Well-reviewed in its time, Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film Solaris placed a paltry 124th on the US box office for the year and its total gross amounted to less than a third of the film’s estimated budget. On the DVD’s commentary track, Soderbergh and producer James Cameron argue that the film was poorly marketed. There may be some credence to their arguments: the theatrical trailer, used to whet audience appetites, plays up the romance and suspense arcs of the narrative and pitches the film as a conventional psychological thriller with quick cuts and a driving up-tempo score. The actual film is far more contemplative and cerebral and demands being viewed through multiple lenses of critical analysis
Solaris is an adaptation of an adaptation. Originally a 1961 novel from Polish writer Stanislav Lem, it was first produced as a film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. Soderbergh’s meditative update comes thirty years later and follows approximately the same narrative trajectory where widowed psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) joins a crew on a space station which orbits the mystical planet of the film’s title. Through unexplained phenomena, the planet uses memories of the station’s crew to create reproductions of people from their pasts. These reproductions are called Visitors. Kelvin is visited by his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) which confounds the doctor’s sense of reality and forces him to make decisions which chafe against his own morality. This particular adaptation engages with elements of the grotesque within the science-fiction genre as a springboard to explore Kelvin’s abnormal psychological state while willfully engaging both diegetic characters and spectators in a dialogue about philosophical concepts of Being, constructs of reality, and the nature of adaptation as reproduction.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
–Roy Batty (Blade Runner)
Like Blade Runner (1982), Solaris is a science fiction film that asks important questions about the nature of Being. Over a black screen, the film begins with the sound of rain pattering against a windowpane fading-in to a series of static shots of an isolated Chris Kelvin, head in hands, mourning. The images form a series of tableaus evoking a great longing. On the soundtrack, the disembodied voice of a woman (we will come to know her as his dead wife Rheya) asks Kelvin if he is still in love with her. There is no woman physically present in the room with Kelvin and so spectators infer he must be remembering her. The somber introduction uses the disjointed sight and sound to present spectators with a world where temporal and spatial relations will not adhere to our expectations. This will be a film concerned with the nature of memory, passion, reality and artifice.
The setup continues with Dr. Kelvin overseeing a group therapy session. He remains silent, allowing members of the group to facilitate a dialogue amongst themselves on the merits of technology on human interaction and interconnectedness. This will return later in a discussion of Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulation and simulacra. The most startling aspect of this scene is that it is handled in a single-take with Soderbergh’s camera positioned directly behind Kelvin’s head. There is no reaction shot of him and viewers are therefore not permitted to read him. Instead, the camera simulates Kelvin’s point-of-view and situates spectators as the proxy for him. The debate amongst the patients, which will underpin the thematic events of the film’s story, is not only presented to Kelvin but more importantly (through the design of this shot) presented directly to the audience.
Likewise, shortly thereafter, a pre-recorded video message is played for Kelvin from distressed astronaut Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). Gibarian pleads with Kelvin to join him on the space station orbiting Solaris as he breaks the fourth wall and facilitates a dialogue directly with spectators uttering the words, “I need your help…I need you to come to Solaris.” Here, spectators are playfully invited to join in and again we have disjointed temporal and spatial relations. Kelvin and Gibarian are juxtaposed in shot/reverse shot (the editing device primary used in conversational setups). Whereas in reality Gibarian’s video had been pre-recorded at a different time in a different space, the film’s form presents this exchange as if the two are connecting in the moment. Thus, within the first ten minutes, the film has posited the larger questions (abnormal psychological states / reality vs. artifice) that will be explored in Solaris while catalyzing the journey Kelvin is to undergo. The intriguing way Soderbergh has sutured spectators into not just the literal narrative but the thematic debate seductively lures viewers into wanting to participate in the resolution of the intriguing mystery.
This fleeting sequence on Earth quickly dissolves under composer Cliff Martinez’s ethereal score to the magnificent pulsing waves of Solaris. Once again, editing has drastically bridged time and space and we have skipped over the journey; the first of many choices which diverge from conventional science-fiction cinema. Spectators are unsure of how much time registers in the ellipsis that occurred between cuts but are thankful the story’s pace is moving so efficiently. The planet Solaris is an orb of softly dancing light reminiscent of the effect from a computer screensaver from this time period. When Kelvin arrives at the space station, the first image Soderbergh presents is a wall holding identical space helmets all facing the same way signifying a factory line of replication. Patterns of identical copies will be littered throughout the design of the film. Kelvin finds the station’s med lab and is soon greeted by the dead body of Gibarian and a second figure not revealed. He follows a trail of blood through empty corridors, iconography lifted directly from traditional suspense narratives, and wanders through the space station under the glow of fluorescent lights following the din of a hip-hop song blaring in the distance. The music leads him to fellow crew member Snow (Jeremy Davies), an erratic but comedic foil. The diegetic song playfully fills the silence between their stilted conversation with lyrics, “Straight down the spiral twist to the riddle box. The joke’s on you.” Kelvin has now crossed through the proverbial looking glass. The remainder of the film will quickly eschew with the stock science-fiction trope of a rescue mission and instead materialize into a deeply challenging philosophical quest.
Kelvin then meets Gordon (Viola Davis) who is on edge and reluctant to discuss the issues she and Snow have experienced. That night Kelvin retires to his quarters, falls asleep, and is visited by his dead wife Rheya. The two engage in intercourse. At first it seems likely that Kelvin is experiencing an erotic dream with the image of his dead wife until he awakens to realize that her appearance on the space craft is all too real. During Kelvin’s sleep, Soderbergh juxtaposes shots of Kelvin with shots of the planet Solaris in a hypnotic trance. The back and forth editing takes on a sexual connotation which gives way to Kelvin’s memory of meeting Rheya. Solaris has successfully invaded its host. It is here that Solaris’ potency as a mystical planet is realized and this science-fiction film takes on what scholar Istvan Csicsery-Ronay deems the Sense of Wonder. He writes of the Sense of Wonder within science-fiction that, “the experience is that of witnessing in a physical, haptic way phenomena beyond normal limitations of conception and perception that human beings have not been able to witness before, they have been able to imagine.” (1) Eventually it is determined through unexplained phenomena that the planet Solaris feeds from the memories of the crew and in return materializes important individuals from their pasts. Ronay argues that the science-fiction genre commonly offers, in addition to new and challenging ideas, a Sense of Wonder which can further be subdivided into two groups: the sublime and the grotesque. The grotesque is
“a projection of fascinated repulsion/attraction out into objects that consciousness cannot accommodate, because the object disturbs the sense of rational, natural categorization…the response is to suspend one’s confidence in knowledge about the world, and to attempt to redefine the real in thought’s relation to nature.” (2)
Both Solaris’ magic and specifically the reproduction of Rheya (to be referred to as Second Rheya) fit this categorization of the grotesque. Kelvin is an educated man, a doctor, who is now placed face to face with impossibility. Second Rheya is an object that Kelvin’s consciousness cannot accommodate. Yet Rheya stands before him comprised of flesh and blood (as far as anyone can deduce), breathing and thinking and communicative. In that moment, where his mind and heart are locked in a struggle of disbelief, he makes the decision to jettison Second Rheya off into endless space, effectively killing her.
Dr. Kelvin is a psychiatrist by trade and certainly well-versed on the school of thought of abnormal psychology as defined by the Freudian school. In a candid interview with fellow crew member Gordon, Gordon assesses her own condition by rattling off a laundry list of disorders she’s begun experiencing due to her proximity to the planet Solaris: depression, hypomania, insomnia, amongst others. It is only when Second Rheya appears that Kelvin himself understands the true nature of the warnings raised by Snow and Gordon. Rationalizing the relationship with Second Rheya proves problematic on a number of levels. Firstly: how does Solaris create these visitors? While the film wisely never chooses to provide an answer to the impossible, what is revealed is that Solaris interacts with a host’s memories to create their Visitors. It seems that Solaris is a feminine creator that conjoins with the mental output of the host to produce.
The mental states amongst the remaining crew of the space station orbiting Solaris has regressed all who come in contact with these Visitors to episodes of abnormal psychological states. Gordon’s self-diagnosis reveals her own awareness and it does not take long for Kelvin to be put in his own psychosexual game with the planet’s power. Noted psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that “a healthy personality actively masters his environment, shows a certain unity of personality and is able to perceive the world and himself correctly.” (3) By the time Second Rheya arrives, it wouldn’t appear that Kelvin has actively mastered his environment and feels at a loss of control over his perception of the world. Traditionally, psychologists from the Freudian school root abnormal psychology in the failure to master the psychosexual/social stages of development. Through the love affair experienced by Kelvin and Second Rheya, abnormal sexuality becomes a major focus of the rooted questions surrounding healthy functioning. For if Second Rheya is the product of Kelvin and Solaris then the question becomes whether or not Kelvin commits a form of incest in making love to her/it.
In Solaris, Kelvin gives in to the opportunity to exchange both the physical and the emotional with a partner who had died long ago. It is wish-fulfillment of the highest order and impossible by the rational rules of our world. However, these rules crumble in the wake of Solaris’ proximity. As Freud writes, “the closer one comes to the deeper disturbances of psychosexual development, the more unmistakably the importance of incestuous object choice emerges.” (4) Kelvin’s own psychological breakdown is manifested in his incestuous encounters with Second Rheya. Second Rheya is essentially a form of offspring derived from the seed of Kelvin’s memory and the egg of Solaris’ magic. Through his grief of her loss and his inability to reconcile the impossibility of her presence aboard the space station, Kelvin latches onto the safety of Second Rheya as incestuous object. This choice will have grave repercussions when he comes to his senses.
The next night while Kelvin sleeps, Solaris creates Third Rheya. Slowly, over the course of the next day, Third Rheya remembers more and more of her life from earth including her suicide after a particular painful fight with Kelvin over an abortion. As self-awareness hits Third Rheya she advises, “If I do understand what is happening…then I don’t think I can handle it…I’m not the person I remember.” Faced with the grotesque, the impossible, forces both Kelvin and Third Rheya to make rash decisions to return their sense of order. His killing of Second Rheya and Third Rheya’s recreation of her suicide are the most extreme examples of just how strongly these character’s mental constructs require a return to an established and recognizable set of rules. The abnormal psychological states that arise lead to rash decisions such as murder and suicide which typically exceed their moral turpitude.
With Third Rheya, Kelvin has slowly begun to embrace the impossible and is now using the presence of her as a redemption opportunity to escape the mire of his grief. Apologizing to Third Rheya for not being there in her time of need, Kelvin takes the first steps to return to a state of normality. Just past the halfway mark of the film, Kelvin gathers with Snow and Gordon to discuss whether to bring their visitors back to Earth. Kelvin feels they must, that they don’t truly understand what it is that Solaris has created and they need to return. Gordon chides back to Kelvin that Third Rheya is “a copy, a facsimile and [that she] is seducing you all over again…you’re sick!” Gordon raises another interesting point and one that is rooted in the central thematic debate of the film: what is the nature of these guests and are they human at all?
While much of the existing scholarship on Solaris ties back to an exploration of Baudrillard’s notions of simulation and simulacra, it is first important to read into a potential for the film’s spirituality. Are the visitors that Solaris creates simple reproductions, clones, constructed from memory and magic? Or, are they reincarnated spirits of deceased former selves. Soderbergh’s repeated use of Thomas’ quote “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” gives weight to the fact that these visitors may actually be reincarnations. Not only that but when Third Rheya arrives and her former memories come flooding back some of them (such as shopping for a pregnancy test or her suicide) could not have been spurned from Kelvin’s memories for he wasn’t present at the time. Still, regardless of whether simple reproductions or reincarnations, the characters in the film draw a clear line between original humans (Kelvin, Gordon, Snow – we assume) and the visitors. So what is the difference that resides in Being?
The nature of Being is at the centre of all of philosophy. By presenting humans alongside indistinguishable reproductions, Solaris asks us to definitively decide what makes Beings unique. In their article “Simulation, Simulacra, and Solaris”, Miriam Jordan and Julian Jason Haladyn note that “in the era of digital technology, the act of simulation is one in which there is no longer any reference to reality, instead what we have is a simulation that is generated without allusion to something real, but rather to a code or model that finds its origins outside of concrete reality.” (5) With a model whose origins are outside of concrete reality we are once again returned to the concept of the grotesque which may be why science-fiction so often ponders these same philosophical questions. By the arrival of Third Rheya, she finally expresses awareness in the here and now. She occupies a time and space that the original Rheya would never have known. Locating the problems inherent in reproduction trace back to Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”. In it, Benjamin writes that, “In even the most perfect reproduction [one] thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art. Its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence – and nothing else – that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.” (6) Is it possible then that Third Rheya is, in her own way, an original as well? Baudrillard himself argues that, “We require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin, which reassures us about our end.” (7) To Baudrillard, the simulacrum is not simply a representational copy of the original but instead becomes truth: the hyperreal. In Solaris, Visitors are beings whose understanding of current space and time is unique. Also, since the only glimpses spectators experience of original Rheya are through flashbacks filtered through distortions of either Kelvin’s dreams or Third Rheya’s memories, then is not Third Rheya as Simulacrum the hyperreal?
Philosopher John Berger builds on Benjamin’s notion of the reproduction noting, “One might argue that all reproductions more or less distort, and that therefore [the original] is still in a sense unique.” (8) Visitor Rheyas may make love as the original had but in subtle ways, such as their own awareness of being the non-original, prevent them from truly occupying the same space as the original Rheya. The Visitors’ own moral concerns about the nature of the original define them and ironically construct them as the most rational members aboard the ship. They are the only Beings (or Non-Beings) to grasp the reality of their situation and therefore do not show the same symptoms of abnormal psychological states whilst Kelvin and Gordon self-destruct internally. That said, if Visitor Rheyas are both ‘real’ and yet not, then how do we define the Being. As Jordan and Haladyn conclude,
the continuing attempts of the crew orbiting the Solaris planet to define the ‘real’ within the multitude of simulated experiences, most notably the repeated return of the guests, therefore focuses on the problematic of attempting to distinguish between reality and simulation or simulacra. (9)
To treat Visitor Rheyas as real is to extend a form of amnesty by expanding the definition of ‘human’ across reproductions. Doing this, as Kelvin is prepared to do when he proposes bringing Third Rheya back to Earth, grants ultimate power to the simulacra thereby eradicating any differences between original and reproduction. If humans include reproductions in their definition then do humans sacrifice the aura that makes us unique?
Somehow within the complex inner-workings of the narrative and its thematic questions, Soderbergh is slyly self-reflexively participating in the discourse. Since his Solaris is essentially an adaptation of an adaptation of a novel, is the film lacking the value of an original work itself? Is Soderbergh’s film nothing more than Third Solaris? Benjamin writes, “By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced.”(10) Is Soderbergh, like Tarkovsky before – or any filmmaker adapting a work – substituting mass existence for a unique existence? While it should be noted that there are enough variations in both plot and theme between Lem, Tarkovsky, and Soderbergh to disqualify considering their works blanket reproductions, Soderbergh is participating in the act of replication and therefore including the work of art within the debate occurring inside the work of art. Taking the Baudrillard argument further, scholar Ashley Polasek discusses the Simulation/Simulacrum found inherently in adaptations. She writes, “Simulation is a process that claims authenticity for the signifier over the sign…[thereby asking the question] is the film a recreation or representation of the source, which acknowledges itself as a derivative work, or is it a unique work in its own right, claiming authorship?” (11). So, to put it another way, is Solaris a recreation of Lem/Tarkovsky’s previous work. Is it wholly derivative? Or, does it engage in a dialogue with the works that came before it; building on themes and ideas not present in the original(s)?
Adaptation Studies has been actively addressing the issues of source-fidelity and the relationship between related texts for quite a while now. The general discourse seems to promote the differences inherent in adapted versus original texts. When looking at the process of adaptation as dissimulation, Nico Dicecco has noted,
Even the concept of equivalence – that an adaptation works by discovering medium-specific elements analogous to those in the source text – emphasizes sameness in adaptations, without adequately acknowledging the impossibility of literal equivalence…If this relationship is not one of replication or equivalence, it is my contention that adaptation is a class of metaphor, depending on a paradoxical relationship that equates unequal terms. (12).
On a literal level, Stanislav Lem’s words on the page cannot equate in a one-for-one to Tarkovsky’s celluloid or Soderbergh’s digital ones and zeroes. Still, while analogous elements are recognizable between these three texts, Soderbergh’s adaptation should be considered metaphorical. Therefore, reading the Solaris adaptation seems to create a secondary level of active engagement with the medium; both at narrative and now at intertextual.
Moreover, the action of adaptation has often been compared against that of translation. As noted by historian Corinne Lhermitte, “Translation is closely linked to the concept of creation in the form of updating or recycling of ideas.” (13) If Soderbergh is to be considered a translator of Lem and Tarkovsky, he is engendered in an act of creation. This ‘rewriting’ as the author refers to it becomes a form of synthesis between original text and artist and outputs an evolved text wholly independent from the input. It has also been written that,
reflexive cinematic adoptions of literature very often dissect their own practices of adaptation, and they just as often include complex critical discourses on their own modes and priorities of adaptation-whether in an extended manner of not. Together they form a complex commentary on the palimpsestic nature of adaptation (14)
Though Solaris is not entirely intertextual with the source material that precedes it, there are instances where Soderbergh chooses to adapt items found specifically in Tarkovsky’s film that were not present in Lem’s original novel. By actively engaging with both versions of the narrative that came before, Soderbergh positions his Solaris as a representation constructed of the various pieces of the Solaris cannon. Combined with his auteur vision, Soderbergh’s Solaris playfully situates itself in the discourse on reproduction and recreation though avoids the risk of ever truly being considered a Third Solaris.
Interestingly, Solaris begins with Kelvin overseeing a group therapy session. It was at this moment, early on, that spectators were charged with the responsibility of fielding such immense philosophical questions regarding morality as it relates to psychological states, what constitutes Being, and the nature of reality. By the conclusion of Soderbergh’s film, Snow is revealed to be a Visitor himself and Kelvin and Gordon sacrifice themselves to the planet. The original Kelvin dies but a reproduction, Second Kelvin, is “born” in a simulation of his former life on Earth and joined by yet another simulation of Rheya. Are spectators to assume these copies share the same awareness of their status as reproductions that Third Rheya did? Regardless, for viewers who feel reproduction immoral, Solaris ends tragically. The original Kelvin is dead and artifice has won out. However, for those who are not as strict in their reading of rebirth through a reproduction, or those who view it as reincarnation, Solaris is a film of powerful spirituality where love and desire transcend the corporeal, space, and time. And for the first time a story truly offers the literal fulfillment of happily ever after.
- Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “On the Grotesque in Science-Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 29 (2002): 71.
- Ibid., 71
- Erikson, Erik H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968, 42.
- Freud, Sigmud. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Ed. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 2000, 93.
- Jordan, Miriam and Julian Jason Haladyn. “Simulation, Simulacra, and Solaris.” Film-Philosophy 14.1 (2010): 253.
- Benjamin, Water. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Massachusetts: Belknap Harvard, 2008, 21.
- Baudrillard, Jean. Simulation and Simulacra. Ed. Sheila Faria Glaser. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1995, 10.
- Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin, 1977, 20.
- Jordan, Miriam and Julian Jason Haladyn. “Simulation, Simulacra, and Solaris.” Film-Philosophy 14.1 (2010): 262.
- Benjamin, Water. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Massachusetts: Belknap Harvard, 2008, 22.
- Polasek, Ashley. “Sherlockian Simulacra: Adaptation and the Postmodern Construction of Reality.” Literature/Film Quarterly 40.3 (2009): 193.
- Dicecco, Nico. “On Truth and Falsity in their Intertextual Sense: Adaptation as Dissimulation.” Pivot, 1.1 (2010): 69.
- Lhermitte, Corinne. “Adaptation as Rewriting: Evolution of a Concept” Revue LISA/LISA 2. (2004): 26-44.
- Semenza, Greg Colon. “Radical Reflexivity in Cinematic Adaptation: Second Thoughts on Reality, Originality, and Authority.” Literature/Film Quarterly 41.2 (2010): 149.