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Thursday
Jan202011

Distant Relatives: Solaris and Inception

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.


Less human than human

It may seem hard to believe now but the original intent of science fiction wasn't mindless entertainment. These days, the intelligent sci-fi movie is rare enough that it needs to be noted, but back in a time before time, exploring issues of social awareness, philosophy, and humanity was the purpose genre. Inception is a film that's been criticized and accused of a good many things. It's been called too complex, and not complex enough, shallow, convoluted and cold. But in its best moments and in what it eventually narrows down to it hints at this question: In the equation of reality, how much is objective fact and how much is our own perceptions and projections? Should we and can we accept the parts of reality that may or may not exactly be real?

We don't know for sure if Andrei Tarkovsky, famous heady Russian filmmaker would find fault anywhere in Inception. But it's well known that his most famous film Solaris was a reaction to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he considered too cold and distant. That film follows Kris Kelvin, a scientist widower who travels to investigate strange occurrences aboard a the Solaris space station. Once there his wife reappears to him, although both she and he know that she is merely a projection of his psyche made flesh by the mysterious planet Solaris. After failed attempts to send her away (she keeps reappearing), Kelvin must decide whether he'd rather lose a lonely reality in turn for a world of fiction... but potential happiness.

Connections between the two films are immediately apparent. Both protagonists' wives are not only deceased, but of suicide, a plot device responsible for creating the most intense grief.  Both films present us with two states of being, either Earth/Solaris or dreams/waking and both protagonists must decide between the two of them.
 
In Inception, all of the business about implanting an idea in a man's head and corporate intrigue is almost a macguffin, a plot device which exists to place DiCaprio's Cobb deep into his own subconsious (represented by the Limbo). Here is a concept that Solaris does not share. There is no macguffin, no sideways entrance into the psyche. Tarkovsky doesn't wait long (by Tarkovsky standards) to put Kelvin into contact with his "wife".

You don't really exist

just reflections of real people

Each film's protagonist is a man in reality. When the film asks questions about humanity we experience it through him, his pain, his desperateness, and ultimately his decision to accept or reject reality. But to appreciate the questions raised it helps to understand the events through the prism of the deceased wives. Kelvin's wife Hari has consciousness and is by all standards an autonomous being but one who realizes that she is a construct of her husband's perception. Inception's Mal, as a projection of Cobb isn't necessarily a sentient being, but as we see her in flashbacks, as we know the real Mal, we see a woman who is constantly uncertain of whether or not the world around her is real or not, and struggles to knw how much of it is simply her creation. These women give us a good sense of how these films view the human condition, in both an active and passive sense. We need not be in a dream to wonder how much of the world around us is influenced by our own projections like Mal, nor do we need to know we're fictitous like Hari to recognize that the only understanding anyone can ever have of us is skewed by their own subjectivity. The world never exists in an objective state to us, and we never exist in an objective state to the world.
 
When Inception begins Cobb is already mimicing Mal's state of uncertainty at the reality of their reality. Cobb understands that dreams can be so convincing that one can become lost without ever knowing it. Conversely Kelvin doesn't fear getting caught in unreality and is always aware that his wife is, in fact, not real. But he fails to recognize the power of the dream and soon her unreality doesn't seem to matter as much to him.

'Tis better to have loved and lost...

would you give up reality if it never existed in the first place?

You mean more to me than any scientific truth. - Solaris

In comparing Inception with Solaris, it's easy to dismiss Inception as the big blockbuster for the masses that gives its medicine with a heaping helping of sugar while trumping Solaris as a highly-demanding work of art that isn't diluted by explosions and car chases. But that would be unfair. Nolan may serve up his philosophizing surrouneded by a buffer of entertainment but he's reached more people recently than Solaris, which wasn't exactly a big hit when it was released even among the idealized, Godfather and Nashville-going audiences of the 1970's. If anything, Inception proves that people aren't as opposed to complex films as Hollywood thinks. No, Steven Soderberg's Solaris didn't do so well, nor would Tarkovsky's today, though I doubt either of those men would have made changes for the sake of a bigger audience.

Which suggests that audiences will only go so far. Yes, Inception's insight isn't at the level of Solaris's, and yes Inception is often criticized for glossing over its climactic reality vs fiction decision. But like Solaris, the film ends on a vague suggestion that all along, the distinction between fact and fantasy may not have really made a difference. One great writer said of the film, "This exploration of the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious, this great examination of the limits of rationalism and the perverse power of even the most ill-fated love, needs to be seen as widely as possible." Of which film, you ask? Such is their similarity that it could be either. And I have to wonder, does the reality matter?

 

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Reader Comments (15)

I watched Solaris recently and I never thought of Inception- how could I have missed the Dead Wife! connection? There really are some strong parallels but the two films feel so different I never noticed them.

I think Inception could have done with some of the warmth and some (maybe not all!) of the breathing space that Solaris had. I loved the first sequence especially, at the dacha watching the interview, and all the lovely, long spinny-round shots.

Anyway I've been meaning to read up on Solaris since I watched it so thanks for reminding me!

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSVG

I like Solaris a lot but seeing them paired together reminds me of something that makes me uncomfortable. the place of women in society. all these questions they're asking about what is real and objetctive relationships to what exactly and vice versa. I think it's pretty fascinating (though totally disturbing) that in both cases the woman is only defined as projection and in relationship to the man... does she exist if he doesn't? No.

In real life women aren't fictional projections or completely subservient and dependent upon men for the luxury of existing but sometimes it feels like that's the way the patriarchy wants it. I just watched a really disturbing movie from Germany about a Muslim woman leaving her husband so this is on my mind. Basically she ceased to be human (to her family and community) once she stopped being HIS.

very disturbing.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Ha! I was watching the Soderbergh remake today on HBO and actually thought of "Inception" as i watched it. How odd that this is posted the same day.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Nathaniel,

These stories are being told from a heterosexual male perspective. Women usually aren’t their friends. Women are grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, girlfriends, wives, daughters, mistresses, one night stands, and objects in a topless bar, or, in a pornographic video – they aren’t buddies to men, or, personalities to be placed onto a pedestal like we as gay men do.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

Eliza:
Without your pulling it the tide comes in,
Without your twirling it the Earth can spin,
Without your pushing them, the clouds roll by,
If they can do without you, ducky, so can I
I shall not feel alone without you
I can stand on my own without you
So go back in your shell
I can do bloody well
Without...

Professor Higgens:
By George, I really did it,
I did it, I did it,
I said I'd make a woman and indeed I did,
I knew that I could do it,
I knew it, I knew it,
I said I'd make a woman and succeed I did!

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

And then there's the asexual-aromantic male perspective. If they're not a grandma, mom, aunt or sister, they DO NOT EXIST.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

And speaking of my orientation: That's the thing about Easy A, which I just saw. The issue is, they didn't find the potential ironic, comic GOLDMINE in the concept. Specifically, Olive, and her whole situation, would be funnier if she was portrayed as an asexual. Did the writer think of this? No. Why not? Does EVERYONE have to be straighter than the organ I sometimes want to cut off? This would have been a great movie to portray a well adjusted and even nice character with the orientation, while not being an artificial appendage to the story line. I think we've earned the right to something more recognizably human than Sherlock Holmes and Sheldon Cooper.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Well I think straight men fare a little bit better than you suggest. However I'd argue that since none of us exist in objective reality it becomes that much more important to pay attention to what is influencing our subjectivity and female stereotypes are a big part of that.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

robert -- that's very true

volvag -- regarding your first post what you've written in that one setence is not 'asexual' or 'aromantic' as you're labelling it, it's straight up misogyny.

JESSICA -- THANK YOU. haha. i needed to giggle about this.

i'm afraid i led us off track but it's just that Nolan's way of keeping women backgrounded and archetypal only makes me crazy and so this discussion really reminded me of all of those issues.
but that said i do think SOLARIS's projections and the entire concept of separate entites that are relaly just projections is completely fascinating and also a goldmine for commentary on the way we process the other

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I've never made the connection between these two - great post! Coincidently, I was in a Russian Literature in Film class today and one of the things we discussed is how Solaris and Dostoevsky's "White Nights" are related. Just as in these two movies, the story's unnamed protagonist may be projecting Nastenka as his ideal woman, with the whole story blurring the lines between reality and dream. In fact, the whole story could just be a dream, which would relate it to Inception as well. Just thought I'd share that.

And for what its worth, I would totally give up reality for Marion Cotillard. LOOOOOOOOOOOOVE her.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason H.

Forgot to mention co-worker, I posted hastily. Also didn't make the real point clear, sorry. And I'm willing to concede that utter disinterest in sex/love is, in many ways, hard to intimate simply. Human beings are flawed and can be rash and impulsive. I made a mistake. I'm sorry. I'm not really sexist, because it's more like ALL PEOPLE outside my family and job space don't exist. And I sometimes find it hard to not HATE those people. I admit that I'm, at least, a bit of a misanthrope. Now that I've cleared up some things about myself, go to town on a more accurate statement about my views on humanity.

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Nathaniel -- Love your point about women in Nolan films, but I'm also a huge Nolan fan. Inception, as wonderfully produced and as conceptually fascinating as it is, is kind of a boys club and the female characters are both static -- one because it's just underdeveloped (Ellen Page) and the other because she's dead/imaginary/unstable, so she can't grow (I still love that movie)! So, Inception missed a bit of an opportunity to make Ellen Page's character more real and thus broaden the scope and appeal of the film. Which is too bad, because they spend so much time on exposition and explaining the mechanics of "extraction" to the point of it being sort of tedious. All I needed was a little bit of revealing banter or something, five minutes of reveal about Ellen Page. I think considering she's the catalyst that pulls main character Cobb out of his cyclical obsession with his dead wife, she deserves a story and it would've enriched the movie in a big way.

Any commentary on "why" is pretty speculative, so I can't really find Nolan's choice "disturbing." It could be that executive producers concerned with marketing realized that "female emotions" = unerect guys and they have a 80% male dork crowd to please. That's pretty cynical, but I wouldn't rule it out. Another theory is that (especially if you buy the "it's all a dream" theory) all the characters are purposefully static because they're all just projections of Cobb's imagination. As Jules in Pulp Fiction would say, "Now I like that... but we both know that shit ain't the truth." I'm going with I don't know here.

Regardless, still very exciting to see what he does with Selina Kyle. If Nolan can repeat the success of Heath Ledger as the Joker with an independent and extremely well-rounded female villain, he's got me in his corner for life. He's an expert filmmaker and I know he can pull of emotionally complex female characters (See "Memento"), so we shall see.

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTimothy

Unfortunately what these distant relatives tell us about the history of film is that intelligence and extent of inbreeding are inversely proportional.

March 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPalaverer

Exactly what I wrote at the time. Good job.

There's also the question of guilt and perception that runs through both films.

I still refer to Inception as "Popcorn Tarkovsky." And I mean that in a good way, for the reasons that you stated.

May 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK. Bowen

I Am A Strange Loop (Hofstadter, 2007). Consider this mother of all analogies: A work within a work within a work: Solaris (2002) within Godel, Escher, Bach (Hofstadter, 1979) within Inception (2010). According to writer Gary Wolf, in the article Solaris, Rediscovered (Wired.Com, Dec 2002), Douglas Hofstadter along with Marvin Minsky invited Stanislaw Lem to the MIT AI Lab (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.12/solaris.html).
Chris Kelvin: “Earth. Even the word sounded strange to me now... unfamiliar. How long had I been gone? How long had I been back? Did it matter? I tried to find the rhythm of the world where I used to live. I followed the current. I was silent, attentive, I made a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand, and perform the millions of gestures that constitute life on earth. I studied these gestures until they became reflexes again. But I was haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong, and somehow I was wrong about everything.” (Solaris, 2002)
Cited from page 37 (528-491=37) of GEB: “Of course, there are cases where only a rare individual will have the vision to perceive a system which governs many people’s lives, a system which had never before even been recognized as a system; then such people often devote their lives to convincing other people that the system really is there, and that it ought to be exited from!” (Douglas Hofstadter, 1979).

June 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Raybould

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