Solaris: Lem (1961), Tarkovsky (1972), and Soderbergh (2002)

Comments by Djibril

For those who still need introduction to the plot of Solaris—broadly adhered to by all three versions discussed here—the story begins with the arrival of psychologist Kris Kelvin on the research station orbiting the ocean planet Solaris. Kelvin soon learns that the station is haunted, not by spirits or demons, but by characters from the researchers' memories. His own visitor is his dead wife, Rheya, or a very convincing simulacrum of her, seemingly sucked straight from his mind. The tragic dilemma of this story is in the conflict between the researchers' need to understand the mechanics of these intruders so as to defend the station from them, and Kelvin's longing and the desire aroused by the recovery—however artificial—of someone so dear who was lost.

Stanislav Lem, Solaris. 1961 (trans J. Kilmartin & S. Cox 1970). Pp. ISBN 0571219721. £6.99. (US: ISBN 0156027607. $13.00.)

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Lem's Solaris, published in Polish in 1961, is a rather short novel with a simple structure: it could almost be a short story, or perhaps novella. At 214 pages (in the English translation) it is too long to be a novella, of course, but there are long sections of scientific, philosophical, and emotional theorising that act as padding rather than adding complexity to the plot or moving the story forward. I say this as though it were a flaw, and it does actually slow the book down, but these discussions are not altogether without interest themselves: it is the serious implications of new discoveries or inventions on human knowledge and experience that make great SF truly speculative. Both the approach to science and to the love story are worthy of further discussion here.

Early in the book Lem subjects his readers to discussions of physics that frankly border on the tedious. Forty-five years after being written, they are also dated and at times unconvincing. The fact that the periodical "info-dumps" occurring in this novel are well-justified by taking place during Kelvin's visit to the station library where he is trying to figure out what is going on, only slightly mitigate the occasional slowness. Other expositions are more successful, however: for instance, Lem's forays into astrobiology are inspired. The descriptions of the sentient ocean made up of unearthly gases, liquids and plasma taking wildly, utterly unrecognisable alien forms are almost Lovecraftian in their inventive, astonishing detail. Given the temptation to make aliens anthropomorphic or at least zoomorphic, compounded by the fact we humans communicate what we see in familiar terms, it is impressive how Lem has constructed the ocean's alienness in so convincing and intelligent a manner. Descriptions of future academia also arise during these visits to the library, and Lem's approach to the scholarship of Solarist studies is at once insightful, cynical, and amusing, riddled with Borgesian inventions like the Little Apocrypha, an obscure collection of crackpot theories and suppressed reports, which, of course, transpires to contain more useful information than any self-respecting mainstream Solarist scholar could ever admit.

This science fiction novel explores in an abstract sense the theme of space exploration and colonisation, and the universal human instinct embodied in ths adventure. It is telling that in outer space, while search for intelligent alien life, the living ocean is not recognised as intelligent or sentient until it is able to reflect ourselves back to us, in the shapes in its plasma surface, and finally by projecting neutrino-powered versions of our innermost memories. Are we humans really so self-centred that we would not recognise as worthy an alien that was basically unlike ourselves? Lem is almost certainly right.

The heart of the book really is the complex love story between Kelvin and the simulacrum of his dead wife Rheya. The story is tragic, and our protagonist no squeaky-clean hero: the real Rheya committed suicide when Kelvin left her, dismissing her threats to harm herself as mere attention-seeking. He has lived with the guilt ever since. The simulacrum even appears bearing the pin-prick scar of the needle with which she injected herself with a poison from his lab. Kelvin is painfully aware that the new Rheya is an illusion and their love unreal, yet his longing, his grief, and his guilt make it almost impossible for him to reject her. Eventually, he comes to love Rheya not only despite, but almost because of her true nature; as a simulacrum, her love for him is neither voluntary nor conditional. With painful irony, Kelvin's love develops in time with Rheya's mounting awareness of her own unreal nature, and misery at the knowedge that she is not the real Rheya. This internal torment, and the desperate knowledge that even if he accepts her for what she is, they can never have a real future together as her very essence is intimately tied to the matter of the alien, sentient ocean, leads her to commit suicide again. Kelvin ends the book in quiet despair, certain that he will never truly love a real woman again; we can only wonder if his unrealistic expectations led to the failure of his marriage in the first place. All of this is portrayed compassionately, convincingly, and with aching sensitivity.

This is a book written in Poland in 1961, at the heart of the communist era; perhaps inevitably the central themes are universal rather than political or topical and so have not dated. Some might say that the tone is dry to modern tastes, and some of the slower passages make hard reading, but Solaris is a short book and never has the chance, to my mind at least, to be boring. Both the big themes, and the little details of speculative astrobiology, are entertainingly and expertly explored.

Солярис (Solyaris) (1972), Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

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Mosfilm / Unit Four

Starring: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet

Tarkovsky's Солярис does a remarkably good job of translating Lem's story to the big screen—although Lem himself was famously unimpressed. The legendary Soviet director, whose masterpieces include the gruelling Second World War story Ivan's Childhood (1962) and the dystopic future epic Stalker (1979), gave us another treat in this film. Like many of his works it is languidly paced and dark, taking its time to build atmosphere with grey skies and delapidated surroundings, while characters stare in stoic pain, and speak in laconic understatement, rather than filling the ears with heartfelt cries or Hollywoodesque wisecracks. In this case, much of the scene-setting is achieved by taking Lem's several info-dumps and scientific theories and transporting them into a wholly new scene at the beginning of the story, where Kelvin's father introduces him to the discredited Burton (whose reports appear in the Little Apocrypha in the novel). This new story element also allows Tarkovsky to introduce a new level of pathos into the story, in that Kelvin bids farewell to his parents for what he knows to be the last time; it is not clear how long the trip to Solyaris will take, but clearly it is longer than they can be expected to live. Hence we are over 40 minutes into the film before Kelvin leaves Earth, and nearly 70 minutes before we are introduced to his ressurrected wife (named Hari in this version).

This Kelvin is not a glamorous movie hero with the looks and cool of a Clooney; Banionis was nearly fifty when he played this role, and spends most of the film with a surly look on his face. For his arrival on the station, Kelvin is clad in a leather jacket, big black biker boots, and trousers with some kind of webbed material down the sides; he soon changes into a space suit, and thence forth wears a nondescript white casual outfit. Bondarchuk on the other hand is glamorous and beautiful as the tragic Hari; her dark eyes often moist, she projects well the inner angst of a woman who realises from the start that all is not as it should be, and the realisation that it is she herself who is not what she seems. When it comes to the scenes where she does violence to herself, her physical suffering is very intense, and Kelvin's stoicism seems cold and almost perverse in comparison. Her successful suicide is off-scene, as in Lem.

Tarkovsky presents his early 70s Soviet audience with a world of science fiction tropes and clichés. The futuristic city Kelvin drives through before he leaves Earth is filmed in Tokyo, and seems not particularly spectacular to a modern (western) audience. Rather than the books and notes containing information that are so important in the novel, the film has this information conveyed via video recordings on huge screens, and even telephone conversations take place on and through these screens. The inside of the space station, however, is dirty, barren, and decrepit, with futuristic surfaces and angles, but all in a state of disrepair.

Where at the end of Lem's novel Kelvin described his depression and his realisation that he could never regain his lost love for Rheya, Tarkovsky cannot have his taciturn protagonist explain in such a way. Instead he returns to the theme of Kelvin's parents which he introduced at the start of the film, and takes us to a later stage of the sentient ocean's development, where it recreates the home Kelvin has left behind him. There is a nod to Dadaist cinema when we see it raining inside the father's house while it is sunny outside, and then Kelvin again proves unable to resist the nostalgia of embracing someone he has lost: he falls to his knees to embrace his father, much the same as he did Hari earlier—in lieu of helping when she was arguing with Snaut and Sartorius in the library. Thus the taciturn, expressionless Kelvin ends the film in an utterly pathetic pose, lost, and throwing himself into what he knows is only an illusion of home. As the scientists recognise during their discussion in the library, humanity has explored outer space but is still looking for home.

Solaris (2002), Dir. Stephen Soderbergh

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Twentieth Century Fox / Lightstorm Entertainment

Starring: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies

The director Steven Soderbergh has always been known to alternate between serious and inventive films (The Limey, Traffic) with more popular, if by no means brainless, fare (Erin Brockovich, Ocean's Eleven). The former are usually quite excellent, while the latter demonstrate a skill behind the camera and a smooth, unerring touch that does not always find its way into the better films. It is hard to decide in which category the current film should be filed: its execution is well-planned and very polished; the subject matter is serious but lightly handled. One cannot help but feel that the science fiction genre was what doomed it to a "popular" label. (Clooney, on the other hand, who has recently delivered some excellent roles, seems to have phoned-in his performance in this move, which is competent but uninspired.)

Soderbergh sets the scene in his film with a short introductory sequence in which we learn that Clooney's Kelvin (a) is a psychotherapist, and (b) has lost his wife (a slightly manic but so far silent McElhone). This sequence is set in a world where the insides of buildings are clean, uncluttered, sterile, and spartan, where outside it seems to rain all the time, and clothing is functional, mostly black raincoats and plastic headgear. It is not obviously futuristic, except for the occasional transparent plasma screen and electronic sliding doors. In only eight minutes of theatre time, Kelvin has left Earth to investigate the loss of contact with the crew of the ship orbiting Solaris; we never learn exactly what happened to the "security unit" who preceeded him.

The characters of the twitchy, inarticulate Snow (Davies), and sullen, obsessive physicist Gordon (Davis) are not as inscrutable as either Lem's or Tarkovsky's Snaut and Sartorius; they tell us what they fear and why they chose not to flee Solaris when the phenomena started. On the other hand we never meet their "visitors", not even in fleeting glimpses or shadows (until Snow turns out to be his own "visitor", in perhaps the most nonsensical twist of the movie). Nor is Kelvin the taciturn, tortured protagonist of the Soviet film, but rather a smooth-talking therapist with desperation in his voice who by turns commands and pleads with Rheya not to kill herself. Rheya's torment is not so much existential as predestined, she tells Kelvin she is only suicidal because he remembers her that way; I found this made her character far less engaging, since there was no reason for her suffering to empathise with or understand, although it highlights Kelvin's desperation. Most of the back story is told in dreams, as Kelvin lies asleep or fevered, or as Rheya stares out of the window at the shifting pink mists of Solaris and recalls memories that she knows are not her own.

I found it amusing to try to decide whether Soderbergh thought he was remaking Tarkovsky's classic movie, or filming Lem's novel anew. In the end, the American director has taken so many liberties with the story—as is absolutely his right—that it is almost meaningless to ask which plotline he took as his starting point. Almost all the physics and astrobiology is absent from this film: there is no mention of Solaris' "colloidal mists" or "symmetriads"; only cursory mention of the subatomic make-up of the "visitors", and no acknowledgement of the history of scholarship in Solaristics. Instead this is a human drama of Kelvin's disturbed relationship with his depressive wife whom he has already lost once, and his need for redemption at having underestimated her threat to herself. At the end of the film, Soderbergh follows Tarkovsky's lead by having Kelvin stay on Solaris (although in far more dramatic circumstances as the planet's expanding gravitational field pulls the space ship in from its orbit) and have his dreams fulfilled again by living in an illusion without the flaws of the first attempt, all his mistakes forgiven. (I could not help but wonder whether the notoriously capricious preview audiences demanded a happier ending than the director first shot, or if the normally reliable Soderbergh always intended to leave us on this note of sanctimonous drivel.)


I have tried thus far to discuss both the book and the two films as works of art in their own rights, rather than as reinterpretations of one another whose success or otherwise rest on their fidelity to a "true" source. It is, however, notable that both the films have managed to remain unusually close both to their predecessors and to Lem's novel. It would not have been surprising, if one thinks for example of the creative license exercised by Ridley Scott when he turned a PK Dick novel into Blade Runner (1982), that a so-called adaptation of Solaris in twenty-first century Hollywood should turn out to resemble the story and tone of, say, Event Horizon (1997), also a story set on a space craft, featuring terrors drawn striaght from the crew's subconscious memories and fears. The differences in detail and motivation between the book and the films, which Stanislaw Lem has so vocally denounced, should not obscure this uncommon faithfulness. The most striking difference, to my mind, is that in neither film is the ocean of Solaris a character, in the way that it is in the novel. Both films sideline the issue of xenobiology and alien contact, making this wholly a story of human interactions and experiences.

Science fiction often tells the story of how a predicted or imagined technological or cultural change has a profound effect on the world, on our lives, and on the relationships of people to one another and to that technology. All three of the Solaris stories make the living ocean into an instantiated metaphor for human psychology, showing how Kelvin suffers because he is trying to live through his memories, holding onto unrealistic dreams. Inability to move on after a loss is a form of dishonesty—although dishonesty only to oneself—and relationships can not work without admission and acceptance of both past events and current problems. The science fiction, interesting as it is in its own right, is always a backdrop to the very human drama of the main characters.

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