In Tempo di viaggio (1983), the doodle Andrei Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra made for Italian TV as they prepped Nostalghia, the great struggling Russian answers a question about genre films by saying that his Solaris (1972) is “not so good,” essentially because it is science fiction, because it is a genre film. You can easily understand why Tarkovsky felt this way, given his topos and metaphysical concerns, but what’s shocking is how little the filmmaker apparently understood about his own film, and about the purpose of science fiction in general. The key to the genre is its functionality as metaphor—if it’s merely space opera (Star Wars or the new Star Trek or whatever), then it’s kiddie stuff, and as close to real science fiction, as it’s evolved, as the old Buck Rogers serials. Real science fiction, the only genre defined by ideas, is closer to satire than to fantasy or horror: its battery of metaphors is used as speculation and commentary about the present, hyperbolically exploding whatever mitigations might couch an issue in real life, so we can see the fallout rain down. (In ideas begins morality, and pulpist Edmund Crispin was only the first to note that science fiction is “the last refuge for the morality tale.”) The critic who got this best was the late Brit writer Philip Strick, whose modest but electrically philosophical 1976 volume Science Fiction Movies was an epiphany for me as a movie-struck tween.
Solaris is a science fiction movie about love and grief and responsibility, and how those quantities mutate with time, and Tarkovsky himself might be the only person to have ever dismissed it as just a genre film. The young Japanese filmmaker Kanji Nakajima certainly couldn’t, as his new film, The Clone Returns Home (2008), playing at the New York Asian Film Festival next week, is essentially an homage to Solaris, in its themes and conjured enigmas, and even its imagery. But Nakajima’s strategy is inside out. Instead of our perspective aligning with a man whose suicide-dead wife returns and reignites the immolation of their marriage, we walk with an astronaut who tragically lost a twin brother when he was young, and who consents to cloning treatment as insurance against deep-space accidents. Thus the dead twin is reborn, kind of; when the astronaut is killed, the clone is awoken, into a state of loss, and impulsively begins a cross-country odyssey off the grid, searching for the other self/twin he cannot locate in himself. Then a second clone is produced and woken . . .
Nakajima is all about finding the poetry in the sci-fi, and The Clone Returns Home is closer to Solaris—closer to its replicated identities and unattainable verisimilitude—than Solaris is to that old Star Trek episode “Shore Leave” (which critic David Thomson claims to prefer), or to Duncan Jones’s new Moon (2009), another riff on the theme. The Japanese film’s tone is pensive, Tarkovskian even, and the filmmaker knows when to lunge for those coup de grâce images: the dead spaceman seen from Earth, floating in a blue sky; the anticlone protesters grimly holding portraits of their late-but-cloned loved ones; the clone collapsing after carrying the space-suited corpse (or empty space suit, depending on which perspective we’re experiencing), only to have the suit groggily sit up, pick up his “brother,” and continue the march.
Science fiction tropes like “body snatcher” films have often utilized the interpersonal anxiety psychopathologically manifested as Capgras syndrome (the delusion that someone has been replaced by an identical impostor)—an acute and inexhaustible project, it seems to me—but in these two films, we get something more, well, spiritual: dramatic images and constructs that ask about the meaning of love (fraternal and romantic), if the object of our ardor is somehow different but somehow exactly the same, if there are two or three or more versions, indistinguishable and yet as separate as versions of ourselves in our memories. Which is, of course, what the symbologies boil down to: memory and its tenuous rescue of the past, just as Tarkovsky’s film ends in a dream of childhood home and parental immortality.