Steven Soderbergh, 2002
A SPECULATIVE OVERVIEW
I first wrote about Steven Soderbergh’s SOLARIS back in 2005. Along with a brief appreciation of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumiere, it was one of my first attempts at commenting on cinema. One motivation was to offer a counterweight to those who see the film is a cold and empty failure, both as work of cinema and as an engaging movie. Critical opinion is mixed, but even those who like the film compare it unfavourably to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 masterwork. But in my view, Soderbergh’s Solaris is successful on its own terms, as a thoughtful and effective cinematic meditation on grief and reconciliation. As is the case with philosophical studies, meaning is determined by what one brings to a film, so it’s no surprise that some viewers find this one boring.
Before we see a single image we hear rain. The opening shot of rain on a windowpane is a beautiful image that 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 the central protagonist, clinical psychologist Dr. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), sitting despondently on his bed. “Chris, what is it? I love you so much. Don’t you love me any-more?” Spoken in voiceover by his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who—we soon learn—committed suicide, her words are delivered with emotional detachment. It could be mistaken for poor delivery, but her flat intonation has a purpose. 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 much later for thematic emphasis. Visited by men from a company operating a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, Chris is shown a video message from his close friend and colleague, Galbarian. Ostensibly a plea for assistance, the message is also a cryptic invitation for Chris to experience Solaris for himself. “I think you need it,” Galbarian says. We learn that security forces were sent but disappeared, suggesting that Solaris only lets in those it can control, or—like The Zone in Stalker—only the most desperate souls. So Chris goes to Solaris in an attempt to bring the stranded crew home—or perhaps to find refuge for his stranded soul.
The first shot of Chris aboard the space station is another Tarkovsky quote, in which he stands with his back to the camera and his head turned as if he’s aware of an unseen presence. Chris looks around as if he has just awoken to find himself on board the ship, wondering how he got there. He notices blood on the floors, ladders, and ceiling, and soon discovers Galbarian in a body bag. He sees a boy of about nine or ten on the floor above and chases after him, but he vanishes. The first person he encounters is Snow, brilliantly played by Jeremy Davies. He 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. As soon as Snow realises he’s safe, he becomes casually superior. 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 veiled condescension.
Chris then talks to Gordon, the only other crewmember aboard. She has isolated herself in her room with her “visitor”, something Solaris conjured up to divert her. When Chris asks her about 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,” he says, “we want mirrors.” This is another subtle nod to Tarkovsky, but it’s also one of a number of comments throughout the film about cinema. It's also a comment on all human endeavour—mirrors that reflect our endless fascination with who we are.
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 detail Chris and Rheya’s backstory. They first meet at a party at which Galbarian tells Chris that Solaris 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 Chris is watching her. Again, this could be read as a comment on cinema, but equating Rheya with Solaris could be a comment (by a male storyteller) about feminine power. As Chris approaches Rheya she appears as 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”, becoming “more real” as Chris engages with her.
As the montage continues we see their relationship develop, and 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 signifier to how we should 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 appears to offer solace.
Half dreaming, Chris awakes to find Rheya2 beside him, a living, breathing replica of his deceased wife. Once again she appears as an out of focus shape, a ghostly apparition with dark shapes where her eyes should be. 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 Rheya’s words into Rheya2’s mouth, spoken with the emotionless delivery of an automaton. Knowing that Rheya2 is a “visitor”, Chris sends her out 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 awakes to find Rheya3 beside him. This time he follows his feelings, and relents.
Rheya3 begins to “remember” more of Rheya’s past. She recalls the pregnancy, the abortion, the arguments, and gradually realises that she is not the person she remembers, just as we come to realise that she is a construct based on Chris’s memories of Rheya, not who Rheya actually was. It’s an interesting revelation: a memory is only a memory, so one’s recollection of a lost loved one will never be sufficient—the less one remembers the more the loved one fades. We remember the past as best we can, or we reimagine it, misremember it, or simply forget it. Or we turn it into a fiction. 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 awakes, Galbarian is waiting for him. “She’s not your wife,” he says, “and that’s not my son. They’re part of Solaris—remember that.” “What does Solaris want?” asks Chris. ‘Why do you think it has to it ‘want’ anything?” says Galbarian, “There are no answers, only choices.” Like all of the conversations that involve Galbarian, this exchange indicates that Solaris is intended to be a thought-piece as much as an entertainment.
By this stage Chris is in too deep with Rheya3. She isn’t Rheya, but she’ll do. Rheya3 realises 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.
What we appear to have here is a Christian allegory. Chris (humankind) seeks release from guilt (original sin). Solaris (a mysterious unknowable force) intercedes by sending Rheya (the name means ‘Goddess’) who, with the help of Gordon (motivated by a worldly agenda, much like Judas) transmutes Chris’s brokenness (the spiritual condition of humanity) through a sacrificial act of unconditional love (Redemption through Grace).
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, who could be (as we have been told) Galbarian's son, or he could be Chris as a boy, or the son he and Rheya never had, or maybe it's Solaris. The boy stretches out his hand, much like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel image of God reaching out to humankind, and Chris clasps it firmly, desperately. He now finds himself once again 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.”
So, Solaris can be read as a fairly direct Christian allegory, but it’s also an effective metaphor for our capacity to love and forgive. While we are bound to fall short of unconditional love, aspiring to it may offer a glimpse of the answer to the unanswerable question. Perhaps Galbarian is right when he says that all we can do is choose, but that alone can require enormous fortitude.