In the symbolism-laden ‘Solaris,’ Steven Soderbergh explores a remote corner of space where the past is strangely present

July 22, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 22, 2015

Solaris is a work that I’ve engaged repeated over the course of my lifetime. The original book, by the great Polish author Stanislaw Lem, was penned in 1961. I’ve always held it in great regard, although my understanding of it is rather limited.

The premise is simple enough: Something has gone grievously wrong with a scientific expedition to the planet Solaris, an oceanic planet that manifests waves and weather patterns in ways that indicate the presence of some form of intelligence. A psychologist named Kelvin is dispatched to the research station to investigate why its communications have become erratic. While there, he becomes obsessed — some might say haunted — by a figure from his past, much like the surviving station crew members. To say too much more would be to give away part of the story’s mystery and power.

I first read Solaris as a young man, probably while I was in high school (if not even younger). Although I haven’t read it in many years, I remember the book being about the limits of human psychology and scientific inquiry. Lem ultimately positions Kelvin as neither a hero nor an expert — he is simply an average man baffled by, and at the mercy of, an immensely powerful force he can neither comprehend nor combat.

Solaris has been adapted for the screen three times: As a black-and-white 1968 Soviet TV movie “that no one remembers,” as Greg Cwik noted two years ago; in a famous 1972 outing helmed by the great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, which clocks in at nearly three hours; and in a fairly anonymous 2002 effort.

That third movie was written and directed by Steven Soderbergh, who is perhaps the greatest American feature film director of the past three decades. Soderbergh, as evidenced by this 2011 Slate ranking, is almost certainly the most prolific American director to start working since Woody Allen began his career. Interestingly, Solaris is one of only seven full-length features that Soderbergh has written or co-written, and one of just four in which he’s credited by name.

I remember loving the Soderbergh adaptation when I saw it in the theater more than a dozen years ago. But upon watching the DVD recently — the night before I had this dream, natch — I felt somewhat ambivalent about it.

The movie stars George Clooney as Chris Kelvin. When we first encounter the character, he’s a lonely, disconnected psychologist who seems to live on the outskirts of a large city on Earth. (Rain seems to be perpetually falling in all the Earth-bound scenes; that made me think that Soderbergh’s Solaris would make an interesting companion to Blade Runner and its exploration of the meaning and value of manufactured human beings. I also wondered if the constant rain was Soderbergh’s way of alluding to climate change.)

At the end of what seems to have been a bleak and unfulfilling day, Kelvin is beginning to prepare dinner for himself when he has two unexpected visitors — representatives of DBA, some kind of corporate conglomerate that, we later learn, purchased NASA a few years previously. The Solaris research station has lost contact, they explain that, and the recovery team that was sent to check disappeared without a trace. The visitors play a cryptic video message from Kelvin’s friend, Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), one of the Solaris researchers, who asks for Kelvin to come visit but won’t explain what is occurring.

Kelvin arrives at Solaris alone aboard an automated starship. He clambers aboard the station (actually, a ship orbiting the planet) and follows a trail of dried blood to the morgue, where he finds Gibarian’s body as well as that of another individual. As he wanders through the corridors, eventually Kelvin comes across Snow, a mumbling young man who speaks just as cryptically as, if less fluidly than, Gibarian.

Snow (Jeremy Davies, with a 1990s slacker schtick dialed up to the maximum) offers a few tidbits of information. Gibarian committed suicide; the other corpse is that of a researcher who had a bad encounter with the recovery squad. (What happened to the team is never stated — a baffling omission.)

Dr. Gordon is still aboard the vessel, but, Snow cautions, she isn’t willing to say very much. He also offers a bit of advice: “When you do go to sleep… I find I sleep much better with the door locked.”

Gordon (an intense Viola Davis) agrees to speak with Kelvin on the condition that he not attempt to enter her quarters. Gibarian killed himself, she confirms. But, she tells him, “[u]ntil it starts happening to you, there’s really no point in discussing it.”

It does start happening to him, of course. I’ll be circumspect in conveying what “it” is, other than to describe it as manifestations or visitations.

A large part of Solaris is given over to two long evenings on the station. During one, Kelvin is sleeping; in the other, he desperately tries to avoid sleep. In these sequences and elsewhere, the movie recapitulates Kelvin’s marriage, which has ended. We see Chris and Rheya’s first meetings, along with courtship, disaffection, conclusion, aftermath.

At points, especially as he attempts to evade sleep, Kelvin finds it difficult to distinguish memories from hallucinations. He spies Rheya (Natascha McElhone) furtively conversing with Gibarian’s son, when logically, neither of them can be present on the station. What could they be discussing?

Solaris is ultimately a cryptic movie, surely by design. “There are no answers, only choices,” a character tells Kelvin. Not only is the speaker of this line possibly (certainly?) being hallucinated by Kelvin, Soderbergh insists on having his face mostly obscured by shadow — a visual cue that follows the dialogue.

Unlike Lem’s novel, Soderbergh’s adaptation contains no explication of the various theories about the planet Solaris’s nature; in fact, rather pointedly, a discussion of the research on Solaris is interrupted by Kelvin’s romantic pursuit of Rheya. (Perhaps this accounts for why Lem reportedly loathed the Soderbergh film.)

I remember liking Soderbergh’s Solaris quite a lot when I originally saw it, and there are certainly reasons to recommend it. It is visually beautiful; the shots of Solaris are mesmerizing, as if an ocean (or the clouds in a sky) were composed wholly of energy. The research station sets are excellent, too.

But emotionally, I found it hard to connect to the story, despite all of Soderbergh’s efforts to humanize it. Every character in the movie is damaged or incomplete in some way. In another film, this might make them more accessible to us, but here, everyone seems too closed off to be sympathetic. While Solaris offers (some of) its characters a path to redemption, I wasn’t sure that absolution was deserved by any of them. One can argue over whether the movie has a happy ending or a sad one, but I think such discourse might say more about the speaker than the movie.

I suppose that this movie version of Solaris is a science-fiction or even an emotional and/or romantic narrative that never had, and never could have, mass appeal. It will be most attractive, I think, to the kind of viewer who loves character studies — movies of the interior. In a way, it reminds me of some adaptation of a 19th-century novel; The Scarlet Letter in space, perhaps.

In the end, I suppose, Soderbergh’s Solaris is more interesting than it is exciting or appealing. It’s independent movie-making on a blockbuster budget. (The Internet Movie Database puts its budget at $47 million.) I plan to watch it again, but more out of a desire to appreciate its different metaphors and symbolism because I enjoyed my second viewing.

If existential questions and fraught romances are your thing, or you’re a Lem completist (or a Clooney or Soderbergh completist), or a sucker for marginal science fiction films, then watch Solaris. Otherwise, set your sights on something else.

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