Film Reviews: Two versions of Solaris

The Novel Solaris was written in 1961 by Stanislaw Lem in Polish before being made into a feature film by famous Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. Four decades later, both James Cameron and Steven Soderbergh expressed interest in doing a remake, with Soderbergh getting the nod in 2002 because Cameron was busy with other movies. I saw the Tarkovsky film in 1995 and the Soderbergh film in 2002.

The planet Solaris is covered by a single, massive ocean, and after its initial discovery scientists begin to observe unusual movements and formations in the ocean. The story centers on a small group of scientists on Solaris Station, a research station that revolves around the planet Solaris. It opens with psychologist Kris Kelvin arriving on Solaris Station to check on the three scientists stationed there. Nobody comes to greet him when he first arrives, and when he meets Snaut (Snow in the US version; it must sound better in Polish), the man is a psychological wreck, initially not believing Kelvin is real. Snaut refuses to explain what has happened on the station, which is in disarray, or why all the scientists are acting paranoid. He also reveals that Gibarian, whom Kelvin studied with at university, has committed suicide just that morning. The third scientist is Sartorius, who is so eccentric that he stays in his lab and refuses to come out and converse.

Both films quickly establish the claustrophobic atmosphere in which the scientists operate, and throws Kelvin into the midst of this. Almost immediately, Kelvin realizes that the other scientists are encountering mysterious “guests” that appear on the station while they are sleeping. In each case, these “guests” appear to be generated from painful memories or secret desires buried deep in each person’s subconscious. Even more perplexing, the simulacra do not recognize their own natures, thinking themselves to be the original people, but lack memory of how they got to the station. Kelvin is not visited initially, but when he does receive a guest, it turns out to be his lost wife Harey (Rheya in the US version), who committed suicide after they had a fight. Suddenly Kelvin understands why the other scientists have been acting so strangely, but he discovers it is not easy to be rid of his “guest” when he tricks Rheya into a space pod and fires her into space, because the next morning she is back with no memory of the incident.

What follows is a philosophical and psychological drama that explores inner space, memories, consciousness, guilt, love, all the time with the inscrutable alien ocean impassively moving below. What is the purpose of these “guests,” which clearly come from the unconscious but have no knowledge of their origins, and don’t seem to be extensions of the ocean’s mind? Although the ocean is creating these simulacra from the scientists’ brain waves, it is not clear if it is doing this merely to study humans or to actually try to communicate with them.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSolaris 1972 Tarkovsky film version
Solaris: 1972 Tarkovsky film version

I first saw this slow-moving, visually-striking, and meditative 165-minute art film in college, and it’s certainly very interesting if you have the patience for it. As I mentioned above, it dispenses with the sections of the book devoted to Solaristics, and Tarkovsky’s script takes a different direction than Lem’s novel, as he prefers to keep the focus on Kelvin’s emotional relationship with the reincarnated simulacra of Harey (Rheya in the US version), his lost wife. In fact, Tarkovsky includes an entirely new section devoted to Kris Kelvin’s life on Earth with his parents and wife, which occupies a large part of the film’s length (and Lem strongly opposed this decision).

Moreover, the focus of the film has shifted from man’s attempts to understand the sentient ocean (which is represented by numerous psychedelic scenes of bubbling liquid, but not much of the bizarre formations described in the book), to his attempts to understand his own subconscious. While this may have been a legitimate artistic choice to make the film more accessible to the audience, it also weakens the most important philosophical aspects of the novel.

Visually, the film is truly striking, and is often considered one of the greatest Russian SF films ever. It also won the Grand Prix Special Jury Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. It certainly is worth watching for fans of Stanislaw Lem, 1970s SF art-house films, and those interested in Russian cinema. I was pretty shocked to find it available on iTunes for rental, but I’m not sure I’m willing to dedicate almost 3 hours to watching it again. Ah, youthful exuberance.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSolaris 2002 Soderbergh film version
Solaris: 2002 Soderbergh film version

I was pretty excited when I first heard there would be a major Hollywood remake, especially by an accomplished director like Soderbergh, who had recently finished Traffic. Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed with it. Although Soderbergh claims he intended to be more faithful to the book than Tarkovsky by refocusing the story on Solaris and not Earth, he too dispensed with the scientific study of Solaris (Solaristics) and the ocean in favor of the psychological drama of Kelvin (played by George Clooney) and his reincarnated wife Rheya (Natasha McElhone).

Lem didn’t like this approach either, and in 2002 he wrote, “To the best of my knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space. Indeed, in Solaris I attempted to present the problem of an encounter in Space with a form of being that is neither human nor humanoid.”

I wholly agree that this film became far too much a “romance in outer space,” which was not the book’s intention. To be fair, I think the novel’s biggest theme, the futility of humans attempting to understand a truly ancient consciousness, is not an easy concept to translate into film, but Tarkovsky did it better. Critical and popular opinions on Soderbergh’s film are divided. I think those who read the book are likely to be disappointed. However, for those who haven’t read the book, the film rests on how you view the relationship of Kelvin and Rheya.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. What a great column, Stuart. I just read a couple of sentences aloud to my husband and our visiting friend, and got gales of laughter; specifically your comment on youthful exuberance and Lem’s dismissal of the 2002 film.

  2. Thanks, Marion. I’m glad my review entertained you and your husband and friend. I used to work at the college movie theater, so I saw quite a lot of art-house and obscure films that wouldn’t be in regular theaters. I remember it taking an effort of will to stay focused for almost 3 hours, and there were quite a few folks around who succumbed to sleep on Tarkovsky’s Solaris. But just like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, those eye clamps really helped keep me glued to the screen…

  3. Sandy Ferber /

    I once saw Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and “Stalker” as a double feature…a 5 1/2-hour double feature! I have seen hundreds of double features in my time as a film buff here in NYC, but THAT one was a real challenge even for me. Not the staying-awake part, but rather on my hindquarters. The movies themselves were fascinating….

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