It seems fitting that Solaris—a story about a being that is able to probe other consciousnesses and draw out their inner preoccupations and affections—takes on different forms with each retelling, depending on who’s doing the telling. Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel is hard sci-fi, filled with complex discussions of science and the unknown. Andrei Tarkovsky’s great 1972 film adaptation, much like his other films, is quintessentially Russian, dense with philosophical ruminations and religious references. Meanwhile, Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film version is lean and compact, shifting philosophy to the background in order to explore the humanity at the core of the story.1
Which isn’t to say that Soderbergh’s Solaris doesn’t offer much to chew on. But philosophical inquiries ultimately take a back seat to a deeper exploration of the personal dimensions of the situation aboard the film’s space station. In Soderbergh’s telling, Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) isn’t an intellectual detective trying to untangle knotty existential questions; he’s a bereft lover coming to terms with his own guilt. Does Solaris’s re-creation of his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), represent a second chance for Kelvin to love her more fully and dispel his guilt over her death? Did he ever really love Rheya, or did he merely love an idea of her—a mental construction every bit as limited and uncanny as Solaris’s manifestation of her?
These themes of reality vs. artifice and truth vs. fantasy are echoed by the visuals themselves. Soderbergh, acting as his own cinematographer under a pseudonym, bathes the flashback scenes in warm amber colors and flesh tones, while the scenes aboard the space station are dominated by cool whites, grays, and blues. The contrast between the two is plain: Kelvin’s experiences on Earth are characterized by physical and emotional connection, while the space station is a place of man-made objects, cold metal, and sleek surfaces.
The overall effect is to heighten the sense of wrongness when Kelvin begins to become attached to Solaris’s copy of Rheya. Such warmth made sense on Earth, but in orbit around Solaris it feels off somehow, like a wax figure that is too convincing to be silly-looking but not convincing enough to avoid a certain creepy-doll quality. “Rheya” is a simulacrum, not the woman whom Kelvin loved on Earth; and yet her growing self-awareness and personal desires begin to blur the lines for Kelvin, who longs to undo his past sins against her. The ambiguity here—just how “human” are the copies created by Solaris?—is tantalizing and disorienting in equal measure. We in the audience begin to understand why Kelvin is taken in by her.
Soderbergh’s film culminates in a twist that is presented very differently from Lem’s novel or Tarkovsky’s adaptation. Kelvin ends up in a place that seems to provide an ultimate reprieve from his guilt and Rheya’s pain. At first, it seems idyllic—who doesn’t like a happy ending, after all? But misgivings linger. Kelvin’s final destination may offer healing, or it may be just an illusion, an attempt to escape from reality’s poignant joys and sorrows and into a fantasy where joy and sorrow are thin abstractions cut from similar cloth. The shot in which Kelvin makes his final choice visually echoes Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” and it leaves each of us to ponder whether Solaris’s Kelvin-centric creation is worth the creation that Kelvin is leaving behind.
1 A fourth version of Solaris, adapted for Soviet television in 1965, is now (probably deservedly) lost to time.