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    Soderbergh's Solaris

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    • 06/17/2005

    By Paul Newall (2005)

    When Steven Soderbergh's version of Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris opens with the sight of Kris Kelvin sat on his bed, listening to the disembodied sound of his dead wife's voice, it is immediately clear that the script has departed from the text in significant ways.

    Kelvin has been in this position for an unspecified amount of time; his surroundings, including his apartment, are functional; and as we spend more time following his life it is apparent that he pays little attention to those around him – quite an irony, given that he works as a psychologist. He appears to be a man lost, making just enough effort to get by.

    Lem's 1961 book is his most famous, the subject of a previous film by the legendary Andrei Tarkovsky and part of the old tradition of science fiction that dealt with the ideas involved in – and consequences of – space exploration, rather than the new technologies actually or potentially associated with it. Lem's Solaris is an enigma, a planet that occupies a twin-sun system and has somehow achieved a stable orbit, ostensibly by its own efforts. The subject of a century of studies and exploration, its ocean is reckoned by some to be alive and conscious, as well as aware that it is being examined and reacting accordingly. Kris Kelvin, our narrator, is part of this tradition and explains it at length in the text. In Soderbergh's reworking, however, Solaris is only under assessment as a possible source of energy; there are no lengthy scientific digressions to set the scene and this is the first of many departures. When Kelvin docks at the Prometheus station at the request of his friend Gibarian, two people are dead and one missing – the former including Gibarian himself who has committed suicide. In Lem's book there were only three crew onboard when Kelvin arrived – the late Gibarian, Snow and Sartorius (a male, replaced by the female Gordon) – while Gibarian's son (whom Kelvin chases) is not mentioned at all. There are other discrepancies that will be noted as their relevance becomes apparent.

    There are several themes at work in Solaris, the first of which is a critique of the ideology of exploration that Lem had Snow expound upon at length, words that Soderbergh gives to Gibarian in his soliloquy intended to help Kelvin understand what is happening on the Prometheus. It is worth quoting in full:

    We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid and the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don't leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us – that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence – then we don't like it anymore.


    I'm talking about what we all wanted: contact with another civilization. Now we've got it! And we can observe, through a microscope, as it were, our own monstrous ugliness, our folly, our shame!

    Writing at a time when the conquest of near-space was considered a "race", Lem's Snow saw it instead as a testimony to our arrogance at wanting to spread our human conceits unto the very edge of the universe rather than make contact with other forms of life in order to improve our own. This is central to Lem's work as he has Kelvin go over the various attempts by scientists to understand Solaris and attribute a status (alive and/or conscious?) to its ocean. For Soderbergh it is of lesser import, and yet he introduces the problem in a different way through Rheya's struggle in Kelvin's cabin to piece together her memories. She recalls a conversation with Gibarian and others, in which she was "talking about a higher form of intelligence". Gibarian had responded dismissively with "you’re talking about something else. You're talking about a man with a white beard again. You are ascribing human characteristics to something that isn't human." As viewers, we can contrast his certainty here with his temporally later realisation that this very character of his attempts to study Solaris had ensured he could never understand it, warning Kelvin that "there are no answers, only choices." At this early stage, though, Kelvin is himself quite sure that "given all the elements of the known universe, and enough time, our existence is inevitable. It's no more mysterious than trees, or sharks. We're a mathematical probability, and that's all." It seems we are again invited to note this confidence as we come to watch it erode over the course of the movie.

    In the novel, the dead Gibarian visits Kelvin – just as he does in the film version, but for longer. During their conversation he explains why there is and must remain a barrier to any understanding of the polytheres (his term for the apparitions):

    We are the cause of our own sufferings. The polytheres behave strictly as a kind of amplifier of our own thoughts. Any attempt to understand the motivation of these occurrences is blocked by our own anthropomorphism. Where there are no men, there cannot be motives accessible to men.

    Here we see an extension of Lem's critique: just as we invariably talk about God from a human perspective, we extend the conceit that we can fathom the non-human to Solaris and indeed anything we might find as we advance the frontier through space. We assume that our reason is sufficient to comprehend what motivates God or an entity like Solaris but this presumption remains, for Lem, a barrier to any genuine understanding. Some have argued that we simply have no alternative but to judge the actions of gods or "higher forms of intelligence" by our own standards, but it seems Lem is making the further suggestion that it is our viewing life as a mystery to be solved that is the deeper problem (an idea found in Wittgenstein, most famously). This is the lesson of several so-called Eastern schools of thought, too, insofar as the immediate experience of life is broken into pieces in the attempt to make sense of it, creating a puzzle that was not inherent in the experience itself. The behaviour of Solaris defies the efforts of all the "Solarists" to comprehend it, as Kelvin discovers for himself when he tries to achieve the same via a polythere drawn from his own memories. All he can learn, it seems, is about himself (whence the suggestion some have made that if and when we finally complete the jigsaw puzzle we will be confronted with an image of ourselves looking out at us). When we reach the close of the movie, perhaps the only motivation we can guess at on the part of Solaris was to give Kelvin the chance to do so.

    The second aspect of both film and book is given by the lines spoken by Gibarian that follow those quoted above:

    Before we can proceed with our research, either our own thoughts or their materialized forms must be destroyed. It is not within our power to destroy our thoughts. As for destroying their material forms, that would be like committing murder.

    The counter-argument to this position is stated forcefully by Gordon, who tells Kelvin that "we are in a situation that is beyond morality." The question is whether or not the polytheres are fully human, and even if they are not whether they should be accorded the same rights. (These issues are especially relevant given contemporary concerns about the consequences of cloning.) In particular, Rheya is identical with her "real" counterpart except that she is formed from Kelvin's memories of her, some of which may be inaccurate (a point we return to below). This is complicated by doubts over whether she can survive away from Solaris, but is an incomplete memory or the effect of the polytheres on the crew of the Prometheus sufficient to justify their destruction? By extension, Lem was asking the same of any forms of life we might encounter in our exploration of the cosmos. That Snow is eventually revealed to be a polythere himself (this does not occur in the novel) – having killed his progenitor by accident – renders the issue still more difficult in Soderbergh's reproduction because it strikes us that action is only mooted for those known to be copies. That is, there is an epistemic dimension: no one advocates the demise of Snow because they do not know that he is a polythere, nor have any reason to suspect it, but Gordon (and later Rheya herself) poses the question regarding Rheya and her own visitor because she is certain of their status.

    By making the change to Snow's character in such a significant way, Soderbergh seems to be undermining any possible case for destroying Rheya. Likewise, the scene involving Snow and Gordon in which the latter lets slip that Kelvin sent the previous version of Rheya away does not appear in Lem's work (indeed, in the book it is Snow who eventually uses the device on Rheya at her insistence), and we may ask why it was given such prominence? What it achieves is to force us to reflect on Kelvin’s earlier choice and how his failure to understand his situation was dispelled by banishing the problem, just as Gordon's desire to rid herself of her visitor seems driven more by her own discomfort than any desire to learn about how Solaris sustains them. That Rheya is upset upon discovering that she is a copy only serves to underline this failure to distinguish meaningfully between polythere and reality, which Kelvin comes to appreciate when she asks him "but am I really Rheya?" He replies, making the irrelevance of this demarcation plain, by saying "I don’t know anymore. All I see is you."

    The third strand to the story is the fascinating question of how well we can ever know someone (sometimes part of the so-called "problem of other minds"). Although we the viewers are already aware that this Rheya is not really Kelvin's dead wife but an imitation, she is not and has to piece the realisation together herself. "I do remember things, but I don’t remember being there. I don’t remember experiencing those things." Obtaining her memories from Kelvin's, she has content but not context. From our privileged vantage point we watch as this inevitably leads to tragedy:

    Don't you see? I came from your memory of her. That's the problem. I'm not a whole person. In your memory you get to control everything, so even if you remember something wrong I am predetermined to carry it out. I'm suicidal because that's how you remember me. My voice sounds the way it does because that's how you remember it.

    Although we can observe that Kelvin would be expected to have largely negative memories of his wife given her suicide and the part he feels he played in it, there is something more important at stake in the inadequacy of his recollections; namely, that all memories are inherently incomplete – even those we have of ourselves. Given that Rheya is dead and therefore must be reconstructed from his memory, the question is not why this should happen but how it could be otherwise? The implication of the polytheres, it seems, is that there can be no total knowledge or understanding of another. Drawn as they are from the thoughts of the crew, they are nevertheless recognised as incomplete renderings by their "real" double; but rather than this being a comment on a supposed failure by Solaris to achieve a perfect copy, instead they speak of the failure of our own conceptions of others to match them. That is, it is we who fall short, not the polytheres or their originator.

    Kelvin appreciates this failure, at least in part, by rejecting the idea that his memories should dictate how life with the new Rheya must play out:

    I don't believe we're predetermined to relive our past. I think that we can choose to do it differently. The day I left and you said you wouldn't make it – I didn’t hear you because I was angry. This is my chance to undo that mistake, and I need you to help me.

    He thus increasingly conceives of Rheya not as a copy of his wife but an opportunity to atone for his previous errors, with his admission ("all I see is you") pointing us in the direction of acknowledging that complete knowledge of others is both impossible and what we yearn for nonetheless. When Rheya says "I wish we could just live inside that feeling forever", it is difficult indeed to recall that she is supposed to be composed of Kelvin's memories and sustained by Solaris, rather than a new person in her own right. He is, as it were, on almost a level playing field with this Rheya because while she came into existence with an incomplete recollection of her past, Kelvin comes to realise that he is handicapped in exactly the same way as we all are. The desire of lovers to slow time or live in a perfect moment then becomes not a hopeless dream but exactly the response we should expect given that this feeling can neither be recorded as it is in our memories nor expressed in a way that has the same meaning to anyone else.

    This, of course, is the last and greatest theme of Solaris: love. Soderbergh has straightforwardly admitted that he intended to tell a love story and it is here that his version departs most significantly of all from Lem’s novel. Back from Solaris, Kelvin tries to describe what "home" means to him:

    What did that word mean to me? 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 the thousands of little gestures which constitute life on Earth, and then those gestures will become reflexes again.

    This, however, is where the two tales diverge. Lem’s Kelvin declares that he will "find new interests and occupations" but "not give myself completely to them, as I shall never again give myself completely to anything or anybody", a profoundly negative lesson drawn from his experience with Solaris that he continues as follows:

    On the surface, I was calm; in secret, without really admitting it, I was waiting for something. Her return? How could I have been waiting for that? We all know that we are material creatures, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and not even the power of all our feelings combined can defeat those laws. All we can do is detest them. The age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amore, is a lie, useless and not even funny.

    He closes by saying that he lives in expectation, persisting "in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past". Soderbergh's Kelvin, on the other hand, takes another route by ending his discussion of home with a desperate admission:

    … but I was haunted by the idea that I had remembered her wrong. Somehow I was wrong about everything.

    Notwithstanding the incompleteness of his memories, Kelvin cannot shake the feeling that those things he did recall were inaccurate, born of his grief rather than a genuine reflection of what occurred between him and Rheya. Rinsing his finger under the tap, he realises that he did not cut it; turning to the fridge, he sees a picture that he did not remember was there (leading the new Rheya to form the wrong impression of their home); and so Kelvin learns that his grief is conditioned by his inability to let go of his guilt and focus on the beautiful aspects of their relationship. When, with a start, he realises that Rheya is with him and asks her if he is alive or dead, she replies:

    We don’t have to think like that anymore. We’re together now. Everything we’ve done is forgiven. Everything.

    In Soderbergh's Solaris, it is not clear whether Kelvin and Rheya are really back on Earth or whether Kelvin is dreaming this scene as he dies on the Prometheus. What is apparent, though, is that Kelvin has been given another chance precisely because life ends but love does not.

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