23 March 2003

Solaris, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Man has gone out to explore other worlds without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.
—Stanislaw Lem, 'Solaris', translated by Joanne Kilmartin and Steve Cox

Earth? I thought of the great bustling cities where I would wander and lose myself, and I thought of them as I had thought of the ocean on the second or third night, when I had wanted to throw myself upon the dark waves. I shall immerse myself among men. I shall be silent and attentive, an appreciative companion. There will be many acquaintances, friends, women - and perhaps even a wife. For a while, I shall have to make a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand and perform all those gestures which constitute life on Earth, and then those gestures will become reflexes again. I shall find new interests and occupations; and I shall not give myself completely to them, as I shall never again give myself completely to anything or anybody.
—Stanislaw Lem, 'Solaris'

What can I usefully say about this film except ‘watch it’? It is, to my mind, one of the best and most poignant films released in some time, with more than a passing relation to Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue. I read Stanislaw Lem’s book (which was written in 1961) a few years ago and was so moved that I was unable to scribble a few words about it onto the back of a postcard, as I was trying to do at the time with all the books that I read. It was captivating, but also one of those books (or ideas) that when you try to summarise end up sounding tacky or sentimental. So here goes. What Lem achieves in this book is to confront us with the limits and arrogance of ourselves by confronting us with ourselves; not with our greed or avarice, but with our love and guilt. All the people on the Station are confronted not with their wickedness but with their loved ones, who in some way they feel they have betrayed. So Lem avoids moralising about the weakness and frailty of humans, and instead asks a question which addresses all of us: how would we react when faced with the resurrection of someone we loved but who has now gone, and who we know we hurt? This is an painfully difficult question, and it requires imagination to consider.

Lem plays masterfully with the genre of science fiction, since the genre necessarily demands a certain suspension of belief (there aren't any aliens and space ships that we know of), but he uses this suspension to present us with a truly human question without having to divulge how it is possible. In a ‘realistic’ drama the audience will demand some kind of explanation, but here Lem can just indicate that the planet is responsible and this will be accepted. Indeed, a large portion of the book is concerned with telling the reader why there is no further explanation. It is a masterpiece of the genre and truly closer in conception to Shakespeare than Star Wars.

And so too is the film, which is a skilful rendition of the book as well as a variation on its themes. The attention to detail is impressive: at one point Rheya (Natascha McElhone) noticeably blinks - as if in answer to Kris's question in the book about whether she even did so. The initial transmission from Gibarian asking for help does not occur in the book, but it is broadcast via the Prometheus, the ship on which Kris (George Clooney) arrives at the Station in the book. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the novel. There are necessarily changes, since no film is able to capture the breadth of such a work: most obvious is the lack of history (in which the book is a clear kin of the 1936 novel War With The Newts, by fellow master science fiction writer and inventor of the word ‘robot’, Karel ńĆapek). In the novel, Lem is at pains to describe the origin and development of ‘Solaristics’ - the study of the ocean which covers the planet - partly to give us a sense of place, in which he succeeds tremendously, and partly to show us the continued failure of the human mind, firstly to make Contact with the alien ocean, and secondly to understand why the attempts keep failing. The sense of place is there in the film, as we look over the frankly beautiful graphic depiction of the ocean, accompanied by Cliff Martinez's excellent near-minimalist score. But the film focusses on the two central characters: Kris’s struggle to come to terms with Rheya’s presence and his own past, and, endowed as she is with all the human faculties of understanding, Rheya’s deepening sense that she is herself somehow not right and her inability to live with this realisation. The result is a bitter turmoil of emotions, all of which culminates in Rheya’s first attempted and then successful suicide. Kris, having lost Rheya, seemingly regained her, and lost her again, remains in the Station, unable to re-enter everyday life.

At this point the film takes its largest departure from the book: in the book Kris accepts that “I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.” In the film, the Station is in the process of crashing into the planet and Kris chooses death. Kris, by dying in the ocean becomes part of it, he and Rheya finally reunited. At the end of the film, as at the end of the book, I was still captivated.

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