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Stanley Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey was released in 1968 to mixed critical reviews, but has since been reevaluated as a landmark piece of science fiction and cinema in general. Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris was released four years later and has been frequently compared to Kubrick's work, often described as a Soviet “response” to its American/British predecessor. While some may dismiss the relationship between the two films as a result of a tendency to compare Soviet and American works produced within a similar time frame, there are many important parallels worth discussing. Specifically, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris offer slightly different but fascinating views on epistemology and a relatively consistent depiction of “unnatural” life. Knowing is an incredibly important function in Solaris. On the most superficial level, one must only glance at the script to see that the Russian equivalent of the word “know” is used countless times. Obviously a simple word count is an overly reductive way of analyzing such a complex theme, but a viewing of the film reveals that it manifests itself in a variety of ways. Epistemology is first acknowledged as significant to Solaris during the old footage of Burton's testimony when a professor comments that the work on the remote planet is “probing the very nature of human knowledge.” The professor's counterpart is dismissive of this idea, and instead insists that the research be terminated. From this point forward, the film works very hard to establish man's fear of that which he does not understood, and his the limited and primitive nature of his attempts to gain understanding. Burton is the first man to publicly acknowledge the mysterious of Solaris. However, rather than being met with excitement and open mindedness, he reveals that his testimony is typically met with ridicule and skepticism. Such a reaction could very easily be a defensive
response in order to cope with fear. In fact, the fear of the unknown becomes increasingly prominent as the film progresses. Once Kris is aboard the space station, he is confronted with the unknown and reacts predictably. He sees a tangible manifestation of his deceased wife, Hari, breaks out in a cold sweat, and hurriedly launches her away from the base in a rocket. What is perhaps most fascinating about the encounter is that Kris risks severe bodily harm to witness the rocket blast off. He knows that staying in the launch area will burn him, but his desire to see the new Hari depart outweighs his aversion to pain. The discomfort of burns, in his mind, is less significant than the comfort in knowing he has eliminated the enigma that so troubled him. Kris and the academics who witnessed Burton's testimony are not the only ones who react with such great fear when faced with that which they cannot understand. The crew on the Solaris space station refer to the constructs they see as “monsters” and specifically refer to Hari as “it” in a spiteful and derogatory manner. Likewise, Kris, Snout and Sartorius offer differing opinions on the reasons for Gibarian's suicide. The tape he leaves for Kris expresses a profound remorse for the crew's lack of understanding and a pessimistic outlook regarding the potential to ever understand the phenomenon they are experiencing. Consequently, his suicide may be a result of “fear,” “cowardice,” or “shame,” but it clearly stems from an inability to comprehend what was happening around him. While the almost universal reaction in Solaris to the unknown is an expression of fear, the steps taken in response to a lack of understanding tend towards primitive and violent. Burton asks Kris before he departs if it is wise to “destroy that which [they] are not capable of understanding,” which he believes is the intention of the other characters in the film. He goes on to state that he unequivocally does not “advocate knowledge at any price,” a mindset that, again, is not shared by everyone in the world of Solaris.
In fact, the process of dealing with the unknown after the initial reaction of fear is much more militaristic than scientific. Whenever a solution is suggested, it features wartime terminology, like “bombard,” and “surface sweep.” Likewise, the ultimate solution to the “problem” of Hari is a device called “The Annihilator.” This, of course, comes only after Sartorius expresses a willingness to experiment on her, regardless of the discomfort she may experience as a result. Sartorius also suggests a major attack of radiation to the surface of Solaris. The planet seems to be attempting communication with the humans aboard the space station, but the human's only response is that of violence and destruction. Even Kris, who appears to be more invested in cautious procedure, initially suggests that the station be “liquidated” when he is faced with a situation he does not understand. Perhaps Snout says it best when he declares that science, the organized pursuit of knowledge, “is a fraud.” In Solaris, it is merely a disguised extension of man's primitive instincts of fear and destruction rather than a more noble search for truth and enlightenment. Burton stands alone in his belief that “knowledge is only valid when it rests on a foundation of morality.” Questions of epistemology are addressed slightly differently in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film opens with a very primitive breed of man struggling for survival on earth. One faction fights at a watering hole with another and is driven to shelter in a cave. Eventually, an alien monolith lands outside the cave of the early humans. They are immediately fascinated by it, and spend several moments observing the new structure. Moments later, one early human is playing with a bone and discovers that it can be used to smash the other bones in front of him. The implication is of course that contact with the monolith influenced the early humans and imparted on them an understanding of tools, and, more importantly, weapons. Here, 2001 seems to be saying that humans have always had an understanding of
violence, but the monolith was the first step in their pursuit of knowledge. Since that time, knowledge has been used primarily in the pursuit of newer and more effective means of violence, as evidenced by the famous match cut from man's first weapon (the bone) to his ultimate weapon (a nuclear space station). Even the scientific mission that is the primary focus of the film is inherently rooted in violence, or the threat thereof, as the discovery of the monolith on the moon and its radio signal to Jupiter are crucial in the continued Space Race during the Cold War. Regardless of the value of knowing in either film, one thread ties them together. Humans are utterly ill-equipped to explore the mysteries of space. Despite all of the technological advances they have made through the years, nothing has prepared them for what lies beyond their realm of familiarity. Not a single member of the Discovery One mission in 2001 survives (though one is reborn into a higher state of being, finally capable of understanding the cosmos), and one member of the Solaris space station kills himself while the other three appear to be emotionally traumatized. The disasters that occur in both films are indicative of just how far man has to go before it can begin to understand space and all that inhabits it. On a related note, the inhabitants of space have much in common across 2001:A Space Odyssey and Solaris. Astronomer Carl Sagan was consulted by Stanley Kubrick on how to depict alien life, and posited the notion that it would almost definitely not resemble familiar terrestrial life. Both films uphold this philosophy by never directly depicted alien life. Instead, they merely imply it. While some suggest that the monolith in 2001 is in fact a life form, this theory is impossible to prove and instead is only a confirmation that some alien life exists. In the final scenes of 2001, when astronaut Dave Bowman is “beyond the infinite,” it seems as though he is being observed by otherworldly beings, though they are never shown.
Again, the suggestion is that they are beyond human understanding and cannot be depicted regularly. Even in 2001's sequel, subtitled “The Year We Make Contact,” the contact is indirect (in the form of a disembodied Bowman and typed message), and the visual depiction of alien life is avoided. Solaris takes the concept of alien life being beyond human comprehension a step further, and suggests that the titular planet is itself an alien life form. The planet seems to be reading the minds of the nearby humans, and sending them “visitors” as a form of communication. This idea is supported by the fact that Kris's first vision comes immediately after he first stares into the clouds of the planet. Likewise, Snout suggests that the windowless library is a safe haven from communications with Solaris because there is no direct line of sight to it. Towards the end of the film, Snout declares that “nature created man so that he might gain knowledge.” This implies the higher knowledge possessed by Solaris, as a planet can clearly be seen as the most physical embodiment of nature. Likewise, Snout's quote links Solaris to the unseen aliens in 2001 as their use of the monolith indicates that they were interested in man's pursuit of knowledge. Collectively, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky's Solaris are each extremely fascinating and meaningful films. Each explore a myriad of unique themes and present a series of striking and beautiful images. For better or worse, however, the proximity of their release, their countries of origin, and several other factors mean that in the eyes of many they will always be linked. A comparison of the two films reveals many points of interest. Chief among them are concerns of epistemology and the depiction of otherworldly life. Solaris seems to indicate that the quest for knowledge is a concealed method of coping with fear and a lust for violence. Similarly, 2001: A Space Odyssey expresses the idea that human knowledge is used
primarily in manners related to the evolution of violence as it mirrors the evolution of humanity. Additionally, both films portray alien life in an interesting manner. Neither one actually acknowledges the physical form of the otherworldly beings, but both suggest that they are beyond traditional human understanding. Solaris suggests that the planet itself has its own consciousness and a desire to communicate, whereas 2001 hints that alien life may have moved beyond the physical form.
Works Cited Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Inner Space", 1990. http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=7476. Salvestroni, Simonetta. The Science Fiction Films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Science Fiction S tudies, 1987.
http://library.brown.edu/reserves/pdffiles/35680_Salvestroni%20-%20Tarkovsky.pdf. Zizek, Slavoj. The Thing From Inner Space. Lacan.com, 1999. http://library.brown.edu/reserves/pdffiles/35681_the%20thing%20from%20inner %20space%20by%20Zizek.pdf.
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