Note: spoilers ahead.
I happen to think that 2001 is one of the most important pieces of art created by an American filmmaker. No one who has seen it and makes films can escape its influence.
— Steven Soderbergh
Well, I hear George shows his rear end.
— Andy Garcia
The liveliest moments in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris belong to Jeremy Davies’ hands. Weirdly balletic, they dart and flutter to their own silent music, the result of unspeakable trauma inflicted on his character, Snow. He is one of two survivors on a space station grimly named the Prometheus, currently orbiting the planet Solaris, seen in repeated shots out the station’s windows as a writhing, pink surface, like it’s the inside of someone’s mind gone all churny.
Snow plays video games on the computer. His behavior could not be more different from that of his fellow scientist, Gordon (Viola Davis, also in Far From Heaven): holed up in her quarters, she maintains a disquieting reserve, her voice low, her eyes down. She’s not about to spend any time in the company of that jittery, nonsense-speaking Snow.
Their stalemate is only one of the mysteries confronting Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), summoned to the Prometheus via an urgent communication from the captain, his old friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). By the time he arrives, the station’s pristine interior is spoiled by bloody palm prints, Gibarian killed himself, and Snow is ensconced in his swivel chair, his hands dancing as he speaks: “I could tell you what’s happened, but I don’t know if that’d really tell you what’s happened.”
Solaris‘ narrative and philosophical elements are adapted from the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, also the inspiration for Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film. The earlier versions are famously protracted and meditative, pondering unanswerable questions concerning life, death, and desire. This version has a splendid, smooth-surfaced austerity, by way of Soderbergh’s avowed debt to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film is gorgeous, its $47 million cost all on the screen (with actors and director working for far less than their usual rates), and about an hour shorter than Tarkovsky’s film. It’s focused less on difficult abstractions (that inexplicable “what’s happened”) and more on a recognizable, sensual and painful love story.
That’s not to say Soderbergh’s movie is simple. For one thing, Chris is a thorny, often unlikable character, less heroic in his quest than angry and confused (and, the much-discussed derrière shots notwithstanding, Clooney gives a complex performance, without his signature duck-and-glance cuteness). A therapist by training, Chris’ practice on earth is represented briefly in a group session: his back is to the camera, a huge window looks out on a gray city skyline, and a faceless patient sighs, “I think I’m supposed to feel something by now, but I don’t.” And, to make it personal, he has a trauma of his own, namely, the years-ago suicide of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). As this followed a particularly nasty argument with him, he’s been distraught, lonely, and guilty ever since.
Chris’ bleak existence — translated as stark décor and a meals-for-one routine — leaves him open to the sudden invite from Gibarian and the subsequent visit by a couple of soldierly employees of the corporation that owns the space station (recently sold by NASA). The company sends Chris, the therapist, to “negotiate,” though with whom or what is not clear, and never turns clear (though his experience becomes increasingly narcissistic). On board the station, Gordon asks whom he represents, and Chris answers as elusively as any negotiator: “I represent the last effort to recover the ship,” he says, sounding a little too creepily like The Company vs. Ripley. Gordon remains skeptical, but agrees to come out of her room.
But Chris soon learns that negotiations with Gordon and Snow are essentially irrelevant, given the phenomenon they’re doing their best not to deal with: the “visitors.” Reportedly conjured by the planet Solaris in response to the crewmembers’ deep, unspoken desires, the visitors replicate lost loved ones: they are flesh (or a passing simulation of same), they breathe, they cry and act out, but they have no explicit source or desire or means of sustaining life. And so they are deemed “unreal,” as if reality is easily defined, monitored, and measured.
During Chris’ first night on the station, he meets his visitor — Rheya. Her appearance not only changes his expectations and sense of himself, it also changes the film’s rhythms. The heretofore cryptic but apparently linear structure twists into time-jumping ellipses (not so brilliantly as Soderbergh’s The Limey, but reminiscent of it). The present scene (Chris and Unreal Rheya making love on the Prometheus) is cut into a past interlude, each (too) neatly color-coded: warm orange-brown for the olden days, austere blue shadows for the creepy “present.” Space and time become fluid, unstable, and detached from the usual concept of fixed identity and embodiment. When Chris comes out of his dream, he’s horrified that he’s been making out with a ghost, an alien, or something otherwise “other.” And she gazes back at him, equally afraid, with big eyes glistening: “I love you so much. Don’t you love me anymore?”
On consultation, Chris learns that Gordon and Snow have each had their own “visitors,” but have no idea what they might mean or what the planet “wants” in return. Gordon is particularly upset by the visitors’ “nonhuman” genetic makeup. They come back when you discard them: Gordon calls these tricks “resurrections”; Chris sends the first Rheya incarnation out the station’s airlock, and she returns the next night, with no memory of what was, basically, her murder. Somehow this makes them more threatening, though to what or whom is hardly transparent. The film probes this “threat,” as a concept: Dead But Not Quite Visitor Gibarian, who stops by in one of Chris’ dreams, phrases it this way: “Why do you assume it has to want something?” To imagine beings beyond human imagining — it’s just hard to do.
While Solaris suggests that Chris becomes capable, at last, of such conception (with help from Gibarian’s visitor, a little boy as his Unreal Son), it is Unreal Rheya who is subsumed into that amorphous ideal. Still, she has her own identity issues: “I don’t understand what’s happening,” she cries, “I’m not the person I remember.” No wonder, as her memories — re-accumulating as she cries — are indistinguishable from Chris’ flashbacks. Unreal Rheya is, of course, a function of his recollections, produced by them in Solaris’ dreams-made-material process. In that past, she is selfish (she hated his “friends”), suicidal and duplicitous.
But here’s a rub: maybe Real Rheya was also a function of his perspective. Now and then, he feeds her pills to ease her “fatigue, brought on by stress.” And now and then, she looks to him for definition, for “recovery.” Now, she evidently supercedes the ship/mission to be salvaged — Rheya or his own self-image?
Though Chris says he “believes” everyone can change what looks like “fate,” it is his desire, his reflection, standing before him, on whom he’s unloading this philosophy of life. At least they both remember the Dylan Thomas poem that she had crumpled in her hand when he found her dead (“Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; / Though lovers be lost love shall not; / And death shall have no dominion”). Or maybe that was her idea, to mess with his head like that.
For all the wondering about what investment Chris might or should have in Unreal Rheya or Real Rheya as each reflects him, the film’s broader question has to do with a presumed relationship between “danger” and difference. Tellingly (and perhaps ironically), it is Gordon, the black female crewmember, who is most adamant about maintaining a distinction between “them” and “us.” Observing that Chris is being “seduced” by Unreal Rheya (who soon joins the three crewmembers at their what-will-we-do conferences), Gordon warns him, “I think it’s a serious mistake to think it’s benign.” She reports that she was so unnerved by her visitor — whom she won’t identify — that she concocted a particle-busting weapon to destroy it, and offers the same technology to him, for use against Unreal Rheya. When Chris accuses her of an immoral decision regarding a visitor, she insists, “We are in a situation that’s beyond morality.”
The guys’ sense of morality is less ambiguous. As different as Snow and Chris may be, they both live with a sense of privilege by virtue of the bodies they inhabit. They have their reasons for imagining that the visitors might be “recuperated,” or serve a fathomable purpose. For Snow, this purpose is, in the end, heartbreakingly self-aware, and his wonderful hands, so apparently lively and unleashed, are really telling a story of tragic limits and insight.
Chris’ purpose is eminently more conventional, his own redemption. He is granted the guilty-feeling trauma patient’s wish, to fix what went wrong, what he did wrong, because the world he inhabits is his projection. And so he puts it to Unreal Rheya: “This is my chance to undo that mistake. And I need you to help me.” That she believes him is the film’s most generous choice, or its most frightening.