I should be honest from the outset and admit that Soderbergh’s adaptation of Solaris is the only version of the story that I am familiar with, having seen neither Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film nor read Stanislaw Lem’s novel on which both adaptations were based. However, I do not necessarily believe this to be a negative thing as I feel Soderbergh’s Solaris works perfectly well as a stand-alone piece and is perhaps even more interesting when viewed in isolation, without any baggage from previous incarnations of the story affecting interpretation.
The plot is deceptively simple – psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is summoned by an old friend to a space station orbiting a world called Solaris. On arriving, he finds most of the crew dead and the remaining members in a state of mental instability caused by a strange phenomenon that he is told cannot be explained until he himself experiences it. Soon enough, like the others before him, Chris receives a ‘visitor’ in the form of his deceased wife Rheya (Natasha McElhone). The arrival of Rheya is the point at which the film really becomes interesting and starts to delve deeper into the psyche of Dr Kelvin, as he moves from professional skepticism and fear of this aberration to a renewed longing for the woman he has loved and lost – even to the point of being willing to reject the concepts of science and reason in order to hang on to his second chance at happiness. Through the character of Rheya, Solaris raises questions about the nature of love and the nature of what it means to be human without providing any obvious answers – my interpretation of what Rheya and the planet Solaris were was remarkably different to that of the first person that I discussed the film with afterwards. That, for me, is the beauty of this film. It does not spoon-feed the viewer facts but deftly leaves ambiguous clues that point to several plausible meanings.
The tone of this film is generally rather restrained, with pared-down settings and costumes and sparse dialogue giving it a dream-like feel. Stylistically, it is near-perfect, with the claustrophobia and the strangeness of the space station denoted by unusual camera angles and heavy shadow, and a crew member’s belief that the ‘visitors’ are nothing but reflections of human need and desire being echoed visually through frequent shots of reflections in mirrored surfaces to denote Chris’ increasingly fragmented self. The station is given a sinister and artificial appearance by harsh white and blue neon lighting which adds to the air of foreboding and creates the feeling that something is not quite right about the place; however, the ‘memories’ of Chris and Rheya, shown through flashback, are no more realistic in appearance and thus call into question our willingness to trust a subjective version of events narrated to us by a man who may (or may not) be slowly losing his sanity.
This certainly isn’t the film to watch if you are in the mood to be passively entertained - it is far too philosophically and psychologically challenging for that. Solaris isn’t the most straightforward film to watch but it is one of the most truly human pieces of science fiction I have ever come across and deeply satisfying even if, like me, you feel compelled to watch it again almost straight away to see if you really ‘got’ it.