Movies: SOLARIS (2002) Explained

Steven Soderbergh’s SOLARIS (2002) is a challenging film. It doesn’t repeat its answers time and time again.  It allows you to make up your mind.  It mostly takes place in the characters’ heads.

Yes, it’s a pretentious art film.  It’s a gratuitously self-indulgent piece of cinema that’s not nearly as profound at it may think it is.  It’s under-plotted, bloated and would have made a better 30-minutes TWILIGHT ZONE episode than a feature film.

But wait!  It’s also a fine true Science Fiction movie. By putting very human characters in extreme situations caused by an unknown, but rational (?) entity, SOLARIS is able to study human emotions.  In an age where cinema-SF has become nearly synonymous with fancy special effects and overblown action sequences, that’s rare and maybe even important.

But there’s no denying that some hints may be required in order to appreciate the film jut a little bit more. If you can tolerate a few paragraphs of random rambling, keep on reading, because I’ll share my own take on the film, and maybe -hopefully!- help you along the way.

Oh, yes:  SPOILERS follow.  Do not read if you haven’t seen the film.

Let’s take a look at the story, stripped down to its bare essentials and very roughly re-arranged in chronological order:

  • Solaris is discovered
  • Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) sees Rheya (Natascha McElhone) on the train and then meets her at a party.
  • Chris and Rheya live together; she initially refuses marriage, discovers she’s pregnant, has an abortion.  He doesn’t react well, blames her lack of commitment and storms out of their apartment. She commits suicide. He comes back and discovers her, dead, clutching his favourite poem.
  • Years pass.
  • Around Solaris, the scientists orbiting the planet in the space station start seeing… things. Phantoms from their pasts appear on the station, re-created by Solaris.  The phantoms are usually people (alive or dead) that the scientists long to talk to.
  • This, naturally, causes people some discomfort. Some try to kill their Phantoms.  Some succeed, but are further driven insane when the Phantoms come back to life. Others, like Jeremy Davies’ Snow, are less successful and are killed by their Phantoms in self-defence.
  • Some soldiers/investigators are sent to Solaris by The Company in order to help, but are plagued by the same Phantoms. All (!) commit suicide.
  • The leader of the expedition, Gibarian, makes a desperate plea for help to his old friend Chris.
  • One researcher on the station, Helen Gordon (Viola Davis) discovers a way to destroy Phantoms.
  • A grieving Chris receives the plea and embarks for Solaris.
  • Upon his arrival, he discovers that Snow is spaced out (he doesn’t realize that Snow is a Phantom, and so his puzzled “I don’t know” are in fact genuine memory blanks) and that Gordon is locked in her room.
  • He also sees a boy running around. The boy evades him when he attempts to pursue. Is it Gibarian’s child or a re-creation of the child he would have had with Rheya had she kept it? You pick. The story probably makes more sense (but not that much) with the second interpretation.
  • Not much progress is made until Chris sleeps. While he does that, the planet reads his memory of Rheya and re-creates her.
  • He freaks out, lures her in a lifeboat and sends the lifeboat away from the station.
  • He goes back to sleep, and once again Solaris re-creates Rheya.
  • This time, though, he’s a bit calmer.  Alas, Phantom-Rheya comes to realize that she is a simulacrum of his memories of her. She literally cannot remember her own past, and when she does it’s as if she’s not there (because he was watching her and remembers the events from his perspective)
  • Gordon wants to destroy Rheya, hypothesizes that they may end up carrying the Phantoms back on Earth if they don’t kill her. Chris, becoming more and more attached to Phantom-Rheya, doesn’t agree. Gordon argues that even if Chris doesn’t want to, Rheya will come to him while he sleeps. Chris vows to never sleep again.
  • Gordon reveals to Phantom-Rheya that she wasn’t the first and that Chris sent the first one away.
  • Rheya, driven nuts by the knowledge that she is a re-creation, tries to commit suicide by drinking liquid oxygen. (It could be argued that Chris’ recollection of her as a suicidal woman doesn’t help the re-creation think of better ways to deal with her problem. Then again, an awful lot of people try to kill themselves in this film.)
  • Her attempt fails. Everyone aboard the station sees her come back to life, demonstrating the resilience of all Phantoms.
  • Chris falls asleep (after gulping down some pills; this may have been a suicide attempt or just a few extra-strong sleeping pills.  In light of what happens later, it doesn’t matter one way or the other), has seriously bad dreams (sees multiple versions of Rheya, the child again), is visited by Gibarian (another Phantom, presumably) and upon waking up discovers that Phantom-Rheya went to Gordon in order to ask to be destroyed, which Gordon did with some satisfaction.
  • They discover that Snow is in fact Phantom-Snow, who killed Human-Snow in self-defence whenever the original tried to attack him when he appeared
  • Phantom-Snow points out that Solaris is getting bigger every time the Phantom-destroyer is used (insert techno-babble here as to why this is so. Maybe Solaris is angry at the destruction of its Phantoms), and that the station will soon crash down on the planet.  He recommends evacuation.
  • Chris and Gordon go to the last remaining shuttle.  Gordon enters and starts the engines. Chris stays at the doorway.
  • What follows is a dream/predictive sequence: Chris sees himself back on planet Earth, but as a Phantom who has to re-learn everything in his life and deal with his grief over Rheya all over again.  (Whether he is now truly a Phantom is a matter of interpretation, but I think it make more sense and has more poignancy, if he’s still the Human-Chris imagining himself as a Phantom-Chris.) Thought to ponder: Was this reverie Chris’ own, or was it caused by Solaris in an attempt to “keep” Chris? Or maybe even Rehya’s memory acting through Solaris? (Note: Maybe there is no dream sequence and this happens right before the last bullet of this list, in between his acceptance of Solaris and his last meeting with Rheya.)
  • He shuts down the door to the shuttle and decides to remain aboard the station as it crashes down on Solaris. Self-sacrifice out of guilt for not remembering Rheya “right”? Maybe. But then again, have I mentioned how many people kill themselves at the slightest excuse in this film?
  • Gordon leaves, presumably to return in the sequel. (I’m kidding!)
  • The station crashes into the expanding planet. Solaris “reaches out” to Chris (though the boy Phantom), who accepts.
  • Then the film slides well into transcendental mode, as Chris and Rheya meet again, this time forever happy. Life after death? Solaris triumphant, keeping Chris’ mind occupied like a little pet? Your particular take is as good as mine. I prefer “Screenwriter’s idea of a perfectly weepy ending”, much like the one in TITANIC. Naturally, some will argue that this ending, in fact, is merely Chris’ ultimate retreat from reality, him choosing to live his grief over and over again with whatever Rheya-substitute he can get. Any interpretation (just pick one randomly) should keep you busy the next time you want to argue with another cinephile.

[November 2006: Update! An anonymous correspondent writes to suggest...

I don't think you got the ending w/ Chris quite right. He had a realization that there was (in fa
ct) a picture in his house. Reya very clearly mentioned that there were no pictures. This revealed to him the possibility of the nature of the being, Reya. If she was only a creation created from Chris' mind, the memories she had would have to be the same as Chris', but they were not. He had a glimmer of hope that she was indeed more than just a mere memory and stayed on the ship. You can extrapolate considerably from this.

Hmm, promising! I haven't yet had time to verify this interpretation, but this would be a fascinating wrinkle to the ending.]

[January 2007: I still haven't had the time to return to the film, but UK cinephile Dan wrote in to remind me of the thematic links between Chris's favourite poem, Dylan Thomas' "And Death Shall Have no Dominion", and the ending of the film. If nothing else, the link highlights SOLARIS' thematic exploration of love after death. Chris ends up getting what he most clearly wished for, regardless of the other consequences. True love through death, maybe.]

[March 2008: Jessica writes to add "I could be wrong, but I think that you may have misunderstood Phantom-Snow's explanation at the end of the film. My understanding is that Solaris did not actually get physically bigger; it only looked that way because the space station had drifted closer to it. According the Phantom-Snow, because Dr.Gordon's Higgs (Phantom destroying)device used so much power it drained the ship's battery/power cells, and so the ship was unable to resist Solaris' gravitational pull. That is why Gordon has to leave right away; the ship only has enough power to send one of the escape pods back to Earth."]

[December 2009: Nate writes to add: "The ending to Solaris is pretty clear if you follow the literary cues throughout the film. At the dinner party they discuss the idea of God and Rhea (named after the Greek Goddess, the "mother of the Gods") becomes upset with his atheism, apropos the concept of the afterlife. It is clear that he is swallowed up by Solaris, but they don't imply that he "died". The entire movie is in a suspension, a purgatory. Assuming that the last part is part of the afterlife only fits in with the grander stage of the metaphor. He couldn't resolve his relationship with Rhea on Earth or purgatory (the land of ghosts) because Rhea outside of Solaris was nothing but a facsimile of her essence based on his perception. Assuming Solaris is a metaphor for a platonic God, which is suggested many times, there are mentions of its omniscience, Rhea inside Solaris would be the quintessence of Rhea. The last scene is the afterlife, they will live forever (the cut finger heals). Stanislov Lem is known for his philosophical and existential theories, and this is very apparent in Solaris. When seen through this tradition, the story is actually quite elegant, literal and succinct."]

Despite the jumbled nature of the synopsis, I think that’s pretty much it. Keep in mind that this film doesn’t have to make perfect sense: It’s more of a psychological-experimental fable than a hard-tech story. It’s no accident if all we get to see of Earth are a few blurry rainy shots: the impression created stands outside of time and pure realism. Oh, and do remember once again that Soderbergh was in his arty-trippy mode when he did this film.

I’ll end up on a note on the book/movie differences: A plot point that got lost in the adaptation is that Solaris, the ocean/planet is intelligent and may in fact try to communicate with the scientists by the use of those “Phantoms”. I don’t think it adds much, though, to consider this explanation given that SOLARIS (2002) is more or less self-consistent without it.  Be advised that reading the book in order to have the film explained to you may result in even greater confusion.

There are still a lot of plot holes, naturally. (I just thought of a few just writing the above, most notably about Phantom-Snow’s incomplete memories and Gordon’s reactions.)

There’s a wealth of symbolic layering in this film (Is it about religion? What about the lock Rheya was holding on the train? Was it a symbol of a mystery he must unlock? [*] etc.), but that type of thing may be be left to better writers and more patient commentators. In the meantime, I’m sufficiently satisfied by the above. SOLARIS is obviously not an audience-friendly film, but on the other hand, it exemplifies a whole lot of what “real science-fiction” is all about. Please be kind to it.

[*]: About the lock: The Soderbergh/Cameron DVD audio commentary is vague about most of the film’s plot, but it does clear up the lock “symbolism”: Soderbergh needed the actress to hold something in her hands, and the lock was the most intriguing prop they could find. Nothing to see here; all symbolism is viewer-supplied!