THERE ARE NO ANSWERS, ONLY CHOICES
I first wrote about Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris in 2005, along with a brief appreciation of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Cafe Lumiere. It was an early attempt to write about cinema, motivated in part to offer a counterweight to claims that the film is cold and empty. Even those who generally like the film compare it unfavourably to the 1972 Tarkovsky masterwork, but in my view Soderbergh’s Solaris is successful on its own terms, a thoughtful and effective cinematic meditation on grief and reconciliation. Given that one's appreciation of any film is largely determined by what one brings to it, it’s no surprise to me that many viewers find this film hard going.
The opening shot of rain on a windowpane suggests melancholy and introspection. It’s a very subtle nod to Tarkovsky, who was renowned for his use of the elements, but particularly rain. The next shot is of clinical psychologist Dr. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), sitting despondently on his bed. In voiceover we hear his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who some time earlier committed suicide, saying, “Chris, what is it? I love you so much. Don’t you love me any-more?” These words are delivered with emotional detachment, but the flatness of the intonation has a purpose that will only become apparent later.
The next few shots depict Chris’s emotional isolation, a man merely existing. While fixing dinner one evening, he cuts his finger. This scene will be repeated near the end of the film to illuminate one the central themes. Chris is then visited by men from a company operating a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, and is shown a video message from his close friend and colleague, Galbarian. Ostensibly a plea for assistance, the message is a cryptic invitation for Chris to experience Solaris for himself. “I think you need it,” Galbarian says. We then learn that security forces were sent to the planet but disappeared, suggesting that Solaris functions much like The Zone in Stalker—only allowing the most desperate souls to come close. So Chris goes to Solaris, ostensibly to bring the stranded crew home, but also to find refuge for his stranded soul.
The first shot of Chris aboard the space station is another Tarkovskian quote, standing with his back to the camera and head turned as if aware of an unseen presence. Chris seems slightly startled, as if he suddenly found himself on board the ship. He notices blood on the floors, ladders, and ceiling, and soon discovers Galbarian in a body bag. He sees a young boy on the floor above and runs after him, but he seems to vanish. He then encounters Snow (brilliantly played by Jeremy Davies), who doesn’t recognise Chris at first, but when he does it feels like a guess. He shrugs it off, but the impression is that Snow—or this facsimile of Snow—doesn’t remember Chris at all. When Chris asks about the boy, Snow says that it’s Galbarian’s son. When he asks what’s happening, Snow says, “I could tell you what’s happening, but that wouldn’t tell you what’s happening.” The line is delivered with barely veiled condescension.
Chris then talks to Gordon, the only other "living" crew member aboard. She has isolated herself in her room with her “visitor”, something Solaris conjured up especially for her. After Chris asks her what’s happening she says, “Until it starts happening to you there’s no point discussing it.” He doesn’t have to wait long. As he prepares for sleep he listens to another of Galbarian’s videos. “We don’t want other worlds,” Galbarian says, “we want mirrors.” This is another nod to Tarkovsky, but it’s also one of a number of comments in the film that refers to the nature of cinema. It's also a comment on humanity—our endless fascination with ourselves.
As Chris settles into sleep, Solaris enters his subconscious, capturing him in his dreams—another allusion to cinema. Soderbergh uses Chris’s dream as a montage to reveal Chris and Rheya’s backstory. They met at a party, at which Galbarian tells Chris about their studies of the planet Solaris, which seems to be reacting as if it knows it’s being watched. As he says this, Rheya walks across the room as if she knows she is being watched—by Chris. Chris goes up to talk to Rheya, and she appears like a mirage, a formless shape that comes into focus as he enters her orbit. It’s a visual rhyme for the way that Rheya will “take shape” as Chris’s “visitor” on Solaris, becoming “more real” as Chris engages with her.
As the montage continues we see their relationship develop. We hear an excerpt from a Dylan Thomas poem, “Though lovers be lost, love shall not, and death shall have no dominion.” It’s a key to how Soderbergh would like us to read the film. The montage is richly cinematic, and with the help of a fine score from composer Chris Martinez, it conveys a palpable sadness. In fact, sadness is very much at the heart of the film, the pain of irretrievable loss, existential separation, and grief so deep that only death offers solace.
Half dreaming, Chris awakes to find Rheya beside him, a living, breathing replica of his deceased wife. Once again she appears as an out of focus shape, a ghostly apparition. Chris jumps out of bed in a panic. “Chris, what is it? I love you so much. Don’t you love me anymore?” Solaris puts Chris’s memory of the real Rheya’s words into Rheya2’s mouth, spoken with the emotionless delivery of an automaton. Knowing that Rheya2 is a “visitor”, Chris sends her into space in a pod. “Will she come back?” Chris asks Snow. “Do you want her to?” Snow perceptively asks. After another memory-filled sleep, Chris wakes to find Rheya3 beside him. This time he follows his feelings.
As he spends time with Rheya3, she begins to “remember” more of Rheya’s past. She recalls the pregnancy, the abortion, the arguments, and gradually realises that she is not the real Rheya, but a construct based on Chris’s memories. It’s an interesting revelation: a memory is only a memory, so one’s recollection of a lost loved one will never be sufficient, never the real thing. The less one remembers the more the loved one fades. We remember the past as best we can, or as we reimagine or misremember it. Denial is a powerful ally for those who can’t accept the past. Solaris is about a person looking for release from something he can’t undo, striving to be free of unbearable guilt and grief.
The next time Chris wakes, Galbarian is sitting beside him. “She’s not your wife,” he says, “that boy isn't my son. They’re part of Solaris.” “What does Solaris want?” asks Chris. ‘Why do you think it has to it ‘want’ anything?” says Galbarian, “There are no answers, only choices.” All of the conversations involving Galbarian indicate that Soderbergh wants his Solaris to be viewed as a thought-piece, not merely an entertainment.
By this stage Chris is in too deep with Rheya3. She knows that she’s a replica, and that Chris’s attachment to her will prevent him from returning to Earth. Remembering a conversation Chris, Gordon, and Snow had about generating enough energy to “dissolve” visitors, and knowing that Gordon has an agenda to beat Solaris at its own game, Rheya3 seeks Gordon’s help to 'evaporate' once and for all.
Gordon and Chris prepare to leave in a craft called ‘Athena’ (the Greek god of wisdom, art, and intellect). Chris hesitates at the doorway of the Athena. He remembers life on Earth without Rheya, a loveless and pointless living death. “I was wrong about everything,” he says. Suddenly Chris is back in his kitchen preparing dinner. He cuts his finger again, but this time it heals immediately. He realises that there has been a profound change. He shuts the door to the Athena and sends Gordon back to Earth without him, rejecting the Worldliness of Athena for the Eternal Life of Rheya. As the space station plummets towards Solaris, the young boy appears, his arm outstretched much like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel image of God reaching out to humankind. Chris clasps it firmly, desperately. Once again he finds himself in his kitchen, this time with Rheya. “Am I alive or dead,” he asks. “We don’t have to think like that anymore,” she says, “Everything is forgiven.”
Solaris can easily be read as a Christian allegory: Chris (humankind) seeks release from guilt (original sin); Solaris (a mysterious unknowable force) intercedes by sending Rheya (her name means ‘Goddess’); with the help of Gordon (worldly agenda, Judas) Rheya seeks to transmute Chris’s brokenness (the spiritual condition of humanity) through a sacrificial act of unconditional love (Redemption through Grace).
But it’s also an effective metaphor for the power of human love and forgiveness. We may fall short of unconditional love, aspiring to it offers a glimpse of the answer to the unanswerable question. Galbarian may be right when he says that there are no answers, only choices, but making those choices can require enormous fortitude.