Sunday, November 27, 2022

20 Years Ago Today: Solaris (2002)

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: solitude, hardship, exhaustion, death. We're proud of ourselves. But when you think about it, our enthusiasm's a sham. We don't want other worlds; we want mirrors.

-       Solaris (2002).

It’s unusual that a contemporary Hollywood remake of 1970s Russian science-fiction film should succeed so dramatically on its own terms.  

Yet that’s precisely the case with Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris (2002) starring George Clooney.  Although this remake diverges from both the Stanislaw Lem novel and the 1972 Tarkovsky film, the director’s post-millennial iteration of the tale nonetheless succeeds as a consistent and imaginative work of art.

This artistic success hinges in large part on Soderbergh’s splendid visualization of the story, and his creative decision to eschew the bells-and-whistles of the modern sci-fi cinema.  This is a film about the nature of the universe, and more trenchantly, how mankind views that nature and his place in it.  But it is vetted, surprisingly, through the excavation of a very human relationship.

Thus Solaris is resolutely not a film of action, or set-pieces, or special effects. There’s a significant segment of the population that, simply put, won’t exhibit much patience for it. Writing for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote: “Put George Clooney in a space-suit and you expect Star Wars heroics, aliens, massive FX. Get over it.” 

That’s excellent advice.  

Where most outer space films are determinedly “epic” in nature, Solaris appear painfully and resolutely intimate.  The film concerns, primarily, the concepts of grief, guilt, and God.  Furthermore, it is a meditation on human identity, and the ways that such identity precludes an honest reckoning with a life form that is authentically “alien” in nature.

Soderbergh’s Solaris -- as J. Hoberman noted at The Village Voice – “achieves an almost perfect balance of poetry and pulp. This is as elegant, moody, intelligent, sensuous, and sustained a studio movie as we are likely to see this season—and in its intrinsic nuttiness, perhaps the least compromised.”

The film qualifies as uncompromising because it doesn’t bow to commercial influences above artistic ones, and because Soderbergh deploys symbolic imagery and canny compositions to characterize both the protagonists’ lonely life on Earth and his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make, essentially, a “leap of faith.” 

Thematically, Solaris can be interpreted on two tracks.  

On one track, the film is strictly a religious treatise, one affirming an important tenet of Christianity as set down by Paul in Romans.  It is about, simply, assurance of salvation.  

On a deeper and ultimately more rewarding level, Solaris functions admirably as a complex psychological mirror, one that reflects the lead character’s perhaps subconscious desire to believe in a cosmic order beyond secular science.

Accordingly, the film’s protagonist finds in the planet Solaris a sentient life form that accommodates and manifests his buried desire to “believe” in God and therefore in a religious hierarchy to the universe.  The planet’s manifestation of an eternal “after life” for this character in the film’s denouement makes one ask the question: is there any meaningful difference between “God” and a life form that acts as if it is God?  This interrogative parallels the movie’s other big question mark: is there any substantive difference between a human and a Solaris-generated “Visitor” who appears human?

No matter how one interprets it, Solaris (2002) qualifies as a masterpiece of the science fiction cinema, a very impressive achievement” and one that “measures up” to Tarkovsky’s brilliant cinematic progenitor.

We are in a situation that is beyond morality.”

In the near future, mourning widower and renowned psychologist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) is sent by the DBA Corporation to investigate a dangerous situation on Space Station Prometheus, a facility orbiting the mysterious world called Solaris.  

A video message from one of the scientists stationed on Prometheus, Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) reveals that the crew is being overcome by…something.  Kelvin soon heads to the station in a capsule called Athena to arrange “the safe return of the crew.”

When Kelvin reaches Prometheus, he finds that Gibarian has committed suicide, Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis) has locked herself in her room, and Snow (Jeremy Davies) has apparently lost his mind.  After he sleeps for the first time on the station, Kelvin finally begins to understand the nature of the crisis.  His dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) appears in his quarters...apparently created from Solaris and from his very memories.

Kelvin learns that each of the other scientists also met important “Visitors” from their pasts.  At first he is terrified of Rheya and sends her away on a pod.  But when Rheya re-appears (following another period of slumber), Kelvin realizes that he boasts a “second chance” to be with his beloved wife.  All the guilt he feels over her suicide can now be repaired, he feels, and they can start again.

While Gordon masterminds a plan to obliterate the Visitors created by Solaris using an Anti-Higgs ray, Kelvin and Rheya grow closer.  Unfortunately, Rheya seems pre-programmed for suicide, a reflection of the true Rheya’s disturbed psyche…at least as Kelvin remembers it.

When the anti-Higgs ray affects Solaris…causing the planet to swell and grow in mass, Kelvin must make a fatal decision about his destiny.  

Should he return to an empty life on Earth? Or face absorption by Solaris, the seeming “entity” which brought (a version) of his wife back to him?  What awaits Chris in a symbiosis with the mysterious planet?

“Are we alive or dead?  We don’t have to think like that anymore…”

Unlike the source material created by Stanislaw Lem, the 2002 version of Solaris --- at least from a certain perspective -- offers something of a religious, Christian parable.  

The film tells the tale of a scientist -- Kelvin’s “nihilist psychologist,” as the dialogue terms him -- who takes a “leap of faith” and chooses “belief” rather than a return to the (lonely) reality he knows and deplores. Instead of going back to the “secular,” “real” Earth, Kelvin chooses to believe that there is another option: an eternal afterlife created by Solaris.

Kelvin’s favorite poem, quoted often in the film, is Dylan Thomas’s (1914-1953) “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” (1936).  The poem’s title comes from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in the New Testament.  This epistle concerns, among other things, man’s assurance of “salvation” through the act of faith.  According to this work, man can join forever with Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven and find freedom from sin there.

In the film, we witness a flashback sequence wherein Kelvin, Gibarian, and Rhea share dinner and Kelvin self-righteously adopts an atheist or nihilist standpoint.  He claims that human existence is just one of a billion mathematical possibilities, and therefore random.  

The whole idea of God was dreamed up by man,” Kelvin and his friends assert.  Both Kelvin and Gibarian tease Rheya mercilessly about her belief in “God,” belief in that magical man with the “white beard” that listens to and answers human prayers.  

Although clearly a troubled soul, Rhea rejects this nihilist view of existence. She sees purpose and meaning in the cosmos. She is a believer. 

In the face of the apparent miracles Kelvin witnesses on the Prometheus space station, he is asked, ultimately, to believe in something too.  If not a Christian God, necessarily, than in the powers of Solaris to reunite him with Rheya, the wife he lost.  

He stills feel guilty about her death, and that continuing burden of guilt leads Kelvin to the precipice of a spiritual awakening, as he reveals in voice over narration.  Kelvin notes that he is “haunted by the idea” that he remembered Rheya wrong, and that if he could be so wrong about someone he loved so deeply, he could be “wrong about everything.”

Everything” in this context means the existence of God. And perhaps even the very nature of the universe.  In other words, the nihilist Kelvin opens up his world view, just a crack, to accept the possibility of miracles, of real spirituality. Of all those things determinedly not incorporated into his carefully-selected, secular philosophy.

As Stephen Holden wrote in his review of Solaris Chris's tears aren't the warm, cathartic sobs of a grieving Rhett Butler softened by one too many brandies, but the tremors of a man who thought he had all the answers suddenly confronting a scary metaphysical conundrum.”

So to resolve that scary metaphysical conundrum, Kelvin makes a leap of faith, and decides to remain on Prometheus, even as the planet’s mass threatens to consume the facility.  As that act of planetary absorption occurs, Kelvin falls to the floor of one particular corridor, where he is greeted unexpectedly by a “Visitor” who takes a form of pure innocence: Gibarian’s young son.   

This boy -- a Christ or God figure -- offers an outstretched hand of support. In response, Kelvin stretches to reach the boy’s hand.  And for a moment here, Soderbergh cuts to a close-up image of the two hands in close-proximity, grasping for one other. 

The Hand of God

The Hand of God?

The Hand of God

The Hand of God?

As you can see, this particular shot selection eerily echoes Michaelangelo’s “Hand of God” imagery in the Sistine Chapel.  In that Catholic venue, this image represents God giving life to Adam, the first man.   Here, the image suggests that Solaris (or Christ…) forgives and accepts Kelvin, and grants him an eternal after life.

Ensconced in that afterlife, Kelvin soon finds himself back in his apartment on Earth.  But he is not alone this time.  He is with Rheya…forever.  And his guilt over her death is now assuaged.  For her part, Rheya informs Chris that this is a place of eternal peace: 

Everything we’ve done is forgiven,” she asserts, harking back to Paul’s assurance of salvation in Romans, and the specific line from Kelvin’s favorite poem.  Death shall have no dominion…at least for believers.

The spiritual and religious aspects of Solaris are consistently applied throughout the film, with Gordon – another scientist – fearing the planet’s “resurrections” (a term which also recalls the story of Jesus), and Rheya coming to interact with the planet as something akin to God; something which has set her down a specific path and which “wants” certain things from her.  In one scene, we witness Rheya talking to an invisible presence, asking, specifically, what it wants of her.  It is the stance of someone trying to discern the word of God.  And in one image (in a mirror), the figure she seems to be talking to is no longer invisible but, again, the Gibarian child.

Even the explicit discussion of a “place where” Kelvin and Rheya “can live” together in their “feelings of love” harks back to a Christian interpretation of the film.  That place of unending love can only exist when Kelvin takes a leap of faith; when Kelvin believes in something beyond science.

The irony of Solaris’s viewpoint if you subscribe to this interpretation is that it absolutely conforms to Gibarian’s damning line that “we don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors.”  

In other words, Solaris depicts the tale of man in space, and finds that in this frontier he must reckon with the Face of God Himself.  And here God conforms -- through the Michelangelo symbolism, the Dylan quotation (from Paul, originally), and the apotheosis of an after-life of “forgiveness” -- with pre-existing Earth beliefs, or specifically, Christian beliefs.   

Therefore, Lem’s original idea from the novel is indeed sacrificed. 

This movie is not about Lem’s notion of countenancing something truly alien or incomprehensible, but rather about countenancing a “mirror” that re-affirms Earthly beliefs. In that vein, one can argue that Solaris takes man to the frontier of knowledge and finds there but a mirror reflecting earthbound, Western traditions of faith and spirituality.

There is another way to understand the film, however, and frankly, I prefer this second interpretation.  

Chris Kelvin is an avowed secularist (“the nihilist psychologist,” remember) and yet something in his soul connects emotionally and meaningfully to the works of the Dylan Thomas, particularly that poem about “death having no dominion,” and love lasting forever.  

Kelvin is already open, then, in some buried sense – perhaps even a subconscious sense – to the idea of an afterlife, to the idea of forgiveness, and even to the concept of God.  The planet Solaris – a vibrating, coruscating membrane, and, perhaps, a mirror – thus creates for him the very (religious) imagery his mind seizes upon at the point of his death.  Chris wants to “believe,” and Solaris accommodates that desire, making his belief a “real” dimension, a real afterlife.

Solaris is thus not God, and the afterlife we witness in the film's climax is not Heaven, at least not in the Biblical sense.  Instead, just as the Visitors are not exactly human, but rather representations of human, the after-life is a manifestation of Kelvin’s desire to find peace in Heaven, but not actually Heaven itself. Got it?  Just as Kelvin asserts in the flashback that man has "dreamed up" God, he, in the film's finale, dreams up (a version of) Heaven.

It seems even Kelvin’s name embodies his philosophical stance in Solaris.  On the Kelvin Scale of Belief, he seems to be on a consciously-applied "absolute zero," at least until he interfaces with Solaris and his repressed beliefs come to the surface.  I believe Kelvin boasts the repressed desire to believe in something beyond proven science because he feels guilty about Rheya, and can’t forgive himself for her death.  Science can't provide forgiveness.  Even behavioral psychology can't, really. So his mind creates a world – and Solaris manifests that world – where he can find that peace and forgiveness.

But that world is no more Heaven than the Visitor Rheya is actually the real Rheya.  

The forgiveness that Solaris grants Kelvin -- the very afterlife it manifests for him -- are thus but mirrors of what his conflicted mind seems to desire: a place where he can dwell forever in that feeling of love with the woman he cares about.

“How are you here? Where do you think you are?”

At the heart of Solaris is this crucial character, the nihilist, Chris Kelvin.  He goes on a mission that makes him re-examine his beliefs and feelings, and runs square up against the human concept of identity.  He comes to realize that the Visitor version of “Rheya” is created exclusively from his memory, from his mind.  

Accordingly, she can act only as he expects her to act; only within the confines of his established mental “definition” of her.  This realization proves incredibly troubling to Rheya.  She can’t deal with the fact that she is not “herself,” but rather a creation of Rheya vetted through the lens of Kelvin’s eyes.

What Solaris truly hints at, then, is the notion that no one can truly know anybody else. That our identities are fragile, self-constructed puzzles of deep layers and many facets. 

No one else – not even our spouses, our children, our parents or our best friends – can fully understand the complexity of the inner, personal self.  Throughout the film, characters respond in fear and anger to the visitors because they don’t know “why” they have appeared, or “who made them.”

Well, why are we here?  And who, outside our parents, created us, the human race itself? 

It’s completely hypocritical that Gordon and Kelvin, at least to an extent, ask existential questions of Rheya, Snow and Gibarian’s son that they can’t truly answer about themselves or human nature.  This is why the final revelation about Snow is so important.  Others accept him at face value, believing him to be human, when in fact he is a "Visitor."  For a person on the outside looking in, it's impossible to detect the difference.  That's the point.  

Soderbergh excavates this concept -- the ultimate un-know-ability of other people -- through a carefully selected visual approach.  In particular, there are an abundance of compositions in the film which reveal to us Chris Kelvin…but only from the back.  

These shots aren’t like the fast-moving, “intrusion” tracking shots of Black Swan that I pointed out last week, although they may resemble them from the screen grabs (which can't alas, accommodate motion or movement).  Instead, these are (mostly) still frames in which Kelvin’s back is deliberately facing the camera.  The image suggests that something important is being denied us.

This composition could be a visual prophecy of Kelvin’s approaching death, or a sign of the character’s alienation and isolation from the world.  He has literally turned his back on it (and to the camera).  

Or, if one chooses to consider the image symbolically, these composition choices represent Soderbergh’s reminder that even Kelvin – our protagonist – is a man of layers and contradictions.  Ultimately, we can’t understand more of his identity than what he reveals to us.  This interpretation fits in with the notion I described above, of Kelvin as both firm nihilist/atheist and Kelvin as secret “believer” (or want-to-be-believer, if you will).  Can we really know him?  Can he really know himself?

What's denied us in this image?

Trapped in the prison (notice the bars?) of his own beliefs?

Separated from the world outside.

Lost in a blur of unimportant faces.

Finally, Unknowable.

How can we know anybody, in fact, if “nobody can even agree [about] what’s happening” as one character describes the central mystery in the film.  The issue: We are all victims of and slaves to our own unique perspectives. 

Another intriguing composition that Soderbergh deploys repeatedly in the film involves a strange, inscrutable view of Rheya’s face.  She is universally in the middle of the frame during these moments, staring at the camera; staring at us.  This oddly serene and yet significant posture forces us to consider: who is looking at us from behind those wide eyes?  Is it Rheya?  Is it Solaris?  Is it God?

Who is looking at us from behind those eyes?


An imitation?




The irony, of course, is that when we meet strangers and they look at us, we don’t understand everything behind their eyes, either.  Are we immediately suspicious and paranoid of them too?  Or do they get a pass because we assume they were born on Earth, and are therefore human?  Once that assumption disappears, however, do we face the unknown – even familiar faces -- with fear and paranoia?

In some sense, what Solaris concerns is the idea that we all see the world through our own individual lens.  We interpret the identities of other people through that lens, which includes, in many cases, a life time of memories.  Yet, in our memory, we get to control everything, explaining perhaps why we form judgments of people that are biased or wrong, or narrow, or ill-considered.  What we are really judging is not another person’s true interior “self,” but our perception of that self.

What I enjoy and admire about this remake of Solaris is that it is internally consistent, even if it is not faithful in terms of theme to the Stanislaw Lem original novel.  Soderbergh’s Solaris asks us to consider identity, and to consider the idea that mankind – even when broaching other worlds – will never be able to see anything other than mirrors.  The lens with which we view other people (and other realities?) is an individual, personal one, unable to reckon with something truly alien on its own terms.

The mystery of the planet Solaris can’t be resolved, because human beings can’t relate objectively – outside themselves and outside the mirrors of perception – to something truly otherworldly.  Instead, they see only shades of themselves and their own lives.  How can we assess something in terms of human characteristics, if it possesses no human characteristics to begin with?

If you keep thinking there’s a solution, you’ll die here,” one character warns Kelvin in the film.   “There are no answers, only choices,” Gibarian tells him, on another occasion. 

No answers, only choices?  That’s the crux of our human existence right here on Earth, isn’t it?  Again, Solaris uses the “alien” mirror to show us, in fact, our very reflection.

We can make choices about what we want to believe, of course.  But part of our questing human nature must involve the admission that there are no answers, except the ones we craft for ourselves, about our identity, and about how we choose to view the universe.  The human race has made God (or transformed God…), into an image we find acceptable, a reflection of our modern world and its value system.

When we face the idea of God, we don’t really want to see the Divine at all, do we?  We’re hoping, instead, for a mirror....

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