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"There are no answers, only choices": Solaris (2002) Film Analysis

Updated on December 6, 2012

***Caution: There are spoilers contained in this analysis!***

20th Century Fox had a rarely-seen answer to a risky choice. Unfortunately, director Steven Soderbergh's 2002 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's novel 'Solaris' has always lived in the shadow of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 original and the science fiction film genre itself. At nearly three hours in length, Tarkovsky's version running time has always been felt nearly as much as it's beautiful images conveyed on-screen. Despite only a ninety-nine minute length, Soderbergh's film maintained similar themes of existentialism, love, memory and perception. To release a dramatic science-fiction film void of action sequences in the same year as 'Resident Evil', 'Equilibrium', '28 Days Later' and 'Minority Report', there was reason to predict mixed reviews and low box-office receipts. However, ten years later removed with more emotional science-fiction films seeing popularity (see: 'Moon', 'Children of Men', 'District 9', 'Love'), 'Solaris' was clearly a bit early to the party.

In the opening sequence, we are shown psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), center frame, facing away from the camera in various shots of him alone and leading a group therapy session (shown above). Film reviewer John Kenneth Muir asks "What's being denied us in [these images]?" and it is easy to deduce why his question is raised. However, tweaking his inquisitiveness slightly, one should ask: what are we, in fact, being shown? Muir's answer lies in theological understanding - Chris' nihilism makes him a "prisoner" from the outside world. But these scenes also show his inability, or refusal, to face this perception of life. Rhyea committed suicide, Chris perceives and shoulders responsibility for her death, and nothing can be undone. For Chris, Rhyea's life, like creation itself, began from nothing and ends with nothing. There is no 'God', there is no heaven, and death is a mere part of existence. But, why then is his existence filled with affliction? It is only after viewing Gibarian's message (a message from 'God'?) that Chris faces the camera, ready to face his fear of losing grip on his belief and perception of reality. Like the film's tagline, the message did not contain an answer, but a choice - Chris reluctantly chooses to accept the mission of traveling to Solaris.

Upon arrival at Solaris, Chris interacts with crew members Gordon (Viola Davis) and Snow (Jeremy Davies). The uneasy situation aboard Solaris reflects Chris' altering state of mind - all is not as it should be. "I could tell you what's happening, but it wouldn't really be telling you what's happening," explains Snow, echoing the individualistic nature of perception. Chris' view and understanding of the world can only come from within. However, as he finds, perception's self-creation is also the poison to memory. The arrival of facsimile Rhyea, his deceased wife come to life, brings a profound alteration to Chris. This moment serves as the angel and the devil on his shoulder: a second chance at the relationship (angel) or a nightmare continuation of the past (devil). Is it coincidental that the devil side triumphs first via Chris placing the first facsimile Rhyea into a shuttle pod and sending her away from Solaris?

In the end, Chris comes to grips with the existence of facsimile Rhyea, but she herself cannot. Remember, her views and understanding of the world can only come from within, identical to Chris', so depersonalization sets in. Look at facsimile Rhyea's body language in shots and how it mimics Chris' in the beginning of the film (examples: as she looks outside the ship's window, as she waits for Chris to return to his quarters, etc). She, too, is a "prisoner"...born into bondage. So if they are both prisoners in the same reality, what prison are they in?

Christian Suave makes an interesting observation that prison representation is purgatory, the biblical place between Heaven and Hell where souls wander aimlessly for eternity. As Chris is getting ready to climb aboard the escape pod with Gordon, he has yet another profound realization. His life on Earth is essentially purgatory too...returning there would only mean being locked away in his "prison". He wouldn't otherwise be truly "escaping" from his structured belief system - the nihilistic inability to believe. That's why he makes the choice to stay onboard, to be free. Even Rhyea's calming response to his question about life and death is liberating: "We don't have to think like that anymore. Everything we've done is forgiven. Everything." And death shall have no dominion.

(c) 2012 rkummer

'Solaris' (2002) Film Trailer
'Solaris' (2002) Wikipedia


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