Seeing double with Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” (1972/2002)…


The Essentials of Stanislaw Lem’s Story (1961).

Spawning a lengthy, 1972 Soviet-era sci-fi epic (2 hours, 49 minutes) and a trimmer American reimagining 30 years later, it’s surprised me to learn that Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem’s original 1961 novel “Solaris” is a brisk read (204 pages), despite its deep subject matter. I picked up a copy (translated into English from French) and read it over a few days. Having seen two filmed versions, I found that the essential story survives (with unique modifications) in both of its big screen incarnations.

Kris Kelvin’s brisk flight to the Solaris space station opens Lem’s novel; it doesn’t happen until about 40-odd minutes into Tarkovsky’s 1972 film.

Space psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to check on the research space station Solaris, orbiting a same-named planet somewhere in the constellation of Aquarius. Reports from the station in the past few years have become both disturbing and infrequent, with the three remaining crew, Gibarian, Sartorius and Snow, offering no enlightenments of their own. Much of the book is told in the first person by Kris himself.

Kris finds the lights are on, but (almost) nobody’s home…

Kris arrives to find the Solaris station looking like a high-tech frat house after a wild party; dirty, disorganized and rundown, much like Snow and Sartorius, who keep to themselves in their quarters. As he searches, Kelvin gets the impression that the three men he’s looking for may not the only ones who are present on the near-deserted station.

Dr. Snow (“Snaut” in the Russian-made film) is a haunted collapsed shell. Estonian actor Juri Jarvet plays him to perfection.

Kris meets Dr. Snow, who seems to be in a permanently scatter-brained state. Snow initially reacts as if Kris were a hallucination of some kind. Asking the traumatized Snow about his friend Dr. Gibarian, Kelvin learns that Gibarian committed suicide. Searching the late scientist’s quarters, Kelvin finds a suicide message addressed to him. Returning to confront Snow about the bizarre goings-on, Snow tries to gently warn Kris about the things he might encounter on the station, reminding him that they are not on Earth.

Natalya Bondarchuk is “Hari” (aka Rheya in the book and 2002 version), a facsimile reborn ten years after her prototype’s suicide.

Later that night, Kris encounters his first visitor; his late wife, Rheya, who’d committed suicide ten years earlier in their desperately unhappy marriage. Kris, fearful of losing his sanity to this terrifying ‘hallucination,’ promptly sticks the late Rheya’s doppelgänger onto an egress rocket and fires her into space. The next morning, another Rheya appears in his quarters. Snow seems to have lost his resistance to these apparitions, while the more practical Sartorius wants to get rid of them with an “annihilator” device he’s created to dissipate the visitors back into the subatomic nothingness from whence they came.

Kris (Donatas Banionis) is distressed to find that sending his dead ex-wife away on a rocket didn’t guarantee her absence.

When Kris asks Snow to come clean, he tells Kris that these ‘apparitions’ began appearing soon after the scientists began bombarding the ocean below with x-rays… prompting this ‘response’ of probing their minds and creating people from their memories. Whether the ocean did so as a prelude to first contact, or to simply drive the ‘invaders’ mad is utterly unknowable—as would be expected in trying to understand a truly alien intelligence such as the Solaris ocean-brain. At the heart of Lem’s story is the tendency of human beings to anthropomorphize everything we encounter within human parameters of existence and morality… as if we understood ourselves so well, right?

Astronaut Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy) gives impossible testimony of a giant baby stalking his rescue craft.

The story also contains flashbacks of a disgraced former Solaris astronaut named Burton, who claimed to see a massive humanoid “baby” rising from the ocean during a rescue mission. His flight recorders refused to corroborate his wild claim at his debriefing, and he returned to Earth as a laughing stock before contact was lost with the station. Since his return, the science of Solaristics has degenerated into little more than random observations and experiments for the past few decades, with no more ‘progress’ made towards understanding the phenomenon as when they first began.

Kris and Rheya/Hari enjoy a few seconds of weightlessness in the station’s library as the vessel changes its orbit.

Kris, Rheya and Sartorius meet with the others as Kris proudly introduces them to his ‘wife’. Soon after, the scientists’ animosity and dysfunction with each other reaches a head, as each deals with their maddening situation in different ways. Kris insists on resuming his dysfunctional relationship with his late ‘wife’, while Sartorius refuses to accept the visitors as equals. The no-nonsense Sartorius later reminds Kris that he abandoned his first Rheya visitor by sticking her on a rocket and blasting her into orbit…where she remains. Meanwhile, Dr. Snow wistfully hopes for a bridge between their ideologies. Snow also points out that humanity doesn’t want alien worlds nor can it use them; it seeks only mirrors of Earth. Humanity chooses to leave behind the comforts of its home in a futile quest for something, it-knows-not-what. Perhaps the alien intelligence of Solaris appears to us in the only forms our species’ vanity can recognize…?

The simulacrum of Kris’ wife is violently resurrected following her suicide attempt.

Unaware if he’s dreaming or not, Kris is later met by a simulacrum of Gibarian, who tells Kris to trust his ‘wife’, just as he trusted their own friendship once. With that bit of unsolicited advice, Kris and Rheya try to pick up from where they left off. However, Kris refuses to accept that Rheya’s doppelgänger is patterned after his own imperfect memories. This fallible pattern compels Rheya to attempt suicide yet again (swallowing liquid oxygen this time), since her traumatic suicide exists as an omnipresent shadow over Kris’ memories of her. She returns to life (again) in a violent, spasming ‘resurrection’, which only serves to reinforce how inhuman she truly is…

Kris and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn) don’t exactly see eye-to-eye regarding the humanity of the ‘visitors.’

In frustration, Rheya ultimately opts out of her dead-end existence with Sartorius’ help, and uses the doctor’s annihilator to return to nonexistence, while Snow transmits Kris’ encephalogram to the Solaris ocean below, in a last-ditch effort to salvage the crumbs of their original mission and make some kind of connection (the long-sought “contact”) with the sentient ocean below. The encephalogram transmission, unlike the harsher x-ray bombardments used previously, seems to cause a newly observable change in the oceanic intelligence.

A genuine ‘sea change’ is taking place within the sentient ocean-brain of Solaris.

On Solaris’ liquid surface, small, mimetic islands (“mimoids”) begin to form amid the viscous fluid of the planet’s malleable surface. Kris abandons the station and sets out to this new ‘surface’, not wishing to be a “Solarist who never set foot on Solaris.” The new world ‘welcomes’ him and the story ends with the beginnings of true contact.

Granted, that’s a summary, but those are the essential beats of the story, minus its innumerable musings on the nature of reality, the existence of gods, the moral obligations of science, the meaning of life, you name it. The characters of Lem’s story are deliberately cosmopolitan as well, and this was five years before Star Trek’s causally international/interplanetary crew set out for the stars. All these ideas of Stanislaw Lem’s are economically crammed into a couple of hundred pages. Lem was reportedly disappointed with translated versions of his novel, but alas, I don’t read/speak Polish, so there you have it.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of “Solaris” (1972).

In 1972, director Andrei Tarkovsky (“Stalker”) released an epic 2 hour and 49 minute film (divided over two parts) that greatly expanded upon the characters and philosophical musings of Lem’s work— unlike most movies made from books, which tend to lose or change much in their adaptations. Tarkovsky uses Lem’s novel as a blueprint for an ambitious dive into the human condition as reflected by the oceanic world of Solaris. For this review, I once again broke out my digital projector (and 7 ft. screen) to temporarily convert my home office into a theater and immerse myself in Tarkovsky’s universe.

Note: I’ve also learned of a 1968, black-and-white Soviet-TV version of “Solaris,” but I’ve not yet been able to locate a legal copy of it for viewing; if I ever do, I will review it for this site as soon as possible.

Kris’ dad Nik (Nikolai Grinko), tries to calm his troubled old friend Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy, in suitably convincing age makeup to mask his true age of about 33 years old)

One of the biggest changes from book to screen occurs at the very beginning, with a protracted 40-odd minute sequence taking place on Earth that isn’t in the novel at all; in fact, the novel begins with Kris Kelvin’s flight to the station. Tarkovsky uses the time on Earth wisely, telling us a lot about Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) before he ever arrives at the station. Kris visits his father’s remote country estate on the eve of his Solaris flight. The movie introduces the book’s troubled astronaut Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy) as an old family friend of the Kelvins who is visiting with his young son, in the hopes of telling a skeptical Kris about what he saw during his rescue mission over the Solaris ocean. Much of the book’s later videotaped testimony of Burton’s is shown on the Kelvin’s giant widescreen monitor, which still only shows black and white images. Incidentally, black and white imagery is used judiciously throughout the film to underscore emotional intimacy or introspection.

Note: When Burton drives away in anger from the Kelvin family estate following an argument with Kris, we see a protracted sequence of Burton in his car with his son. The footage of traffic on a busy urban freeway, alternating from color to monochromatic, was stealthily shot during Tarkovsky’s visit to Tokyo, according to the commentary on the Criterion edition Blu-Ray. High pitch whining noises are used on the soundtrack over 1960s cars to simulate the sounds of ‘futuristic’ electric vehicles. This casual mix of urbane Tokyo with rural Russia, not to mention the blurring of international surnames (Burton, Kelvin, Sartorius, etc), reinforces the cosmopolitan vibe of Lem’s book.

Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis (1924-2014) is Kris Kelvin.

We also learn that Kris is somewhat estranged from his father Nik (Nikolai Grinko) and aunt (Vitalik Kerdimun) following the suicide of his late wife Hari (Natalya Bordanchuk) as well as the death of his own mother (Olga Barnet). Following these tragedies, Kris moved away and threw himself into his work. Kris’ relationship with his mother is complicated; during old family home movies (which she shares with Hari to jog her memory), she is seen as distant and unemotional. Later, when Kris is suffering a raging fever, he experiences a hallucination of his mother (appearing much younger than himself) gently washing away burns from is arm. To call their relationship Freudian doesn’t begin to cover it. Kris Kelvin is arguably more damaged than most of his clients.

The 1972 more deeply explores the complex relationship between Kris and his late mother (Olga Barnet), who is seen in old family films, as an emotionally distant woman. Later, during a fever delirium, Kris has a monochromatic vision of her gently washing burns from his arm.

Kelvin’s shipmates, the renamed Dr. Snaut (Estonian actor Juri Jarvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn), are more or less congruent to their counterparts in Lem’s book. Snaut is the haunted eccentric who has all but surrendered to the visitors, while Sartorius remains bitterly opposed to them. We see traces of their own visitors in the film as well, with Snaut’s appearing as a vaguely feminine face (or side of a face) resting largely unseen in a cot, while Sartorius’ visitor seems to be a rambunctious dwarf (I don’t even want to know…). Neither Snaut nor Sartorius choose to let Kris ‘meet’ their visitors, despite his background in psychology. It’s implied that the indulgences shared with these visitors are too personal and intimate to be shared—like being caught masturbating, or some other deeply personal act. While Kris later comes out with his “wife” Hari, the unseen visitors remain deeply closeted embarrassments for Snaut and Sartorius.

Kris plays back the last message of his friend Dr. Gibarian, who has committed suicide on the Solaris station.

We also meet the late Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sarkisyan) via a videotaped suicide message left for Kris in his quarters, which are left in a chaotic state, reflecting the tormented scientist’s state of mind as he kills himself just before Kris ends the video playback. Gibarian’s visitor appears as the daughter he left behind on Earth, and she appears in the corridors of the station as well as guarding over the frozen body of her would-be father; who is kept in cold storage, since he wished to be buried on Earth—far away from the madness of Solaris, which drove him to take his own life. The book’s brief scene of a half-asleep Kris met by the Gibarian ‘visitor’ isn’t in the 1972 version, though it was resurrected (forgive the pun) for the 2002 American remake.

Note: Suicide is a recurring theme of the book and film, with Hari, Gibarian and (implicitly) Kris’ own mother taking their own lives rather than facing the horror and pain of their anguished existences. When we first meet the visitor version of Hari, we see the injection mark on her arm, as well as the torn sleeve of her dress. Clearly this was how Kris last remembered her, and it’s overshadowed every thought he’s had of her since.

When Hari met Sickly: Kris’ extended fever sequence isn’t afraid to show actor Donatas Bonianis in unflattering light.

Kris’ illness aboard the station (after Hari’s suicide) is greatly expanded for the film as well, with middle-aged actor Donatas Bonianis going fearlessly unattractive for the sequence (this isn’t Hollywood, folks). Bonianis appears in bed, soaked in sweat. Later, he is seen deliriously roaming the station’s corridors in a pajama shirt and a pair of tighty-whiteys, looking like utter hell. There is little-to-no vanity in Bonianis’ performance whatsoever.

It’s Casual Monday-thru-Friday aboard the Solaris space station…

Note: This is something I very much admire about European films of the 1960s and 1970s; unlike most of their Hollywood counterparts of the time, they weren’t afraid to show a leading man or woman in as unattractive light as possible. There was a rawness in them that was largely missing from Hollywood’s oppressive insistence on glamour. Some American filmmakers of that same period, like the younger Martin Scorsese (“Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver”) and Dennis Hopper (“Easy Rider”), adopted that grittier tone as well. Unfortunately, the glamor of Hollywood came roaring back with a vengeance after the Regan ’80s, and now such grittiness is more the purview of lower budgeted independent films. For example; when George Clooney’s Kelvin gets feverish in the 2002 version of “Solaris”? Even his sweat looks attractive; not to mention his perfectly powdered bare ass.

Kris Kelvin’s quarters when he first arrives at the station: Their pristine white interior won’t remain that way for long, and the padded walls (no doubt made with zero-gravity mishaps in mind) fittingly suggests a maximum security sanitarium.

The production design of Tarkovsky’s movie is both prodigious and minimalist. The curved corridors, launch bay and other Solaris station interior sets are generously appointed, and are on a par with some of Stanley Kubrick’s sets from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The quarters of the scientists aboard the station are seen in both pristine and decaying conditions, with padded white walls that almost suggest an asylum, which is in keeping with the crew’s deteriorating mental states. The run-down, grittier sections of the station foreshadow writer/director George Lucas’ “lived-in universe” look for the original 1977 “Star Wars.”

Hari and Kris confront Sartorius. Note how the station’s low orbit within the atmosphere of the planet allows for more natural-looking sunlight to appear through the ship’s portals, rather than the usual rear-projected stars. The random clutter and disarray of the station, even in less-used sections, also keeps it from ever looking too “Hollywood.”

The station’s orbit is conveniently within the atmosphere of the planet as well, allowing more natural sunlight and twilight through the rounded portals than rear-projected star fields. This also has the effect of making the entire film feel more earthbound and personal than a grander space epic like “Star Trek” or “2001: A Space Odyssey,” to which this film is often compared. I also appreciate how cinematographer Vadim Yusov’s camera sometimes goes deep into those portals; there is a shot as the newly arrived Kris stares out of a portal while the station is on the nightside of the planet. The camera slowly goes over Kris’ shoulder, gazing off into utter darkness, allowing us to “stare into the abyss” with Kris as well. Sadly, I can’t imagine too many mainstream science fiction movies with the patience (or courage) to attempt such deliberately hypnotic moments like that anymore.

The Six Million Ruble Man: “Flight com, I can’t hold her, she’s breaking up! She’s breaking up…”

Despite the money spent on the terrific sets, the space sequences are cleverly economical (and arguably more personal). The liftoff and rendezvous with the Solaris station is realized almost entirely as a tight shot of a helmeted Kris in his transport ship Prometheus’ cockpit (much like Lee Majors in the opening title sequence of TV’s “The Six Million Dollar Man”). The rendezvous sequence cuts to a brief in-camera lens effect which vaguely suggests a type of faster-than-light travel, and later we see the approaching space station itself (one of only two times we see its entire breadth in the film).

Absolution at the edge of the unknowable; one of the final images of 1972’s “Solaris.”

The ending of the film, much like the beginning, is much protracted from the source novel as well. The book’s firsthand account of Kris setting off to land on one of the newly-formed ‘mimoid’ islands on Solaris is now extended to show Kris landing on one of them…as it takes the form of his parent’s rural estate. While it looks exactly as it did when Kelvin left, there are some alien oddities to it as well, such as rain pouring inside of the house, while outside remains dry—this suggests an imperfect alien recreation of rain seen earlier, pouring on an outdoor patio picnic. Kris looks longingly into the window, and sees his father Nik, who is oblivious to the rain soaking his clothes. Their eyes meet, and the final moments see Kris dropping to his knees before his father, begging for absolution. The camera then slowly pulls back, ever higher above the house, until we see the Kelvin estate is on one of the newly formed Solarian mimoid islands. Kris has made the much-heralded “contact” with the alien intelligence of Solaris, but it’s of a form that gives him personal absolution as well—reconciliation with his estranged family.

Note: While this ending bookends well with the film’s extended prologue sequence on Earth, it’s loses some of the book’s ambiguity, making the Solaris ocean-intelligence more like Star Trek’s paradisal nexus realm (see: 1994’s “Star Trek: Generations”).

The ocean world of “Solaris” is realized photochemically, with various mixtures of acids and smoke ran though color filtering.

A final warning to the uninitiated: The pacing of 1972’s “Solaris” is deliberately and methodically glacial, and this may be a nonstarter for people craving a more action-packed science fiction adventure. “Solaris” isn’t that kind of movie, nor does it try it be; this is a film that loses itself in its thoughts and imagery just as its characters get lost within their own imaginations. As a kid, the pacing of this movie would’ve been intolerable, but in my own middle-age, the film really speaks to me as it never did. When we’re past the adrenaline rush of our 20s and 30s, some of us tend to look back upon our lives with a near-equal measure of longing and regret that seems irreconcilable. That middle-age melancholy is perfectly captured in the persona of Kris Kelvin, who is beautifully acted by Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis (1924-2014). Kris feels much more authentic to me now. 1972’s “Solaris” is less about mankind’s folly in understanding extraterrestrial intelligence as it is about the folly of a lifetime spent in regret over an immutable past.

Steven Soderbergh’s version (2002).

The 2002 version clearly has more cash than its Soviet-era predecessor, but it doesn’t always flaunt it; except for this docking sequence, of course…

In 2002, producer James “King of the World” Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment production company decided to remake the Soviet-era sci-fi classic, and tapped writer/director Steven Soderbergh (“sex, lies and videotape”) to adapt & direct. As one might assume, the American production took some advantage with 30 years of advancement in motion picture technology, but not as much as you’d imagine. The movie also also clocks in at a surprisingly lean hour and 40 minutes, in keeping with the brevity of Lem’s novel.

The new Solaris planet looks less like an ocean and more like an organic brain; another possibility raised in the novel.

Note: The early 2000s CGI has dated well enough, though the planet Solaris’ appearance looks a bit less photo ‘real’ than its organically created predecessor (which actually resembled a murky, thick ocean). New Solaris looks more like an x-ray of fluorescent blue brain tissue. Either way, it works well enough for this story. Once again, this is not a movie about space travel and special effects; those are merely means to the story’s end.

Like it’s Russian predecessor, there is an Earth-based prologue as well, but it’s a lot shorter; and any background into Kelvin’s family is eliminated in favor of showing the professional side of this more urbane psychologist; we see a somewhat depressed Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) going through the motions of his practice, with a self-absorbed group therapy session and a rescheduling of appointments. He retains the novel and 1972 versions’ melancholy, but he’s still going through the motions of a life, following Rheya’s suicide several years earlier.

Chris Kelvin is about to be Star Trekked.

In this version, Chris has just cut his thumb in the kitchen when he is interrupted by the arrival of several ‘company men’ who want him to go to their Solaris space station. Instead of the suicide tape of the previous version, Chris is given a tape of his depressed colleague/friend, Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) who quietly pleads for his friend to come to Solaris, though he is a bit cagey with the details. For his friend’s cryptic sake, Chris agrees to go (“Is that what everyone wants?”).

Clooney’s Chris Kelvin arrives at Solaris, which looks a bit more shipshape than its more rundown Soviet predecessor.

Once arriving at Solaris, Chris finds two body bags in the station’s cryogenic computer core, now doubling as a morgue. One of the bodies is Gibarian, the other is a station crew member who took on security forces and was killed. Chris also fails to notice blood coming from the ceiling (foreshadowing). Chris also sees a young boy, Gibarian’s son, running unattended through the corridors. This leaner, efficient version of “Solaris” is setting up a few mysteries of its own for later, as we learn.

Note: We saw Gibarian’s young daughter in the 1972 film. Apples & oranges; a change for change’s sake.

The new Dr. Snow (Jeremy Davies) is more a collection of ticks and attitudes.

We meet the new Dr. Snow (Jeremy Davies) and he’s certainly very different from his middle-aged predecessor; looking like a twenty-something cross between Henry Thomas and Charles Manson. In fact, his performance seems based on the late cult leader Charles Manson, almost to the point of an elaborate affectation. It’s definitely a bold choice, and Davies is certainly interesting to watch onscreen, but it also feels a bit too modulated—like a carefully measured collection of ticks. It’s not an organic performance. You shouldn’t see an actor’s wheels turn so much when they’re in a moment.

Meet the new crew: Snow (Jeremy Davies), Rheya (Natascha McElhone), Chris (George Clooney) and Gordon (Viola Davis).

That said, Snow does hold this version’s biggest wildcard. Unlike previous versions, this version of Snow is a ‘visitor’ doppelgänger who encountered his real self shortly after appearing on the station—and promptly killed him (in self-defense). This new twist has no real bearing on the story’s final outcome, but it’s a welcome surprise, nevertheless. Besides the aforementioned bloody ceiling in the computer core (where visitor-Snow hid the original’s body), he also drops careful hints about his identity along the way. When asked by a frustrated Chris about his own “visitor,” visitor-Snow carefully answers, “My brother.” Quite true, in a sense…

Viola Davis’ Gordon is the movie’s most compelling performance. She is insanely talented, and sadly underused.

Faring much better (without need of any plot twists) is the character of Gordon (Viola Davis) is a far more compelling than the rather dry Sartorius of the Russian film. Davis gives her character of Gordon a palpable fear and hatred of these ‘visitors’; she needs to get rid of them, because she feels genuinely threatened by them. The prior version’s Dr. Sartorius no doubt felt the same way, but we never felt the dread from him that we do with Gordon. Interestingly, we never see her visitor at all (unlike Sartorius’ dwarf), but we can assume hers was more violent, as it bangs more violently on the walls of her quarters—perhaps an abusive ex-lover? Or parent? We never know, but ideas swirl in our head…

Gone Girl: Is it murder to wipe out a bunch of pretty neutrinos?

Viola Davis (“The Help”) is one of those performers who can move you to tears or make you tremble with fear just with a look—or she can pin you to a wall. When Chris refuses to allow the suicidal Rheya to submit to Gordon’s anti-Higgs field device, Gordon reminds Chris that he jettisoned the first Rheya into space aboard one of the station’s return capsules; yes, it’s a moment from both the novel and the previous film, but here, the scene crackles with tension. Gordon almost physically wounds Kelvin with her words in a way the less weighty character of Sartorius never could. For the 2002 version of “Solaris”, Viola Davis’ Gordon is a highlight. I wish writer/director Soderbergh could’ve given her a few more moments.

Chris meets Rheya, version 2.0.

The object of Chris’ angst, his late wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), is a bit more womanly in the 2002 version than Lem and Tarkovsky’s 20-year old girl. While her suicidal tendencies remain the same, we see a lot more of her dysfunctional relationship with Kelvin on Earth than we did in the Tarkovsky film. By slicing away the arguably unnecessary subplot of Kelvin’s relationship with his rural dad and his longing for country life, the 2002 film gives the relationship between Kelvin and Rheya a much sharper focus. Among the many revelations, we see the night they met at a party. Gibarian warns his friend Chris “she’s a bit tricky…” but Chris makes his move anyway, seducing her with the glum poetry of Dylan Thomas (“And Death Shall Have No Dominion”… cheery).

A poem from the day they met: Dylan Thomas’ “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” also serves as real-Rheya’s suicide note.

Note: Chris notices Rheya earlier that day, before the party, on a commuter train with a doorknob in her hand. That minor mystery is thankfully never solved, and I’m glad; I prefer imagining why she held a doorknob in her hand, rather than hear some disappointingly mundane reason. Maybe Rhea angrily pulled it off an ex-lover’s door, or maybe she just likes doorknobs. Who knows? Leave it a mystery…

Rheya dodges Chris’ repeated (smothering) proposals.

Chris and Rheya’s relationship is fraught with danger. Rheya grew up with an admittedly ‘certifiable’ mother (replacing Kelvin’s own near-Oedipal relationship in the previous version), and it’s also revealed that she is fearful of having children; so much so that she has an abortion. That choice was the final nail in their marriage’s coffin, and it pushed her to commit suicide right after an enraged, irrational Chris left her. Chris returned to find her with the poem from the day they met, crumbled in her hand—her version of a suicide note.

Note: There’s a minor detail I found very interesting; when Chris gives ersatz-Rheya a pill to help her sleep (knowing that it was an overdose which killed the original Rheya) we see the doppelgänger drink the water first and swallow the pill afterward… almost like she knows the gestures of how to act human, but not the exact sequence. An almost invisible acting choice.

As in all versions of the story, Rheya’s second doppelgänger drinks all O with no H2.

Seeing Rheya and Chris in flashbacks of their atrociously dysfunctional marriage makes her doppelgängers repeated suicide attempts understandable. The scene (in all versions) where Rheya kills herself (again) by ingesting liquid oxygen, only to be ‘resurrected’ shortly afterward is punctuated when she awakens, looks into Chris’ eyes, and mutters sadly, “Oh no…” It’s a little detail that tells us everything about their toxic marriage; she loves him, but she prefers death over being with him.

Note: Another interesting performance detail from McElhone was how her body moved during the resurrection; it looks as if the scene might’ve been filmed in reverse, giving her body spasms more of an unnatural, slightly alien vibe. Just one of those little bits that are more obvious on a 7 ft. screen.

The enigmatic visitor-Gibarian leaves Chris in the dark.

The movie also restores an interesting moment from the book as a sleeping Kelvin is awakened by a shadowy, visitor-version of his late friend Gibarian, who insists on leaving the lights off, as if turning them on might break the fragile reality of his appearance. Chris asks him why he killed himself; the doppelgänger replies, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” When pushed about leaving his “son” behind on the station, visitor-Gibarian smartly counters that the boy isn’t really Gibarian’s son; the child is actually at home, on Earth. Visitor-Gibarian also tells Chris to simply accept the doppelgänger of Rheya for who she is… to accept her love, no matter its origins. This scene is the closest Kelvin ever gets to a direct interrogation of the planet’s consciousness, and it arguably informs his own choice at the end of the story.

Note: While we had Gibarian’s suicide videotape in the 1972 version, it doesn’t quite have the same dramatic meat as the re-included visitor-Gibarian’s late night chat with the feverish Chris. There’s an otherworldliness to Gibarian’s composure (and Ulrich Tukur’s understated performance) that suggests he is more attuned to the planet’s consciousness than he is letting on.

Rheya decides to end her life (once again), but not before posting a final TikTok video…

Chris awakens from his fevered slumber (the fever remains in this version as well) to see what appears to be Rheya talking to someone about him (presumably Gordon). He fully awakens to learn, from Gordon, that Rheya begged the physicist to use her Higgs field device on her; to end her miserable, dead-end existence. As a final affirmation of her decision, Rheya leaves Chris a suicide video (like Gibarian’s video in the 1972 movie), rather than the note she leaves in the other versions. Gordon gives into Rheya’s wishes (and her own) and vaporizes the copy with “a quick flash of light”

Note: The “flash of light” line of Gordon’s is another from Lem’s book that survives into each adaptation, as does the often-quoted “We don’t want alien worlds, we can’t use them… we want mirrors.” The latter is spoken by both Snaut in the 1972 film and Gibarian in the 2002 version.

Despite the dire circumstances, there’s always time for one last game of “pull my finger.”

A ticking clock is added to the ending of this version as well. Shortly after visitor-Snow’s cover is blown, and after Gordon volunteers to end Rheya’s tortured existence with her anti-Higgs field device, a surrendered Snow tells Chris and Gordon that the planet is exponentially gaining mass, causing the station to be pulled inward from its orbit. Snow agrees to stay with the station (since he can’t return to Earth anyway), but Gordon decides to haul ass for Earth, breaking free of the visitors’ influence once and for all. Chris seems to want to join her, but at the last moment, he decides to remain behind as well… in the slimmest hope of reconnecting with Rheya, even if she’s just a facsimile of the woman he loved, his feelings for her were real enough. As the station strains under the planet’s increasing gravitational pull, Chris once again encounters the visitor version of Gibarian’s young son, who extends a hand to the collapsed psychologist, almost like a guardian angel. He takes the visitor boy’s hand as the station violently spirals in…

Note: During the station’s descent, we also see a shot of Snow, looking up towards a bright light in his quarters, as a smile comes across his face; does the ‘visitor’ experience a dawning awareness that he’s going ‘home’ as well?

As much as I enjoy cooking, I’d hate to think that the afterlife involves ceaselessly chopping vegetables…

The ending sees Chris where he was moments before the company men first arrived at his home; in his kitchen, chopping cucumbers, as he once again slices his thumb. Washing it under the sink, both the cut and the blood rapidly disappear. He then hears Rheya’s voice in the apartment as well. Looking at her with tears in his eyes, Chris wonders aloud if he’s alive or dead. Rheya assures him that none of that matters anymore…they’re together now, and more importantly, all is forgiven. Everything.

They kiss. The End.

Producer James Cameron has used 2002 Solaris’ mega-happy afterlife ending once before…

Note: The finale of both the 1972 and 2002 versions of “Solaris” see Kelvin receiving a kind of cosmic absolution; implying that the planet Solaris is some sort of agnostic heaven, where we can live in our best life as the best version of ourselves forever. Lem’s book ended on the promise of alien contact, but that goal is far less important in the 2002 movie, which shifts the focus to the troubled lovers reuniting in a consequence-free afterlife; essentially it’s the same ending as producer James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997), which saw the post-mortem Rose & Jack reunited on the pristine ghostly decks of the ship where they first met. Hey, if you’re going to borrow? Borrow from the movie that made over a billion dollars. Sadly, “Solaris” didn’t make anywhere near Titanic’s money.


Music is used very differently in each as well; the 1972 film’s composer Eduard Artemyev uses bizarre tonalities rather than a full score, with heavy use of the funereal-sounding “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesus Christ”  by Johann Sebastian Bach. The 2002 version’s composer Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Contagion”) offers a more lively and experimental score, adding distant steel drums and other instrumentation to give the melancholy a much-needed tempo.

George Clooney is not the man they think he is at home. Oh no, no, no… he’s a rocketman.

Ultimately, the two theatrical versions of “Solaris” tell the same story as Lem’s book, but with very different window dressing. The Tarkovsky version is more padded, yet omits certain bits from the far shorter novel. The Soderbergh version trims some of the excesses from Tarkovsky’s epic (no one really cares how Kelvin got along with his old man, to be honest; the central story is between Kelvin and his wife). Each film is expertly crafted, though the Russian version is more raw and less glammed up than its American cousin. Both have their merits and flaws. Both are also faithful to their source material, albeit in very different ways. That Stanislaw Lem’s original novel can be so radically reinterpreted speaks to the flexibility of the late Polish author’s profound imagination. Try them both if you can.

COVID-Safe Viewing.

Both versions of “Solaris” (1972/2002) can be rented for streaming on Amazon Prime video ($2.99-$3.99, US) and purchased on Blu-Ray/DVD from as well (prices vary). The 1972 Russian version is also available for streaming on HBOMax (for now). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 488,000  as of this writing.  Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began, but it will take months for mass distribution throughout the population.  Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (can may be vaccinated and unwittingly carry or spread coronavirus).  So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.  Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.

Take care and be safe!

Images: Criterion Collection/Janus Films, 20th Century Fox.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Understanding how 1972’s Solaris remarkably rivalled 2001: A Space Odyssey enhanced my ability to view it for the first time (after the 2002 remake), which was in the last decade on Turner Classic Movies. In the 70s, science-fiction films began to feel much more atmospheric. This allowed their human characters to occasionally get by without stereotypical beauty. Solaris is about real people in a science-fictionally extraordinary event and as a foreign-language film, it stands alone in ways that most Hollywood science-fiction films inevitably cannot. Thank you for your review.

    1. Thank you for reading and appreciating it!

      1. scifimike70 says:

        You’re welcome.

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