Andrei Tarkovsky’s Science Fiction

by Smart

‘Masterpieces are born of the artist’s struggle to express his ethical ideals. Indeed, his concepts and his sensibilities are informed by those ideals. If he loves life, has an overwhelming need to know it, change it, try to make it better, — in short, if he aims to cooperate in enhancing the value of life, then there is no danger in the fact that the picture of reality will have passed through a filter of his subjective concepts, through his states of mind. For his work will always be a spiritual endeavour which aspires to make man more perfect: an image of the world that captivates us by its harmony of feeling and thought, its nobility and restraint.’ – Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time (1989)

Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky was a deeply spiritual man. He loved life and adored nature. All throughout his career he struggled to retain creative control over his films and constantly had to defend himself, even inwardly, against the public backlash his cryptic works of art were frequently greeted with. Now he is considered by many to be Russia’s greatest ever director. His films are deeply personal explorations of faith and humanity which affront the audience on a divine level that transcends the simple enjoyment conventional films offer.

Science Fiction is a spectacular and thought provoking genre. Sadly, it has become a genre that is dominated by special effect laden futuristic action sequences. Tarkovsky directed two gems of Sci-Fi that break from this mould, Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979). Sci-Fi is a multi-faceted genre which offers nearly endless possibilities with regards to the stories it can tell and the ideas it can explore. Defining Sci-Fi in fixed terms is an impossible task as the genre is constantly in a state of flux. This instability is what lends Sci-Fi perfectly to Tarkovsky’s universal style of filmmaking, as it offers him the ability to create ‘possible worlds’ in which he can freely explore the moral and ethical conflicts faced by all of mankind. These possible worlds resemble our own quite closely but deviate just enough as to a form a philosophical playground. Both Solaris and Stalker are based in Sci-Fi by premise but extend far beyond the genre’s regular limitations.

It was in 1973 that Tarkovsky first began to contemplate directing a film adaptation of the recently published book Roadside Picnic (Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1972). Unbeknownst to him at the time was that it would not be until 1979, a full six years later, that the film he had just begun planning would finally come to fruition.  In 1976, after almost a year of silence on the matter, Tarkovsky started work on the script for his presently untitled film. He had even attained the assistance of the two authors of Roadside Picnic, the Strugatsky brothers, to assist him in writing this film adaptation. Finally, in early 1977, shooting commenced and Stalker was indubitably underway. Unsurprisingly it was not long until disaster beset itself upon the production. Tarkovsky clashed with both his set designer and his director of photography, which would eventually lead to both of them being replaced. This would later turn out to be a minor setback in comparison to a technical fault which was discovered in the film stock, leading to months’ worth of footage having to be scrapped. The project was now at breaking point and lacked the necessary funds to reshoot everything from scratch. Miraculously, and without any legitimate explanation to this day, Tarkovsky was able to garner additional funds for the film and resume shooting, this time with a new director of photography and set designer.

As production on Stalker dragged on Tarkovsky made continuous alternations to the script, which underwent an estimated thirteen revisions before the one we see in the final film. Roadside Picnic had been left in the dust, and from its Sci-Fi premise Stalker had been born. What makes Roadside Picnic undeniably Sci-Fi is the way in which it explains the formation of the ‘Zone’. The Zone is still present in Tarkovsky’s film, but the explanation for its occurrence is left deliberately ambiguous. In the book the Zone is an area that has been littered with artefacts by alien visitors, consequently causing strange anomalies to take place around those who enter. Tarkovsky carried this idea over to Stalker, but divorced it almost entirely from aliens and science, leaving only a vague reference to a possible meteor crash or alien involvement in the film’s opening written exposition.  Even the evolution of the character of Stalker (played by Aleksandr Kajdanovsky) changed dramatically with Tarkovsky’s script alternations. He had ‘turned Stalker from a pseudo drug-dealing bully into the slave-like Stalker we see in the finished film.’ (Polin, 2005). It is not that Tarkovsky was worried about making a genre film and wanted to rid himself of the negative connotations of Sci-Fi, it was just that it was more important to him that he make a film that delved deeper into the human mind and explored the issues of love and spirituality that were always of great interest to him. Despite Tarkovsky’s efforts to move Stalker away from the Sci-Fi premise on which it was conceived and turn it into a parable on the human condition, it must still be recognised as a work of Science Fiction, albeit one that has been extended out to a metaphysical realm far beyond any generic hold.

The very same year that Roadside Picnic was first published, 1972, Tarkovsky released his first Sci-Fi film, Solaris. Just like Stalker, Solaris was also adapted from a book, and in true Tarkovsky style, his film deviated greatly from the original text. Once again, the Sci-Fi aspects of the Solaris novel (written by Stanisław Lem in 1961) were downplayed dramatically in Tarkovsky’s film adaptation. As he writes himself:

‘Unfortunately the science fiction element in Solaris was nonetheless too prominent and became a distraction. The rockets and space stations—required by Lem’s novel—were interesting to construct; but it seems to me now that the idea of the film would have stood out more vividly and boldly had we managed to dispense with these things altogether.’ (1989).

Still, Solaris remains unquestionably Sci-Fi, with its demonstration of futuristic space travel and far advanced space ships rooting it, at least in the sense of relevant iconography, in the Sci-Fi genre. There are also scientists, several of them, all of whom are presumably conducting scientific research of some kind, although Tarkovsky does not focus on the technical details of such endeavours in his film unless they are pertinent to the plot. Instead he chooses to focus on his own preoccupations, such as the inner workings of the human mind. Much like in Stalker, Solaris extends the Sci-Fi genre into universal territory designed to resonate deep down in the audience.

Man was created by Nature in order to explore it. As he approaches Truth he is fated to Knowledge. All the rest is bullshit.’ – Dr. Sartorius, Solaris (1972)

“The links between Solaris and Stalker go rather deeper than their common origin in works of science fiction, in which Tarkovsky professed to find little interest for their own sake.” (Johnson and Petrie, 1997). Because of this the two films tend to use the Science Fiction genre as little more than a stepping stone to higher ground. Their similarities come instead from them touching on very similar thematic concepts. They each explore the deepest hidden dreams and desires of man. In Stalker it is the mysterious power of the Room which physically articulates this notion, as entering the Room is said to grant a person their greatest wish. Similarly, in Solaris, it is the Ocean, with its otherworldly power, which goes inside the dreams of nearby humans and realises their greatest desires into reality. This relationship, however, is far less voluntary than in Stalker, where it is by choice that one enters the Room. With the Ocean there is no means by which to shield oneself from its probing ability. It is of great testament to the Sci-Fi genre itself that it allows ideas such as these to be explored while still maintaining a sense of realism and possibility by avoiding the realm of fantasy. The ability to put forth a futuristic world as both Solaris and Stalker do gives the ideas presented in the films a more immediate impact on the audience, who are left to play with the possibility that Tarkovsky’s dystopic vision of the future may eventually become their reality.

Nature recurs frequently throughout all of Tarkovsky’s filmography. His ventures into Sci-Fi are no different, as both Solaris and Stalker take ample time to showcase nature in all its untainted glory. The opening shot of Solaris is of unforgettable beauty and masterful simplicity. Seaweed undulates below the current in a lake as the camera hovers just above. Tarkovsky lets the shot linger for the perfect amount of time, resulting in a visual meditation of sorts. Then through a meticulous slow pan we are introduced to Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), the film’s lead. The following shots are all filled with nature as Tarkovsky gently explores a small lake and the land surrounding it. A horse gallops across the screen, thriving in the sheer purity of the atmosphere. Tarkovsky presents nature as a spiritual experience and manages to evoke a cleansing feeling so strong that it permeates through the screen and onto the viewer, immersing them in the sublime ambience. This concept of nature and spirituality being intertwined is expressed clearly in one of the first scenes inside the Zone in Stalker. Distanced from Scientist (Nikolai Grinko) and Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) the character of Stalker finds himself alone in the penetrating silence of the Zone and proceeds to indulge in a field of lush green grass. The crispness and vibrancy of untainted nature can be genuinely felt as we see Stalker engage himself in a reality beyond the bleakness of his everyday life, which we had come to know in the earlier black and white scenes of the film. Tarkovsky’s switch to colour upon entry into the Zone shed the film of the depressing weight that was crushing down upon it up until then. This is reflected in Stalker who is now happy at last and ready to bathe his soul in the endless beauty he has arrived upon.

Interpretations are seemingly endless when it comes to attaching meaning to the many intricate details and symbols that emerge throughout Stalker. Even the location of the Zone itself is highly contested, and it has often been perceived as a representation of Russian concentration camps, much to Tarkovsky’s dismay. Although this direct connotation is unlikely, it is obvious that the Zone is decadent in design. Tarkovsky has commented on Stalker saying that it is looking to the past and to all the mistakes that humans have made. This is reflected in the debris seen in the Zone, which is brought to specific attention during Stalker’s dream sequence. This scene is certainly oneiric in presentation, although it is never explicitly confirmed as such, which gives rise to a number of questions concerning whether it is actually the mysterious force of the Zone at work, or just simply a dream. Courtesy of a long, delicately paced camera pan we are introduced to a number of objects that appear to be resting beneath the shallow, murky water presumably on the ground near where Stalker has chosen to rest. Syringes, coins, a religious image, a gun, even fish, are all seen, and yet are all detached from explicit meaning. Many of these objects appear to be the very same items that we see on Stalker’s bedside table earlier in the film, perhaps suggesting that either his home life is impacting the Zone, or vice versa. One connotation that is assured from this imagery filled sequence however, is that of dystopia. The items are all resting under muddy water and look to be long since disposed of. They paint a portrait of a dying civilisation that has passed its peak. It takes us back to the beginning of the film when we see the city near the Zone where Stalker, Scientist and Writer all come from. It is a dull and decaying city. Everything is shrouded in fog, which Tarkovsky explains is used to represent the results of humanity’s past failures, which have relegated the present to living in a veil of pollution. Nuclear power plants poison the land near already contaminated waters. For all the beautiful nature that Stalker shows us, it still remains trampled under dystopic imagery.

Although the notion of a journey is of far more narrative concern in Stalker, it is a concept that is also presented in Solaris. Kris Kelvin’s trip to the Solaris space station may have been his only physical journey, but it is his emotional journey upon reaching Solaris that drives the film. Tarkovsky views life itself as a journey and is chiefly concerned in his films with analysing the undertaking of this journey. There is a visual motif of framing shots inside doorways and windows that occurs frequently in both Solaris and Stalker. Once aboard the Solaris space station Kris quickly finds a number of strange happenings, all of which are obscured or hidden behind doors. This is symbolic of a journey as it is Kris who must pass through these doors in order to discover the truth behind them. In Stalker this symbolism is even stronger as spatial relations are taken to a level of engagement audiences rarely see. Tarkovsky repeatedly places his camera outside of a room or building and watches the action through a doorway. This creates a sense of mystery as the audience is unsure where the camera, which is the subjective entity with which they relate to first and foremost, is situated. Stalker also has a distinct lack of establishing shots, which results in many scenes starting in locations that are unidentified in relation to previous or future scenes, causing disorientation for the viewer. By disregarding continuous spatial reality in this way Tarkovsky has forced the audience into considering for themselves what lies outside the frame of the camera. Acquarello writes ‘The theme of self-created boundaries, similarly explored in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, proposes that there are no real impediments in the search for Truth, only a perceived fear of the unknown, and a sanctity in oblivion.’ (2000). This is equally true of life’s great journey, which is filled with unknowns and it is often only through stepping into darkness that one can move forward, much like taking a ‘leap of faith’. The religious connotations of the journey in Stalker are shown clearly when Writer is chosen to walk through the ‘meat-grinder’. Upon Writer successfully leading the way through the dark and ominous tunnel, signifying at least a temporary overcoming of his cynicism, he passes through a perverse baptism by submerging himself up to his chin in filthy water.

‘Weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible, when he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant, but when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.’ – Stalker (Stalker, 1979)

There is an ongoing metaphorical battle taking place in both Solaris and Stalker between those that are faithful and those that are not. Stalker is a man of faith, and he believes fully in the power of the Zone. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Writer and Scientist, who are both cynical and without faith in themselves or any higher power. Stalker understands ‘his own wretchedness, cowardice and inadequacy, he wants genuinely to help those in a worse state than he is because they have lost the last vestiges of hope and faith.’ (Johnson and Petrie, 1997). This is why he takes it upon himself to lead both Writer and Scientist to the Room, despite knowing that they do not believe its power to be real. Eventually Scientist reveals that he has an ulterior motive in seeking out the Room and that he has actually come to try and destroy it, believing that it poses a threat to science and mankind. In Solaris Kris Kelvin is quite similar to Scientist as he also thinks of himself as doing a ‘job’ and goes about approaching the Solaris situation with a closed mind and without faith. However, by the time both Kris and Scientist reach the end of their personal journeys their resolute cynicism appears to have been broken. Stalker, who is driven by his faith, is portrayed quite uniquely in comparison to the other characters. He is dreamy and free spirited and when inside the Zone he feels at home. He believes that it is his duty to lead the way for the spiritually desolate Scientist and Writer. In many respects Stalker comes across as a simpleton who lacks the intellectual capacity of the vastly more qualified Scientist and Writer, whose knowledge has weighed them down into a spiritual depression. This reading of Stalker is perhaps unjust, and there is certainly evidence to the contrary in the form of the large collection of books that cover one of the walls in Stalker’s home, possibly suggesting that he is in fact a man of great knowledge as well as a man of faith.

Another underlying thematic concern that Tarkovsky examines in Solaris and Stalker is the human yearning for love. His approach to this subject is without melodrama and free from false romance. Instead he looks at love as another of life’s great struggles and something that is worth striving for. In Solaris Kris Kelvin is confronted with this struggle first hand as he is forced by the Ocean to deal with the apparent resurrection of his deceased wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). At first, he is frightened by Hari and attempts to get rid of her. He fails in doing so and his attempt to send her into space only results in an altogether new Hari appearing again to be his ‘Guest’. Kris has unresolved emotions towards Hari and is unwilling to deal with them. He realises that because she was created from his dreams her knowledge is limited to his own, making her vastly different from the real Hari. Her love for him cannot be true if this Hari is not able to think of her own accord. The conclusion of Solaris leaves itself open to a number of interpretations. We are shown that the Ocean has delved once more into Kris’ mind and has created from his dreams what the Ocean believes to be his greatest desire. He is back at his father’s home, surrounded by nature and the elements. Kris and his father embrace, although there is something seriously wrong with this setup, as is illustrated by the rain being inside the house instead of outside. It appears that it was not the love of his wife that Kris truly wanted but instead the love of his father. Stalker offers up an opposing conclusion to the paternal Solaris:

‘The arrival of Stalker’s wife in the cafe where they are resting confronts the Writer and the Scientist with a puzzling, to them incomprehensible, phenomenon. There before them is a woman who has been through untold miseries because of her husband, and has had a sick child by him; but she continues to love him with the same selfless, unthinking devotion as in her youth. Her love and her devotion are that final miracle which can be set against the unbelief, cynicism, moral vacuum poisoning the modern world, of which both the Writer and the Scientist are victims.’ (Tarkovsky, 1989)

Here it is Stalker’s love for his wife and her love for him that exposes Tarkovsky’s message. Their bond has survived throughout a life of hardship, showing the truly rewarding power of having faith in oneself and in others, and that love can conquer all disbelief and hardship.

By utilising Sci-Fi in all its simplicity and taking from it that which it has to offer, Tarkovsky has been able to weave two transcendental films that deal directly with philosophical issues pertaining to faith, love, nature and life itself. His futuristic dystopias can be seen as a warning to mankind as well as a guide to achieving a more balanced and fulfilled life. Both Solaris and Stalker represent personal journeys for Tarkovsky, who is able to relate in many ways to the characters he presents in both films. He has managed to extend Sci-Fi as a genre while still allowing his films to retain a universal and timeless appeal through their contemplative and meditative beauty on all aspects of our existence.