Solaris began its life as a science fiction novel written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. After garnering a substantial amount of praise from readers and critics alike, in 1972 Lem’s novel was adapted for the silver screen by director Andry Tarkovskiy. While it stuck very closely to the novel (Lem, himself, said it was the best adaptation possible), and is considered by many to be a classic, I have always had my nits to pick. I don’t know if it’s the pacing or the score – or both – but I have always failed to connect with the film. Luckily for me, exactly 30 years later, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney joined forces to make an updated version. In my eyes, we’re all the better for it.
For those who are unfamiliar with both the book and the adaptation, Solaris is the story of Dr. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), a brilliant psychiatrist who ironically spends his days silently grieving over the death of his wife, Rehya (Natascha McElhone). One evening while Chris is preparing dinner for himself, two government agents enter his home and deliver a pre-recorded message from his colleague, Dr. Ghibarian (Ulrich Tukur). Ghibarian, it turns out, was on board a small spaceship researching an unidentified mass in space called Solaris – neither planet nor sentient being.
As the message goes on, we learn that something has gone wrong and that each member of the crew has been driven to isolation in order to avoid strange hallucinations. Convinced the visions and Solaris are not connected, Kelvin is sent to the research vessel in order to diagnose the members of the crew. What he discovers is something that cannot be diagnosed, understood, or classified. When Kelvin begins having hallucinations of his dead wife, it becomes clear that Solaris is a force all its own – of good or of evil, however, may never be known.
Review and Analysis
Solaris, much like the book and adaptation before it, is a remarkably subtle film. Apart from that, it is a very refreshing entry in a genre that has been convinced by box office sales that it solely exists to show heroes with laser guns taking down alien hordes. Solaris was, in my opinion, the film that brought dignity back to the American made science fiction films. In fact, so much of the film’s look and tone can be seen in later genre gems such as Children of Men and Moon. Soderbergh truly made the most out of the opportunity, and it shows in every frame and in every line of dialogue.
The cast includes Clooney and McElhone, primarily, but is supported by the characters of Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis) and Snow (played by a wonderfully anxious Jeremy Davies). Gordon and Snow are the only two members of the crew left on board the ship, and, while we do not know exactly how much time has passed since the visions began, Davis and Davies play their parts believably – one suspicious and overly cautious, and the other unsettlingly unaffected. While Gordon and Snow do not get as much screen time as Kelvin and Rheya, the moments they are on screen are absolutely delightful to watch.
As mentioned above, the film possesses a subtlety that adds to the tension in each scene in ways that would not be possible otherwise. The lack of a score throughout most of the scenes taking place on the spaceship is almost hypnotic, and really demonstrates how silence can often be musical in its own way. When there is a score it is both moving yet subtle, and without a doubt some of the best music paired with any film to date.
As for the cinematography, there are no words in any language to give Steven Soderbergh’s own work the praise it deserves. Perhaps some of the most beautiful shots in the entire film are the flashbacks of Kelvin’s time with Rheya before her death. The top and bottom of the frame feature a gradual fade that makes the action taking place in the center seem as though it is somewhat clouded, as if any moment it may return to the miasma of Kelvin’s repressed memories. Much like the images in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, every shot composition could stand as a work of art in its own right.
Alas, all of the hard work and craftsmanship would be for not without a story to which the audience could cling. To the credit of both Stanislaw Lem and Steven Soderbergh, Solaris is exactly that such story. Watching Kelvin struggle with the repeated loss of each iteration of Rheya tugs mercilessly at the heart strings, and we share his sense of hopelessness when he comes to the realization that he will never get to live the life he so loved before tragedy set down upon him.
Great drama aside, the theme that lies at the heart of the film is what truly drives each and every scene. Lem always maintained that the book was meant to teach one of the most difficult life lessons we all must learn: Communication – real and honest, and unfaltering – is impossible, even between two members of the same species, let alone a force that cannot be understood on the most superficial level.
It doesn’t matter if Solaris is a planet, a sentient being, or (as one theory proposes) God itself. Everything that can be said by either party will be misconstrued; heard, but not comprehended. Good science fiction entertains, while great science fiction reminds us of issues in our day-to-day lives that will worsen if left unchecked. Solaris is in a whole other echelon, and surpasses definition.
I suspect Lem would find that rather fitting.
Jordan Siron is a freelance writer/blogger living in Orlando.