Solaristics: the Evolving Study of Solaris



Solaristics, the multi-disciplinary study of Solaris, had its genesis in Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, Solaris, and has continued to evolve over the past five decades. Lem’s novel quickly became the most widely translated piece of science fiction not originally written in English, and subsequently engendered two important films: the first by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, the most recent by American director Steven Soderbergh in 2002.

That Soderbergh’s film was released the year following that in which Stanley Kubrick set his landmark science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, seems more than coincidental. The first adaptation of Lem’s novel was, more than anything else, a response to Kubrick’s masterpiece; however, financial constraints imposed by the Soviet reality of 1972 forced Tarkovsky to make use of what he had at hand, thus no spectacular special effects, the category in which 2001 had so recently received an Academy Award. Soderbergh’s film differs from Tarkovsky’s in that he obviously studied what makes 2001 work as great science fiction; plus he had a huge budget courtesy of Titanic producer James Cameron. Soderbergh uses both his awareness of Kubrick’s strengths and his sizeable budget to create a film that is as realistic—and just as psychologically horrifying—as the best of its genre. Soderbergh’s Solaris is The Outer Limits for the 21st Century.

In spite of that huge budget, however, Soderbergh understands that good science fiction must be pared down to its essentials to make it work; excess baggage only encumbers the universe in which the story must become real. It is here that Soderbergh succeeds where Tarkovsky — and even Lem — fail to create truly magnificent science fiction.

The strange world of Solaris

Lem’s novel begins with Kris Kelvin’s launch aboard the Prometheus capsule, bound for the planet Solaris, a world discovered in some unnamed galaxy 100 years before Kelvin was born into some unspecified future. Solaris is a planet that “orbits two suns: a red sun and a blue sun” (Lem 15), a fact ignored by both of its filmmakers, a world that has withstood scientific attempts at understanding, and which has recently begun to affect the small crew stationed in low orbit around the planet’s own unstable orbit. It is this unstable orbit that attracts the attention of Earth scientists and leads them through various hypotheses in order to explain the seemingly conscious actions of the planet that maintain this unstable orbit around its suns. Physicists postulated a “plasmic mechanism,” the “product of a dialectical development” that “had reached in a single bound the stage of ‘homeostatic ocean,’ without passing through all the stages of terrestrial evolution” (18). When scientific probes were later sent to the planet, the “ocean itself took an active part in these operations by remodelling the instruments” (21). In short, the planet reacted to all scientific attempts at understanding, and did so in a manner consistent with consciousness, though consciousness of a form alien to our own.

Possibly the most interesting facet of Lem’s original novel is his description of the mimoids and symmetriads that are constantly forming on the oceanic surface of Solaris. Mimoids are copies of whatever happens to be passing overhead, be it cloud or manmade machinery, produced in the plasmic tegument that makes up the ocean. These reproductions are of gigantic proportions–“the smallest ‘copy’ is the size of a mountain” (115)–and do not seem to concern themselves with precise reproductive detail, especially when confronted with objects of human origin. In those cases, the ocean seems to be satisfied with a mere caricature of the object.

Symmetriads, on the other hand, are crystalline formations of oceanic goo. Kelvin notes that “The symmetriads [. . .] are the least ‘human’ formations, which is to say that they bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything on Earth” (116). Kelvin goes on to state that “It is not their nightmare appearance that makes the gigantic symmetriad formations dangerous, but the total instability and capriciousness of their structure, in which even the laws of physics do not hold” (117). This is noteworthy because Lem’s own kafkaesque brand of science fiction is often just as completely unmindful of any known laws of physics, thus putting his reader in no small degree of danger.

But it is only after this lengthy treatise on the state of Solaristics that we come to understand just how Solaris works, as well as how the planet creates the Visitors, those seemingly human copies drawn from each character’s own subconscious. For example, we first understand that Rheya, Kelvin’s dead wife, is a product of his own memory when she says to him, “I’m behaving like an idiot, aren’t I? But so are you . . . you look idiotic, all stiff and pompous like . . . like Pelvis,” a man whom Kelvin did not meet until three years after Rheya’s death. Naturally, especially for a Solarist trained in psychology, Kelvin is concerned for his sanity, but when he sends Rheya into space aboard one of the station’s shuttles he states: “I felt I was justified in thinking that I had defeated the ‘simulacra,’ and that behind the illusion, contrary to all expectation, I had found the real Rheya again — the Rheya of my memories, whom the hypothesis of madness would have destroyed” (65).

It is here that we are first confronted with the concept that memory is somehow more real than perception, even the perception of other human beings. Rheya takes this understanding to another level when she later tells Kelvin that she is “not a human being, only an instrument. [. . .] To study your reactions — something of that sort. Each one of you has a . . . an instrument like me. We emerge from your memory or your imagination, I can’t say exactly — anyway you know better than I” (143). Thus the Visitors are analogous to other human beings, whom we can know only as memories of previous perception. Of course “you know better than I,” for ultimately we can know only ourselves, that is, our own memories. This is later confirmed by the cyberneticist, Snow, who tells Kelvin that Rheya “is a mirror that reflects a part of your mind. If she is beautiful, it’s because your memories are. You provide the formula. You can only finish where you started, don’t forget that” (154).

This brings up the problem of Solaris’ role in these human-analog Visitors, these manifestations of memory. Snow again:

Listen, Kelvin, perhaps it wishes well . . . perhaps it wants to please us but doesn’t quite know how to set about the job. It spies out desires in our brains, and only two per cent of mental processes are conscious. That means it knows us better than we know ourselves. We’ve got to reach an understanding with it. (183)

And so, Kelvin — a cool character whose namesake devised the scale that includes absolute zero, the point at which all matter freezes, all molecular motion ceases — is confronted with the dilemma that faces every one of us. He says, “I tried not to look at Rheya, but my eyes were drawn to hers in spite of myself. I wanted to get up, take her in my arms and stroke her hair. I did not move” (185). It seems that even the coolest of us is afraid to touch those memories of ourselves that we hold most dear to our hearts.

The stranger world of Tarkovsky

When Tarkovsky endeavors to recreate Solaris in film, his own memories seem to have overcome his ability to faithfully portray Lem’s story. From the beginning we are placed in a world of religious symbolism completely foreign to Lem’s science fiction. We first meet Kris Kelvin in an Edenic setting, verdant and lush and captured with beautiful cinematography. Kelvin washes his hands, then stands in a sudden rainstorm staring vacantly at a half-eaten apple. His father says, “I don’t like innovation,” and, over the next two hours and forty-nine minutes, it becomes clear that Tarkovsky doesn’t either. Rather than adapting Solaris to the screen, Tarkovsky adapts theology to Solaris.

His plot is simple enough — boy meets girl; boy sends girl away in a rocketship; girl comes back anyway; boy shags girl; boy makes amends with the universe — but from there Tarkovsky loads it up with a great deal of baggage, baggage that, if nothing else, takes a great deal of time to view. Really, Tarkovsky’s Solaris wouldn’t lose a thing if it were an hour shorter. Case in point, at 43:06 — nearly an hour into the movie — Kelvin launches for Solaris. This is page one in Lem’s novel. Kelvin’s launch is immediately followed by an incredibly lame attempt at Kubrickian special effects, but, fortunately for the viewer, Kelvin is on the station in just two minutes and twenty-seven seconds, a mere nanosecond in Tarkovsky-time.

After a couple of hours languishing in the plot summarized above, Tarkovsky’s crew sends a radiation encephalogram, and Solaris answers Kelvin’s broadcast by spontaneously generating previously unseen islands on its surface. We are left watching Kelvin, who appears to have returned to Earth, where everything is as he left it — only now it’s raining inside his father’s house — finally making amends with his father, but the camera pulls back through cloud to reveal that it’s really but an island on Solaris. Thus Kelvin sitteth on the right hand of the Father for the rest of eternity.

Compare this to Lem’s ending, in which Kelvin descends to the surface of Solaris having just determined that finis vitae sed non amoris “is a lie, useless and not even funny”:

Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched [products of Kelvin’s memory], in the air that she had breathed? In the name of what? In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained. I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past. (204)

Where Lem leaves his antihero in nihilistic despair, Tarkovsky leaves his hero in theological bliss. Not that that’s bad; it just isn’t what Solaris is about.

The reality of Solaris

Precisely where Tarkovsky fails in adapting Solaris to the screen, Steven Soderbergh succeeds. He eliminates much of the baggage in Lem’s original novel, such as Kelvin getting burned in rocket blast from Rheya’s departure, and completely ignores the theological baggage that encumbers Tarkovsky’s film. Instead, Soderbergh simplifies the story, pares it down to its essence, heightening the tension and leaving the viewer with a far better understanding of its theme.

Soderbergh’s Kelvin begins the film on Earth, just as Tarkovsky’s does, but Soderbergh’s Earth is one of urban insanity, hence more plausible than Tarkovsky’s Eden. For instance, when it rains on Soderbergh’s character it symbolizes the character’s inner state, not his cosmological situation as in Tarkovsky’s film.

Soderbergh then places Kelvin on a space station where the AI has been taken offline to prevent any HAL-like mischief. To the 21st Century viewer who has seen innumerable images from orbiting spacecraft, Soderbergh’s space station is completely believable. Where Tarkovsky is saddled with having to rely on very fake large-scale modeling, Soderbergh’s environment utilizes digital realism. But that is not why it works. It works because Soderbergh uses special effects solely for creating the setting, not for advancing the plot.

Another area in which Soderbergh trims baggage is in his treatment of Solaristics itself, which is to say he ignores the science entirely. Where Lem and Tarkovsky’s Kelvins are both Solarists — psychologists who specialize in the study of Solaris — Soderbergh’s Kelvin is thrown into the problem with only the experience of some unexplained catastrophe on his resumé. We do, however, get some exposition at a dinner party in which Rheya is beaten down asserting her belief in God, a “higher intelligence,” as she puts it. Kelvin, played marvelously by George Clooney in his best role to date, is emphatic in stating that human beings are nothing more than a product of probability:

GIBARIAN. A nihilistic shrink. Is there a school?

KELVIN. Not yet.

And there won’t be one either, for as Lem’s Kelvin moves toward nihilism, Soderbergh’s moves away from it, and toward a humanistic revelation of love.

Trimming theological baggage does not mean Soderbergh’s characters are not well rounded however. This can be seen in the two directors’ treatments of Rheya/Hari as Kelvin launches her into space. Where Tarkovsky’s first Hari gets into the rocket with trepidation, Soderbergh’s first Rheya is innocent and trusting, stunningly portrayed by Natascha McElhone, rendering it all the more horrible to watch as we see (but cannot hear) her calling to Chris as her ship leaves the station. This is based on the fact that Soderbergh’s first Rheya comes after Kelvin’s memory of their first meeting, their falling in love, their innocence. When she returns, however, she is smarter yet bewildered and less trusting. This second Rheya is the product of Kelvin’s memory of the difficulties they faced in marriage; furthermore, she is aware of her own memories of unhappiness, even dislike of Kelvin and his friends. In the end, Rheya doesn’t actually remember anything; she is memory itself, yet she has memories of someone else’s life, saying, “I’m not the person I remember.” Kelvin sent the first, innocent Rheya away, just as we all do when we discover more and more about another person. As Soderbergh’s scientific foil for Kelvin notes, “We are in a situation that is beyond morality.” Aren’t we all?

Reality is just a point of view

Point of view is another element in which all three artists take wildly disparate paths, some of which succeed. In the original novel, Lem uses a first person POV, relating the story entirely through the eyes of Kris Kelvin. This is as it should be. It’s Kelvin’s story, made up completely of his own memories. Any other POV would be inappropriate, but how does one translate this extremely intimate POV to the screen? As it turns out, this is the biggest problem with Tarkovsky’s adaptation: he uses the wrong POV. By taking the detached POV, which is no point of view whatsoever, that is, simply a camera-eye view of the action, Tarkovsky’s camera records, but adds nothing to the story.

Soderbergh, on the other hand, takes the story to another level by using Solaris itself as the 3rd person omniscient narrator. As Solaris is the god of that part of the universe in which the story is set, this brilliant use of POV gives the viewer a truly god-like perspective. Soderbergh then utilizes focus to allow his viewer to feel Kelvin’s confusion; Rheya is constantly moving in and out of focus, often in extreme close-up, as Kelvin’s memories of her are first triggered, then clarified. By way of contrast, Tarkovsky’s use of black and white is meaningless outside of some film-school symbolism that most of us could not care less about. Science fiction films work when their directors realize that the camera is a higher intelligence, be it machine (2001) or God (Solaris). Soderbergh’s is the most God-like POV to date. It’s downright scary.


All three artists rely heavily on allusions to art, their own media as well as others. Lem is a surrealist with a kafkaesque disregard for physics, whose character early on thinks “I must be dreaming. All this could only be a dream!” (10), and ascertains near the end of the book:

I am the prisoner of an alien matter and my body is clothed in a dead, formless substance — or rather I have no body, I am that alien matter. Nebulous pale pink globules surround me, suspended in a medium more opaque than air, for objects only become clear at very close range, although when they do approach they are abnormally distinct, and their presence comes home to me with a preternatural vividness. The conviction of its substantial, tangible reality is now so overwhelming that later, when I wake up, I have the impression that I have just left a state of true perception, and everything I see after opening my eyes seems hazy and unreal. (179)

From this it is not difficult to see where Soderbergh got his ideas for extreme close-ups that move from indistinct blurs into sharp focus.

Both Lem and Tarkovsky allude to Cervantes; Lem’s Kelvin compares Gibarian’s face to that of Don Quixote’s, while Tarkovsky leans on Sancho Panza to inform us that “sleep is the great equalizer of men.” Neither allusion adds much to the story, however.

What is more interesting is Tarkovsky’s use of Breughel paintings to depict the ideal life, a life that can only take place among common people on Earth. The paintings are in the space station’s library, an incongruously luxurious setting of leather armchairs and chandeliers. Several of Kelvin’s childhood memories are themselves quite Breughelian. Tarkovsky said the youthfulness of his film required that it be grounded in classical art and music. It must be said that he achieves this goal very well.

Soderbergh, though, alludes to one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry in the English canon: “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by Dylan Thomas. By interweaving this poem throughout the script, Soderbergh weaves us into a tapestry of his theme. At the same time, he raises our tension to incredible heights as we anticipate the inevitable.

Mythology and philosophy

Lem spends a great deal of time explaining Solaristics, the science of studying Solaris, which seems to anticipate the Gaia Hypothesis and our own Deep Ecology here on Earth. In his further research, Kelvin realizes that:

The recruitment of scientists to any particular field of study in a given age has never been studied as a phenomenon in its own right. Every generation throws up a fairly constant number of brilliant and determined men; the only difference lies in the direction they choose to take. (167)

Kelvin researches further, reading in Muntius’s Introduction to Solaristics that “Solaristics is the space era’s equivalent to religion: faith disguised as science” (172), that “Solaristics is a revival of long-vanished myths, the expression of mystical nostalgias which men are unwilling to confess openly” (173).

This is opposed to the Babylonian, social evolution analogy of Solaris that had been previously postulated in trying to explain the symmetriads, which had “been described as a symphony in geometry, but we lack the ears to hear it” (120). Thus science had come full circle, back to its mythological roots. Kelvin asks of Snow, “do you happen to know if there was ever a belief in an . . . imperfect god?” When Snow tries a historical analysis of the question, Kelvin interrupts, saying:

I’m not thinking of a god whose imperfection arises out of the candor of his human creators, but one whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. (197)

Obviously, Kelvin is arriving right back where we started, in Greek mythology. Just before going down to the surface of Solaris he tells Snow that an imperfect god “is the only god I could imagine believing in, a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfils no purpose — a god who simply is” (199). In short, Kelvin is finally and irretrievably stepping off of his humanistic universe and into a nihilistic one. On the way down to the surface he falls and finds he has “forgiven it everything, without the slightest effort of word or thought” (204).

Tarkovsky, too, utilizes mythology to a great extent, but focuses more of his attention on theology (as if that were not just another branch of mythology). In the climactic scene of Kelvin’s revelation, we see a double exposure of Kelvin’s face and back of head — Janus, the Roman god of doorways, beginnings and endings. At the same time, he and Hari — Russian for Rheya — are very much like Adam and Eve; she appears while he sleeps, knowing only what he knows, and of course, there was that apple in the very beginning of the film, nearly three hours ago at this point. But for Tarkovsky, Kris (Chris) Kelvin is a Christ figure who must redeem Solaris in order to appease his Father. He states that “Solaristics is degenerating.” His revelation occurs while a cyberneticist, Snaut, and the angelic Hari are walking the feverish Kelvin into a blinding light while he discourses on the meaning of life, that love is something we can experience but not explain, that “Maybe we’re here to experience people as a reason to love.” He concludes that, not knowing the day of our own death makes us “practically immortal.”

Soderbergh’s philosophy is much more vital, however. Instead of letting Kelvin research or reveal, he allows Rheya — a product of Kelvin’s own memory, remember — to speak for him, saying, “It created me, and yet I can’t communicate with it. It must hear me though; it must know what’s happening to me. And you and I, we would have to have some kind of arrangement, some kind of unspoken understanding that I’m not really a human being.”

Thus it is forever true: we are each relating to our thoughts of one another, not one another per se. Because of this we need not forgive the imperfect god who created us but must instead forgive one another, which is to say, ourselves. Thus when Soderbergh’s Kelvin goes down with the ship, calling out for his beloved Rheya, he encounters her in eternity (after a touching scene with Gibarian’s son, Michael, the Angel of Death). As he recalls his life on Earth, Kelvin says: “I was haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong. Somehow I was wrong about everything.” He turns around and looks back, then begins his new reality, starting with Rheya’s picture on the refrigerator, where it had never been before.

KELVIN. Am I alive or dead?

RHEYA. We don’t have to think like that anymore. Everything is forgiven.

And with a hug, Soderbergh’s Kelvin completes his journey from nihilism to humanism.


Stanislaw Lem wrote a universally adaptable tale that Tarkovsky and Soderbergh use to portray their own themes. Each of these artists has a point to make, and utilizes the malleability of Lem’s setting in order to make that point. Lem uses Solaris to show the fallibility of science, the power of myth. Tarkovsky takes an already complicated story and adds theological baggage, undoubtedly a proportional response to religious oppression in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. He does let his cyberneticist, Snaut, make a grand statement, however: “Don’t turn science into a common love story.” That is precisely what Soderbergh does, which is what makes the most recent adaptation work where its predecessor did not.

Soderbergh simplifies Solaris to its essential features: a finite universe populated by a small set of characters who continually spur the protagonist on toward his denouement, which we observe through the POV of a god. Both films are beautifully shot, but Soderbergh’s is beautiful science fiction. Tarkovsky fails whenever he reaches for science fiction because he does not understand the genre, succeeding only on Earth and his Earth-like Solaris at the end of the film. Thus, in studying the evolution of Solaristics, we return to precisely where we started, to Stanislaw Lem telling us that every generation throws up its own number of brilliant and determined men. The only difference lies in the direction they choose to take.

Works Cited

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. New York: Walker, 1970.

Soderbergh, Steven. Solaris. 20th Century Fox, 2002.

Tarkovsky, Andrei. Solaris. Mosfilm Studios, 1972.

Categories: Reviews

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