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.
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.
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.
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
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.