Soderbergh’s version of Tarkovsky’s film, Solaris or Stanislaw Lem’s book, or both (whatever way you choose to look at it) could be read on many levels. It’s referred to as ‘science fiction’ and a Hollywood version of a somewhat difficult rendition by Tarkovsky of Lem’s text. My personal take is that the film succeeds in communicating an ultimate fatality of love and that it is an unconventional love story that considers memory, (Bergson's) duration and loss.
The protagonist Chris Kelvin, played by Clooney is a psychiatrist who has recently lost his wife. Being set in the future, as part of his work he is sent to the surface of Solaris, a planet being orbited by an observational space station. The space station has experienced a number of strange and inexplicable occurrences and the crew have begun to disappear. The ones who remain will not return to earth. Kelvin has been charged with convincing them to return. Sound clichéd? It’s not.
In proximity with Solaris, the members of the crew have been able to embody their memories and an energy from the planet has drawn up from their subconscious actual physical manifestations of their deepest desires and vulnerabilities. These manifestations are actual human forms, identical to the persons they reference – except that they are based purely on the individual psychology of the subject.
The story alternates between Kelvin’s memories of his departed wife Rheya and the present of the narration. The ephemeral nature of the cinematography draws out the deepest beauty of Kelvin’s love for Rheya; indeed their love for each other. Martinez’s soundtrack is simply mesmerising and serves to amplify the intensity of the emotion.
While on the space station the crew obscure the reality that is taking place however, Kelvin realises that he has somehow been able to actualise Rheya, but that she has been formed from his memory and sub-conscious. Initially he reacts strongly to a situation he cannot accept and rejects Rheya by ejecting her from the space station.
After she becomes formed in physical reality again, Kelvin realises that he cannot escape his memory of Rheya and he succumbs to the manifestation – becoming intoxicated, as the other crew members by the seemingly real form of his memory.
In many ways, while representative of the memory of a dead loved one, the film expresses Kelvin’s compromised impression or memory of Rheya and seems to act as a metaphor for the reality of love (is all love in a way, one-sided love?), where one strives so profoundly to understand the other’s being and essence, yet the separation through individuality in life becomes a kind of cruel manifestation of our own elucidation of personal desire; projecting our own unrequited impressions out into the ether; grasping desperately to connect with our treasured other, yet ultimately failing as the legacy of complex and unknown experience, want, ideology and desire of both us and our other descends into a deep and unfathomable chasm.
In this fraught and desperate state, often irreparable mistakes and misunderstandings occur. As Wilde wrote:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves…
While there are multiple readings and various sub-plots in the film, I’ve chosen here to focus on a specific strand that has a personal significance and do not intend this to be read as a comprehensive review or critique of Soderbergh’s Solaris.
It ought be said however, that in the best tradition of film making, the work succeeds by eclipsing its genre, which merely serves as a backdrop for an exploration of a deeply psychological and complex experience of love and loss of love; an experience that is an expression of what some may encounter but not have an opportunity to articulate.