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Solaris

November 29, 2013

A lot of us have time off for Thanksgiving.  Everything’s closed and we’re stuffed full of turkey and dressing.  That leaves us with a problem — what are we going to do with ourselves?  We need something to do!

You know what you need?  A good sci-fi.  I’ll recommend the 1972 classic Solaris.  I watched the original in Russian, with English captions.

So what’s it about?  In the distant future, the human race is exploring the cosmos and we come across a strange planet that seems to have evolved into a giant brain.   Hovering over the surface in a space station, a team of scientists are sent in to investigate the electromagnetic swirling oceans, trying to determine what this massive mind is thinking, what it wants, and the general nature of this alien entity.

Initially eighty scientists were stationed there to investigate, but over time all but two of them have committed suicide or have gone insane.  What in the world’s going on?  A psychologist is sent there to investigate, and that’s the set up.

Spoilers from here on out, so you may not want to read on.

It turns out the entity is so intelligent and so foreign, it’s beyond human comprehension, though it kind of communicates.  It doesn’t need words.  Its communications are far more intense.  Initially it did nothing, but as the scientist probed it more and more, it began to respond.  It seems to create things from the scientist’s minds, mostly their repressed fears and anxieties, and it drives them all insane.  It might be some form of experiment the mind is performing on them, but it’s impossible to tell.

The psychologist lands at the station and finds the place nearly empty, trashed, and the two scientists who remain are obviously mentally deranged.  He goes to his quarters and then starts seeing things himself.  He thinks he’s hallucinating, but he’s not.  The giant brain creates a sort of copy of his dead wife based on his memories of her.  He freaks out, but no matter what recourse he attempts, he can’t get rid of her.

The alien entity created a physical being just like his wife, sometimes seeming to put thoughts in her head, but otherwise she’s an independent woman.  She doesn’t know what’s going on either.  Where did she come from?  What is she?  What is he, her husband?

At first she thinks the entity is messing with both of them, and he agrees, but neither know what to do.  She attempts to commit suicide by drinking liquid oxygen, but she’s made out of a different type of substance than an ordinary human, and her body seems to repair itself shortly after being damaged.  They shoot her out of a rocket out into space, but she just “teleports” back.  Or they may have just created another copy of his wife.  I’m not sure.

She can’t live with the fact that she’s a copy of a woman who committed suicide due to her own unhappiness.  As the movie goes on, the psychologist wonders if in some inexplicable way, that “thing” really is his wife.  At the very least, he begins to treat her as he would anyone else.  After all, what is consciousness?  How does it work with the body?  Why wouldn’t this woman be conscious and alive as well?  She’s not just a “thing”.

Either way, he’s filled with guilt when it comes to this woman.  Their last encounter together on Earth was an argument, and he threatened to leave her.  He knew she couldn’t live without him, but he stormed out anyway.  She thought he was gone for good and killed herself.  He returns to find her dead in the hallway.  Is this weird entity giving him a second chance, or just messing with him?  Or maybe it’s amoral and just making him think about death and life?

You can see how the entity makes you go insane.  Is his wife really dead, or is death an illusion?  Is she there with him, or is that really some other woman, a sort of weird puppet?

Eventually the psychologist decides to leave the station and go home.  Once he gets back to “Earth”, he’s cutting a cucumber and slices his finger.  He’s totally shocked.  He’s made out of the same strange substance as his “wife”.  His wound instantaneously heals itself.  He runs out of his log cabin, in total shock.  He’s still well within the clutches of the alien mind.

But wait, what happened to his original physical body?  When did they transfer his consciousness into this different body?  Or did they?  His “wife” is there and she tells him, “Does it matter?  We’re together now.”

He doesn’t know who or what he is.  It’s as if the alien mind is asking him why he thinks the Earth is some familiar place he understands?  He doesn’t know what the Earth is, what matter is, what mind and consciousness are.  He doesn’t understand anything anymore. Is it all a vast illusion the mind is putting on for him, or are the other people there he’s experiencing real like him?   What is real?  Maybe he’s always been immersed within this mind?  How could he ever possibly escape this?  What does it even mean to escape it?

He has to step back like Descartes and think, “What can I know for certain?”  All he knows is “he” is having experiences of different sorts.  Their origin, ultimate mechanism, and nature is completely unknown to him.  The encounter with the alien mind is beyond anything he ever asked for.

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