“Solaris” by Stanislaw Lem and Steven Soderbergh–Book and Film Review

Steven Soderbergh’s stylish psychological thriller, released November 2002 in the United States by 20th Century Fox, eloquently captures the theme of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 book. Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is an intelligent, introspective drama of great depth and imagination that meditates on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. Soderbergh’s Solaris is a poem to Lem’s prose. Both explore the universe around us and the universe within. Not particularly palatable to North America’s multiplex crowd, eager for easily accessed answers, Solaris will appeal more to those with a more esoteric appreciation for art.

When I recently saw the 2002 20th Century Fox remake of Solaris, I was blissfully unaware of its legendary history. I say blissfully because I harbored no pre-conceived notions or expectations and therefore I was struck like a child viewing the Northern Lights for the first time. The stylish, evocative and dream-like imagery flowed to a surrealistic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez like the colors of a Salvador Dali painting. It was only later that I discovered that Russian experimental director, Andrei Tarkovsky, had previously filmed Solaris in 1972 based on Lem’s masterful 1961 book of the same name. Reprinted by Harcourt, Inc. with a new cover featuring a sensual image from the 2002 film, the original book was translated in 1970 from the French version by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox for Faber and Faber Ltd.

Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is a dark psychological drama. Soderbergh faithfully captures the intellectual yet sensual essence of Lem’s book by tempering the language and movements. Featuring a fluid and haunting soundtrack, his film flows like a choreographed ballet. There is a dream-like quality to it that is enhanced by creative use of camera angles, unusual lighting, tones and contrast, and sparse language. Solarisis not an action film (no one gets shot, at least not on stage), yet the tension surges and builds to its irrevocable conclusion from frame to frame like a slow motion Tai Chi form.

In response to his friend’s plea, a depressed psychologist with the ironic name of Kris Kelvin (played with quiet depth by George Clooney), sets out on a mission to bring home the dysfunctional crew of a research space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the space station, Prometheus, to find his friend, Gibarian, dead by suicide and a paranoid and disturbed crew obviously withholding a terrible secret from him. It is not long before he learns the secret first-hand: some unknown power (apparently the planet itself) taps into his mind and produces a solid corporeal version of his tortured longing: his beloved wife, Rheya (played sensitively by Natascha McElhone) who years ago had committed suicide herself. Faced with a solid reminder, Kelvin yearns to reconcile with his guilt in his wife’s death and struggles to understand the alien force manifested in the form of his wife. He learns that the other crew are equally influenced by Solaris and have been grappling, each in their own way, with their “demons,” psychologically trapping them there.

Ironically, our hero’s epic journey of great distance has only led him back to himself. The alien force defies Kelvin’s efforts to understand its motives; whether it is benign, hostile, or even sentient. Kelvin has no common frame of reference to judge and therefore to react. This leaves him with what he thinks he does understand: that Rheya is a product of his own mind, his memories of her, and therefore a mirror of his deepest guilt—but perhaps also an opportunity to redeem himself.

Lem packs each page of his slim 204 page book with a wealth of intellectual introspection. Through first person narrative, he intimately unveils the complicated influence of this arcane force on Kelvin. Lem explains it this way: “I wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.” (Author’s Website.) Such an incomprehensible entity would serve as a giant mirror for our own motives, yearnings and versions of reality. For me the contrast presented by such an arcane alien force emphatically—but also ironically—defines what it is to be human. It is only when faced with what we are not that we discover what we are. Later in the book, Kelvin cynically observes: “Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.” In the film Gibarian sadly proclaims of the Solaris mission: “We don’t want other worlds—we want mirrors.” In the book, Lem has Snow deliver a similar message, but neither Gibarian or Snow realize that these two desires may be one and the same.

Lem’s existentialist leaning is provided throughout the book and even alluded to in the name he chose for the space station: Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind for which Zeus chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver (which grew back daily). It is interesting that Soderbergh chose to send Prometheus to a fiery crash and named Kelvin’s dead wife, Rheya, after the Greek goddess, mother of Zeus and all Olympian gods. In a late passage of Lem’s book, a devastated and sorrowful Kelvin formulates a personal theory of an imperfect god, “a god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure … a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfills no purpose—a god who simply is.”

Soderbergh addresses Lem’s existential vision with several brief but pivotal scenes. One occurs when Kelvin’s dead friend, Gibarian, returns to him in a dream on Prometheus and responds to Kelvin’s question, “What does Solaris want?” with: “Why do you think it has to want something?” Another scene occurs as a flashback to a dinner on Earth, when the real Rheya, prior to her suicide, argues with both Gibarian and her own husband about the existence of an all-knowing purposeful God, which both men argue is a myth made up by humankind: to Kelvin’s suggestion that “the whole idea of God was dreamed up by man,” Rheya insists that she’s “talking about a higher form of intelligence,” to which Gibarian cuts in with: “No, you’re talking about a man in a white beard again. You are ascribing human characteristics to something that isn’t.” Kelvin fuels it with: “We’re a mathematical probability,” which prompts Rheya’s challenge: “How do you explain that out of the billions of creatures on this planet we’re the only ones conscious of our immortality?” Neither man has an answer. Gibarian later commits suicide on Solaris rather than deal with the manifestation of his conscience. And I can’t help but wonder if the underlying reason for his inability to reconcile with his “demon” is because he was unequipped to, given his nihilistic beliefs.

Gibarian also tells Kelvin (and we must remember that all this is Kelvin really saying this to himself through his memory of the character): “There are no answers, only choices.” It is interesting then that the first pivotal choice in the story is made by the Doppelganger Rheya (also a manifestation of Solaris but a mirror of Kelvin’s own mind) and it is a choice made out of love: to be annihilated, rather then serve as an instrument of this unknown alien power to study the man she loves.

Some critics have called Soderbergh’s Solaris pretentious, boring and devoid of action and intimacy. I strongly disagree. It is simply that, as with Lem’s original story, Soderbergh’s Solaris does not surrender its messages easily. The viewer, as with the reader, must intuitively feel his or her way through the fluid poetry, free to interpret and ponder the questions. This is what I think good art should do. And I feel both the original book and Soderbergh’s movie do this with enthralling brilliance.

Where Soderbergh and Lem depart lies more in each artist’s personal vision and belief. Soderbergh seems to view the forces that drive our universe as the manifestation of an arcane motive more readily known through spirituality, perceived by the heart, and existing as a matter of belief. Lem, however, suggests that these forces are random and without purpose, defined by science, and perceived by the mind. Still, Lem is not proclaiming a nihilism of his own: he believes we are defined by the questions we ask and Lem asks a great deal of questions—leaving the reader to do the answering.

Reviewer Rick Kisonak asserted that Lem’s “novel is an icy meditation on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. It poses countless metaphysical questions and makes a point of answering none of them. In Soderbergh’s hands, however, Solarisbecomes a celebration of romantic love, which culminates in the revelation of a caring, forgiving creator. At the end of his book, Lem writes [Kelvin ponders]: ‘the age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris [life ends but not love] is a lie, useless and not even funny.’ The director ignores the author in favor of just such a poet” (Film Threat, [Online]). Kisonak is referring here to Rheya’s interest in Dylan Thomas and its reference throughout the movie. Another reviewer, Dennis Morton, goes so far as to suggest that the screenplay of Solaris is the first stanza of the poem, which ends with: “…though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion” (Santa Cruise Sentinel, [Archived online])

While I agree with some of Kisonak’s reasoning, I think he has missed the point of Lem’s book. If one continues to read from the passage Kisonak quoted above—as Kris Kelvin transcends from what he “thinks” in his intellect to what he feels and “knows” in his heart, to accept his (and humanity’s) destiny with humble fatalism—we learn that Lem ends his book in much the same way as Soderbergh’s movie: life ends but not love. The endings are physically different, in keeping with some radical alterations from the book in the movie’s setting (e.g., the original Solaris station is located on the planet and Lem assiduously describes Kelvin’s observations and interactions with the alien ocean; whereas Soderbergh’s crew virtually never leave orbit and the planet remains aloof in the background, reflecting Soderbergh’s focus). Yet, Kris makes the same choice in faith and love in both book and movie (although the choices play out differently). In matters of faith and love, here is what Kris has to say in the book: “Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed? … In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation … I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.” In the end of both movie and book, Kris Kelvin lets go of his fears and lets his spirit rise in wonder at what astonishing things Solaris (and the universe) will offer next.

In the final analysis, both book and movie are incredibly valuable but for different reasons. Soderbergh paints an impressionistic poem, using Kafkaesque brushstrokes on a simpler canvas, to Lem’s complex tapestry of multi-level prose. Lem challenges us far more by refusing to impose his personal views, where Soderbergh lets us glimpse his hopeful vision. I think that both, though, come to the same conclusion about the ethereal, mysterious and eternal nature of love. On the one hand, love may connect us within a fractal autopoietic network to the infinity of the inner and outer universe, uniting us with God and His purpose in a collaboration of faith. On the other hand, love may empower us to accept our place in a vast unknowable and amoral universe to form an island of hope in a purposeless sea of indifference. Whether love mends our souls to the fabric of our destiny; enslaves us on an impossible journey of desperate yearning; or seizes us in a strangling embrace of unspeakable terror at what lurks within—surely, then, love is God, in all its possible manifestations. This is unquestionably the message that unifies book and movie. And it is one worth proclaiming.

Indian River, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

“Contact”: a Journey to the Heart of the Universe–Film Review

Ellie (Jodie Foster) listens for aliens at the array in “Contact”

The opening sequence tells the entire story… It is both spectacular and humbling at the same time as we begin with a view of Earth gleaming in a sunrise. An almost frantic jumble of broadcasts— news, TV shows, music—assail our ears. As we pull back from Earth and pass the outer planets, we hear older broadcasts… disco…Kennedy… the Beatles… Hitler…then ultimately the unintelligible static of all the radio stations on Earth. Then, as we leave the solar system, passing breathtaking nebulae, the sounds give way to silence. A dead silence, as we continue to pull back out of the galaxy and out of the local group of galaxies into the quiet depth of our vast universe. “It’s enough to make you feel tiny and insignificant and alone,” says Maryann Johanson of FlickFilosopher.com. “Which is precisely the feeling it’s meant to evoke.”  From that arcane vastness, we are brought back to our own “intimate” existence within it as the universe transforms into a dark reflection in a young girl’s eye.

With a powerful entrance like that, it is hard to imagine that this 1997 movie directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and based on the novel by Carl Sagan, received very mixed reviews by critics.

Cindy Fuchs of the Philadelphia City Paper called it “far more mundane than its aspirations to cosmic insights might have produced.”  Kevin N. Laforest with the Montreal Film Journal said, “Contact is not a bad film, but I can’t say it’s all that good either.” Even TVGuide.com rated it a two out of four: “It’s really about [Jodie] Foster, and with her lips pressed tightly together and her hair carelessly shoved behind her ears, she’s utterly convincing as a researcher who’s subverted everything to a life of the mind. Unfortunately that adds up to a rather remote protagonist and Ellie is surrounded by a supporting cast of one-dimensional types…far too cold-blooded for summer audiences.” This is ironic, considering that the advertizing pitch calls Contact “a journey to the heart of the universe.” Finally, Christopher Null (Filmcritic.com) recommended it for its looks but not highly. Said Null: “Carl Sagan’s ode to the superior intelligence of aliens (and how us darned humans mess everything up) is consistently beautiful and interesting, but it never makes a point (except for that bit about the darned humans).

I think these critics have missed the point. Contact—and its somewhat tortured protagonist—demonstrates much in the way of “heart” and in doing so, makes a compelling story. Hearts beat deeply inside us, and this movie is no different; its “heart” runs deep, deep beneath the surface rhetoric that seems to have distracted several critics who likely prefer to take a shallow sip of their coffee steaming hot than wait and savor the rich flavor of a dark blend in a deep swallow.

Contact examines the moral, social and religious implications of our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence through the personal journey of astronomer, Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway (played impeccably and sensitively by Jodie Foster). Never knowing her mother (who died at child birth) and having lost her father when she was ten, Ellie grows into a strong-willed scientist who dedicates her life to finding alien life in the universe by foregoing a career at Harvard to join a SETI Observatory in the Puerto Rico jungle. In an earlier scene with her father, she asks the question we have all pondered at least once: “Do you think there are people on other planets?” to which her father blithely answers, “if it’s just us, seems like an awful lot of wasted space,” a simple argument that appeals to the young logically-minded Ellie and one that will dominate the perseverance of her adult life in her resolute search for life in the universe.

And persevere Ellie must, because nothing comes easy for her. Shortly after she settles at the SETI Observatory her teacher (and nemesis) David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) pays her a visit with implied threats of shutting the place down. Ellie also meets Palmer Joss (Mathew McConaughey), a man of faith, who is writing a book about the effects of science and technology on the third world. Although she is attracted to him, alarm bells go off in Ellie, who feels threatened by his faith (something she does not outwardly understand yet clings to in another form). Wanting to see him again, she introduces him to the man he wants to interview: Drumlin. And one of the most poignant conversations follows:

When Ellie challenges Drumlin’s apparent wish to do away with all pure research, he responds with, “What’s wrong with science being practical, even profitable? Nothing—”

Palmer cuts in, “—As long as your motive is the search for truth, which is exactly what the pursuit of science is.”

Drumlin counters peevishly, “Well, that’s an interesting position coming from a man who crusades against the evils of technology.”

To which Palmer responds, “I’m not against technology; I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth.”

Palmer and Ellie collide from two different worlds and despite their differences, they are profoundly attracted to one another. But as quickly as she falls for Palmer, she recoils from him.

Nothing comes easy for Ellie: “small moves, Ellie,” her father is accustomed to telling her, “small moves…” Shortly after she and her colleagues have been shut down by Drumlin and have set up anew (thanks to eccentric billionaire entrepreneur, S.R. Hadden, played by John Hurt), Drumlin and others shut them down yet again. But, as though a greater force intervenes, this is when Ellie makes her momentous discovery and intercepts an alien message from Vega, a young star still surrounded by a proto-planetary cloud of debris about 27 light years away from us. The scene is scientifically plausible and elegantly powerful—as we witness the drama of this phenomenal discovery unfold in a frisson of action.

Zemeckis wisely shows us exactly how such an event would really play out. And Sagan didn’t pick Vega out of whimsy: a sphere sixty light years thick of radio communication radiates from Earth from our radio and TV broadcasts. These signals may be captured by alien technology and sent back as a “message”. In theory, such a signal could be received on Earth anytime after 1990, the round trip time for a light or radio signal to travel to Vega and back from the first global signal, which in itself is momentous and telling. In another spine-tingling scene, the scientists who have descended upon Ellie decipher the arcane harmonics of the “message” as the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (the first truly global TV broadcast made) over which Hitler presided. In fact, in another stroke of irony, the now infamous swastika is the first icon they decipher. Later still, they discover embedded instructions to build a machine that appears made to take a human on an extra-galactic trip.

Ellie (Jodie Foster) listens for aliens at the giant array in “Contact”

At the same time that Ellie intercepts this message, Palmer Joss experiences a meteoric rise to stardom with his bestselling book, Losing Faith: the Search for Meaning in the Age of Reason (which could well have been the alternate title for the film; it certainly describes the subtext of the story and the major thematic element: Faith & Meaning). In an interview with a prominent news show host, Palmer asks the question that most of us have avoided:  “The question that I’m asking is this: are we happier? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology?…We shop at home, we search the web—at the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than any other time in human history…We have meaningless jobs, we take frantic vacations [and] trips to the mall to buy more things to fill these holes in our lives.” Ironically, Palmer touches a similar nerve in Ellie when he brings up her dead parents: “It must have been hard… being alone…” insinuating that her fanatical search for intelligent alien life may simply be filling a hole in her heart. She flees Palmer shortly after, fearing his revealing intimacy. When they next meet, years later, they fall naturally into their familiar banter and she turns the table to challenge his faith in the same way: “What if science simply revealed that [God] never existed in the first place?” She then evokes Occam’s Razor, which says that “…all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one…what’s more likely? An all powerful mysterious God [who] created the universe then decided not to give us proof of his existence or that he simply doesn’t exist at all and we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” Both of them are saved from an answer by the intrusive rings of their cell phones.

Space-time vehicle in the film Contact

Ironically again, it is Ellie’s lack of belief in God that causes her to be overlooked for the momentous journey in the alien craft, in favor of the crafty Drumlin with the oily smile. Unfortunately, a religious zealot sabotages the mission and Drumlin, along with the whole alien craft and construct, are blown up in a spectacular explosion at NASA’s Cape Canaveral. Ellie gets her chance after all when they build a second one. Her journey in the alien space craft, which we are later told takes up eighteen hours of her time but passes instantaneously on Earth (to the point where they all think nothing actually happened), is truly epic and elegantly portrayed. Her encounter with the aliens is also in keeping with the plot and imagery of the story. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is the one where Ellie is introduced to the incredible and indescribable beauty of the vast Universe. It is at this point that she experiences her epiphany: science is not the sole purveyor of truth in the Universe. As she gazes at the splendor revealed before her, she acknowledges that the language of science is unable to express the sheer magnitude of the breathtaking scene. Grasping at something to say, she blubbers with a scientific term then finally gasps, “No words…to describe it…they should have sent a poet…”

Upon her return, Ellie is challenged by skeptics who think she suffered a giant delusion (remember that on Earth, no time had passed during her supposed eighteen-hour voyage). Ellie offers up a strained scientific explanation (e.g., wormhole travel through space-time also called Einstein-Rosen bridges) which is challenged by National Security Advisor, Michael Kitz (James Woods) as only theory, and must finally resort to her faith; one she selflessly offers to the world: “I… had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone.”

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality Practice said it best: “Robert Zemeckis has fashioned a truly awesome movie that celebrates the spiritual practices of listening, wonder, love, and zeal. It affirms that there are times and places where reason must yield to mystery.”

The SETI Institute, who currently conduct the search for alien life, have a website dedicated to the movie.

Indian River, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.