In Solaris we see a representation of the Space Age, and indeed the Space Race, but rather than as something futuristic, we are looking at it from the moment of its decay. The Space Age as a part of modernity - maybe the epitome of modernity - and its ultimate and inevitable failure; as we can see in the film, the space station is old and worn out, its inhabitants are having emotional breakdowns and they seem to have lost any purpose with their mission.
Can we watch Solaris as a reaction towards modernity? The fragmentation of time and reality for the scientists on Solaris denies the straight-forward teleology and rationality - 'duty' in Sartorius' words - that modern thought have promoted. In the end Kris even decides to stay in his memories, despite knowing that it is the un-reality of Solaris.
Clip 1 - Calling from the City
Many of the scenes stand out in strong contrast to each other - compare this one with the previous scene filmed in the lush nature around Kris' family home. How does these contrasts - nature/city, colour/blackandwhite, and in the space station, the living quarters and the corridors/the 'green room' - work as visual metaphors for tensions and emotions?
"It's about new morality arising as a result of those painful experiences we call 'the price of progress'." - Tarkovsky
The heritage from the Space Age might have been more psychological than anything and in Solaris we see a focus on the inner lives of the scientists as human beings and the struggle between their rational minds and emotions intensified by Solaris as memories or desires/fears "from the recesses of your soul".
"Little information has been released about the psychological effects of space travel, both on the astronauts and the public at large. Over the years NASA spokesmen have even denied that the astronauts dreamed at all during their space flights. But it is clear from the subsequently troubled careers of many of the astronauts (Armstrong, probably the only man for whom the 20th century will be remembered 50,000 years from now, refused to discuss the moon-landing) that they suffered severe psychological damage. What did they dream about, how were their imaginations affected, their emotions and need for privacy, their perception of time and death? The Space Age lasted barely 25 years, from Gargarin's first flight in 1961 to the first Apollo splashdown not shown on live TV in 1975, a consequence of the public's loss of interest - the brute-force ballistic technology is basically 19th century, as people realise, while advanced late 20th century technologies are invisible and electronic: computers, microwave data links, faxes and VDTs are the stuff of which our dreams are made. Perhaps space travel is forever doomed because it inevitably recapitulates primitive stages in the growth of our nervous systems, before the development of our sense of balance and upright posture - a forced return to infantile dependency."
Clip 2 - Snout's Birthday
Solaris' greater narrative is the problematic dualism civilization/nature, or rather science/nature, but with Man stuck inbetween, rather than at the forefront of Science and Reason. The film questions whether knowledge serves power and border-extension rather than being something 'natural' and for the greater good. The two opinions are personified in Snout and Sartorius.
"We have no ambition to conquer any cosmos. We just want to extend Earth up to the cosmo's borders. We don't want any more worlds. Only a mirror to see our own in. We try so hard to make contact, but we're doomed to failure. We look ridiculous pursuing a goal we fear and don't really need. Man needs man!"
- Solaris - Stanislaw Lem 1961
- Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky 1979
- The Archaeology of Knowledge - Michel Foucault 1969