Solaris—both the 1972 Tartovsky and the 2002 Soderberg films—are favorite films of mine. They are wonderful psychological dramas that explore the nature of guilt, grief and the value of second chances, in a way that no other film can. But Stanislaw Lem, the author of the book, has said that both films disappointed him, because they didn’t explore the real point of the story: Communication with truly alien life.
In Solaris, clinical psychologist Kris Kelvin is summoned to the research station over the planet Solaris, where a group of scientists seem to have become unresponsive to communications from Earth, and possibly unhinged. One of them has apparently committed suicide. Authorities are not sure if the planet itself is to blame, or if something else has happened on the station. When Kelvin arrives, he is barely greeted, as the scientists have largely barricaded themselves away from each other, and give him cryptic warnings that whatever had befallen them will strike him next. And it does, in the form of a sudden new occupant on the station: Kris’ wife Rheya, who committed suicide back on Earth, but is on the station one morning as if nothing happened.
The book and movies deal with Kris’ realization that all of the scientists have been visited by people from their past, triggering guilt, shame or grief over some past event in their lives. In the end, the scientists try to rid themselves of the simulacrums, even as Kris succumbs to his guilt over the death of his wife. Kris’ struggles with his love and his guilt are the cornerstones of both movies.
The the book contains so much more. The planet Solaris was presented as a single organism that appeared as an ocean that covered almost the entire planet. The only sign of activity from that gargantuan organism was of strange shapes that would occasionally rise or bubble out of the organism, sometimes undergo changes in its shapes, and collapse back into the ocean. The scientists were sent to learn to communicate with Solaris, but their every attempt resulted in failure.
After years of failed attempts, the scientists tried an unauthorized bombardment of Solaris with energized particles, which resulted in two things: One, the strange shapes that rose out of the ocean began to take on shapes familiar to the scientists, such as an observational craft from the station, and the shape of a human baby the size of a small island; and two, the arrival of human “visitors,” appearing inside the station while the scientists slept, and connected to their single most traumatic relationships.
The “visitors” were human down to a cellular level… but below that, made up of exotic particles, clearly not human at all. They apparently knew nothing of their own nature, nothing about Solaris, and could not communicate with it, leaving the scientists with no idea why they had been sent, or if it had been intentional to send them at all. The visitors thought they were the real thing, even when evidence plainly indicated they were not, further contributing to the pain of dealing with them. Were the visitors actually Solaris’ version of probes, somehow gathering data for Solaris; or was Solaris just as ignorant of the events on the station? The scientists never find out the truth, and are left at the end of the story as frustrated and disconnected from Solaris’ intelligence as a bacteria on the surface of a human brain.
This is the real point of the book: The futility of communication with (or even understanding of) a truly alien intelligence. It’s something humans should take to heart, as there are so many examples of intelligences on our own planet with which we may never learn to actually communicate. The world’s cetaceans immediately come to mind; for, though we may manage to teach whales and dolphins a few words and tricks, years of study have left us clueless as to the actual exchanges of communication with the creatures we consider probably the most intelligent on this planet after ourselves.
But is this message too much for movie-goers? Did the Solaris movies opt for emphasizing the relationship between Kris and Rheya simply due to the idea that romance would be a better sell… or because the suggestion that we’re not smart enough to communicate with a life form on a different level from ourselves is an idea people aren’t ready for?
When 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered, the fact that humans never seemed to meet the aliens that sent the monolith, nor did movie-goers learn exactly what the aliens had in mind for Man, was hotly discussed. It seems the public doesn’t like some unsolved mysteries, including aliens that we know are there, but never actually see or understand.
Still, I would have loved to see Soderberg’s Solaris give it a shot, especially since the effects technology available in 2002 was up to the task of depicting the organism’s strange extrusions, and I was highly disappointed that we didn’t at least see a few of them. I’m also a fan of more intelligent science fiction films, and I hate the idea of someone taking a great novel and removing the most important aspects of the story, in order to “talk down” to the audience or give them the only part of the story they are assumed to care about.
Oh, well… maybe in the next remake…