October 2003


A 2002 film by Steven Soderbergh
Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Starring George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Ulrick Tukur
Produced by James Cameron PG-13 99 min.

Largely ignored and/or disparaged by an SF community jaded by explosions, CGI, breasts, and idiotic dialog, Solaris is a thoughtful and knotty film that showcases some excellent acting and presents the viewer with thorny existential questions about what it means to be a human being - assuming one is a human being. And that is the whole point of the film.

Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) arrives at a distant space station after receiving a message from his scientist friend Gibarian, who is stationed there. The crew has been experiencing strange phenomena that Gibarian can't or won't explain in his taped message. They have cut off all communication with Earth, also without explanation. Kelvin, still suffering the aftereffects of the suicide of his wife some years earlier, arrives on Solaris only to find that Gibarian has also killed himself. The surviving crew members (excellently played by Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis) have sunk into fear and apathy. They refuse to explain what is happening. "There's no point talking about it until it starts happening to you," says the Viola Davis character, who has locked herself in her cabin - and is apparently not alone in there.

Kelvin starts his investigation sure of only on thing: whatever has happened aboard the station has come about as a result of the science team's investigation of the mysterious planet Solaris, which is covered by what appears to be an ocean. Lem's book makes a bit more of this, explaining that the "ocean" is actually one titanic fluidic organism, apparently intelligent, which nevertheless ignores all the communication methods the Earth scientists have tried.

Dr. Kelvin awakes one morning to discover a duplicate of his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone, an amazing-looking woman) in his cabin. Shocked, knowing that she cannot possibly be real in any meaningful way, he decoys the simulacrum into an escape pod and jettisons her. But a day or so later, another replica appears, unaware that she has just been "killed."

Now the survivors explain to Kelvin that Solaris has its own means of communicating. It apparently reaches into the minds of those aboard the space station and materializes simulacra of people they have known.

Plagued by guilt on two counts - because he blames himself for her suicide, and because he has "murdered" her earlier incarnation - Kelvin becomes locked in a terrible struggle with himself. He knows this creature can't be human, but he desperately wants her to be. Nor can he figure out what Solaris is trying to do, or what it wants. But, as his friend Gibarian, appearing in a dream, says to him, "What makes you think it wants anything?"

Soon even Rheya realizes that despite her memories she cannot possibly be human. And Solaris does not communicate even with her…

Those looking for slam-bang action shouldn't bother with this film. It is much more literary than most sf movies, which may make it more appealing to readers in the genre who are tired of "noise in space" and BEMs. Solaris presents no easy answers to the questions it poses. It also springs a few interesting surprises that up the ante of existential weirdness.

In short, if you're a reader of sf who is sick of "sci-fi" movies that are nothing more than repositories of adolescent preoccupations, Solaris might be an acceptable anodyne.

Editor Notes Added 2021 [JTC]: I remember seeing the earlier Soviet production of this story during the late 1970s on West German television while stationed in West Germany as a U.S. soldier. Brief history from Wikipedia pages:

1961 novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem
1972 Soviet art film by Andrei Tarkovsky
2002 U.S. SF film by Steven Soderbergh (reviewed above)

Kudos to Al Sirois for excellent and perceptive review. The version I saw earlier in Europe was of Soviet vintage. Truly an 'art film' as Wikipedia says. A remarkable feature was the inclusion of lengthy, dialog-free driving sequences on urban highway on and off ramps, which puzzled me at first; until I realized that these visions of Moscow must have seemed like science fiction to dazzled viewers in remote, less developed regions of the Soviet Union far from large cities.

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