential accomplishment, insensitive to the human risk at hand. And the risk Tarkovsky outlines is existential and spiritual, not physical. With state-driven, agenda-fueled aspirations for conquering space, man is posited here as not bravely conquering uncharted territory, but irreparably severed from his home with nature (and the natural, a repeated obsession for Tarkovsky, is foregrounded in the film’s opening shots). As the lengthy highway sequence shows at the film’s beginning, man already alienates himself through technology on Earth, and does so to a greater degree in space, potentially losing what makes us human (as Kelvin embraces the phantom of his wife as the woman herself).

2001 sets out, at best, an agnostic approach to space travel, using the cosmos not as an analog of the heavens but as an extension of western expansion ready to be conquered by western men. And the potential of the universe and the meaning of existence (possibly realized through the symbol of the monolith) can be understood and discovered through scientific means and lived existence covering the human lifespan—the end of the universe is reachable by man and his innovation. Solaris, on the other hand, sees space travel and the embrace of technology as a willful separation from God, employing risks that contradict the rules and laws that govern man’s experience on Earth, resulting in practices like the unexplained reappearance of the dead which only extrapolate man’s suffering. As Kelvin embraces the façade of Solaris in the film’s shocking final moment, inferred is his rejection of all that is natural, real, and meaningful—he rejects what keeps him human. It is interesting that 2001—a film posited as pushing the ideology of the unofficially “Christian” nation of America—embraces the purely scientific, while Solaris—as the supposed answer to 2001 from the officially atheist Communist state of the USSR—explores the role of a metaphysical idea of god within the space race.

So, why bother comparing these films at all when there are so many dissimilarities between them? Though it’s dangerous to assume that any significant film from any country somehow directly represents the cultural perspective of that country at that time, it is helpful and relevant to explore how these films have been consumed and interpreted over time. If American culture treats Solaris as the USSR’s answer to 2001, there lies value and important implications regarding American culture simply by the popularity of this interpretation, whether or not it is valid (for the record, I’ve found no evidence to say that the Soviet Union interpreted their film as an “answer” to a popular American film—my guess is that this disposition was no more than a simple way for Americans to try to understand a film from a place very far away through generalization). There are many potential slippery slopes one can take when examining cinema and issues of national identity, but simply asking how a film is potentially reflective of a specific cultural place in time can reveal a great deal about our interpretation of history as reflected through art and/or popular culture, the role of the director and the nation-state in the creation and directed consumption of a filmic product, the lens for understanding through which Americans interpret foreign culture, and finally, how and why certain films resonate at home and abroad.

Need to get you some more culture? Check back every Monday here on FSR for Culture Warrior by Landon Palmer. Also, if you enjoyed this article please visit the Culture Warrior archive for more.

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