Solaris
A Critical Analysis, by Neil Short

A lot of people hated the movie Solaris. It seems people either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground. In my judgment, it's one of the best science fiction movies made in the last thirty years. It has meaning. And it is high quality science fiction. Most science fiction stories can take place in nearly any setting and the science is really immaterial to the story. The Star Wars movies could just as easily take place in Feudal Japan or King Arthur's England. In Solaris, the science of the fiction provides a means to tell the story. Without the science there is no story. That's good science fiction!

If you are paying attention when you watch Solaris, you realize that there is more meaning to the story than there is mere story. Personally, I love that kind of story telling. The author has this grand meaning and he tells a story to promote the meaning.

This article is a critical analysis of the year 2002 movie Solaris. I come to this analysis without the benefit (and perhaps baggage) of having read the Stanislaw Lem story by the same name; although that story is next on my reading list. It is obviously filled with meaning, perhaps of the same sort as the movie or perhaps completely different.

I want to look into the meaning of Solaris. As I said, the story is wrapped in meaning, and not the other way around. Joseph Conrad, who was, like Lem, Polish writer said,

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

-Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness.

Story begins with Cris Kelvin. He remembers tender statements that we hear in a woman's voice: “Cris, what is it? I love you so much. Don't you love me anymore?”

Next, we are placed into a group-therapy session. Cris is there. A man says:

“I've made progress, and I recognize that. But my wife, who I can't even convince to come here, to... Anything can set her off. It could be the phone ringing, something on the news, something online, going shopping maybe - a commemorative T-shirt hanging in the window. It just puts her right back in that place. And it's like all my progress... ripped away. And I'm, I'm right back there with her."

A woman immediately follows with:

“I feel totally the opposite. I see the TV, and I see the Internet, and I see those T-shirts, and I feel nothing. The more I see the images, the less I feel, the less I believe that it's real. I mean, I think I'm supposed to feel something by now. Don't you think so?”

These statements seem to have the roll of giving us some place to start the story. They tell us something about Kelvin, for we learn in the next few seconds that Kelvin is a psychotherapist of some sort. Further into the story (peeking ahead) we learn that he is a psychiatrist, for he gives a character what is obviously a prescription drug. Kelvin a pill-popper himself, like so many psychiatrists.

But the statements of these two characters become important later on.

After this initial set-up Kelvin is recruited to go to a space station orbiting a planet called Solaris. Kelvin is chosen for this assignment by the request of the crew of the Solaris station. The Solaris mission belongs to a corporation and this corporation is concerned about the station because it seems the mission has gotten sidetracked. The crew is completely off task. The company hopes for some recovery of the mission.

When Chris finally arrives at the Solaris station, I realize that the crew has been there for a significantly long time. A lot has happened. The crew has settled into some sort of routine. Several crew members have died or have disappeared. Two corpses are stored in a cold room.

A significant thing happens when Chris arrives at the station. This event is downplayed; but it is clearly significant. There is a man's scream in a distant part of the station. Kelvin turns towards the scream and follows it. The DVD subtitles note: “(man screaming and whooping in distance)”. But nobody ever asks about the screaming voice. Immediately following the scream is a sound of music that Kelvin follows. The subtitles read: “(funky rock rap beat playing in the distance)”. Perhaps Kelvin concluded that the scream was from the music. On the other hand, we hear the scream and we should wonder about it.

Chris follows the music and finds a crew member named Snow who we later learn is not really Snow. It is a creature that was created with Snow's memories but (we also learn) lacking Snow's life experiences. On a second viewing, it is clear Snow is working real hard to act like his original of whom he is a copy.

Chris asks Snow what happened to each crew member and Chris seems to answer as truthfully as he can. The only remaining member of the crew is Dr. Gordon. Chris visits her and meets someone who is obviously under a great deal of stress. She's not interested in talking at all about what has distracted the crew from its mission; however, she is confident that the same thing is going to distract Chris from his mission.

Let us observe some details of this conversation. When Gordon opens her door to talk to Kelvin she has trouble making eye contact at first. One senses some degree of embarrassment or shame. As she discusses the situation in her own way, there is a shuffling sound from inside her quarters. She becomes very upset, makes a terse statement and closes the door.

We learn something about what is happening to the crew when Kelvin goes to sleep and dreams of his late wife, Rheya. When he awakens, she is there. It is not really her. It is a created living thing that has the memories of Kelvin's wife; but from Kelvin's point of view and not real experiences.

She says something to him which should remind us of his memory of her voice at the start of the movie: “Chris. I'm so happy to see you. I love you so much. Don't you love me anymore?

For some reason he puts her into a space capsule and ejects it from the station. My reaction was similar to that of someone taking some puppies into the desert and leaving them there to face whatever horrid future awaits them.

But after another night's sleep, another Rheya is created for him.

Gordon is hell-bent to kill these apparitions. Kelvin, on the other hand, has decided that he wants to keep his. Gordon attempts to reason with Kelvin and explains: “She's a mirror that reflects a part of your mind. You provide the formula.”

Gordon devises a machine she calls The Higgs Device that will reduce these visitors to their sub-atomic components. The only problem is that the machine requires a great deal of power to operate. We soon learn why she felt motivated to devise such a decisive method, for these visitors are otherwise very difficult to kill.

Rheya, it happens, is suicidal and she originally met her end by suicide. The Rheya-construct also commits suicide on the station; but before Kelvin has a chance to experience regret or sorrow, Rheya's wounds heal and she comes back to life, good as new.

Gordon leaves the room. She's all too familiar with this event. “I never get used to them – these resurrections.”

Rheya realizes that she was unsuccessful in her suicide. Then, there is a huge power drain that temporarily darkens the lights of the station. This brown-out happens only seconds after Rheya's resurrection.

A bit later in the film, Rheya goes to Gordon and begs her to use the Higgs device on her. Gordon complies.

I already mentioned that Snow happens to be one of these created beings. The audience learns that the real Snow attempted to murder the copy but was unsuccessful and instead, the copy-Snow killed his original in an act of self-defense.

Near the end of the story, Gordon and Kelvin realize they are the only humans left on the station and they set out to leave the ship. At this point, the ship's orbit is rapidly collapsing.

We are led to believe that Kelvin and Gordon return to Earth; but Kelvin's life on Earth is frustrated by an existence of emotional numbness.

In the end, however Gordon alone returns to Earth. Kelvin, for some reason, remains behind. We see him searching the ship for Rheya.

He went down with the ship; and this return to Earth and the numb existence is something he is experiencing on Solaris. He himself is now a copy – a Kelvin-construct. Rheya returns to him and they share the last moments of the movie – and presumably eternity – together. At this point, we should flash back in our minds to the suicide note that Rheya left for Kelvin. In her suicide note, Rheya says:

“I'm not Rheya. I know you loved me, though. I know that. I felt that. And I love you. I wish we could just live inside that feeling forever. Maybe there's a place where we can. But I know it's not on Earth and it's not on this ship.”

Kelvin's description of his feelings at the end of the movie should reminded us of the people at the beginning of the movie who were trying to deal with the deaths of loved-ones. One man spoke of things that remind him of his lost loved one and after all that time, his emotional wounds are just as fresh as the were so long ago. The woman explained that she has an emotional numbness when she wishes she could feel something.

In Kelvin's emotions surrounding his late wife, he lived on with his life and job; but his wounds were always fresh, and they come out bleeding when he struggles with the meaning of her appearance on the Solaris station. When he loses her again and returns to Earth, he feels emotional numbness.

Now, we know that Kelvin's return to Earth was artificial and his feelings were much like Rheya's when she struggled with the emptiness she felt over having memories but no reality of having experienced the events in those memories.

In symbolic stories, the way things seem to be is more important than they turn out to be.

How are we supposed to take the symmetry of Kelvin's on-Earth experiences that serve to book-end the central story? There were characters at the beginning of the story who felt just like Kelvin did at the end and in the course of the story. Were the grievers at the beginning of the story copies of themselves? No. But if we think about it, neither was Kelvin even at the end of the movie. Or, to put it another way, perhaps he was a copy even at the beginning of the movie – along with all the other characters at the beginning.

Recall Kelvin's memory of Rheya's “I love you so much. Don't you love me anymore?” statement.

When we notice the emptiness that permeates the movie, it is time for us to look inside ourselves.

At one point in the story, Kelvin is listening to the personal diary of his dead friend (crew member) Gibarian who very helpfully states,

“We're proud of ourselves; but when you think about it our enthusiasm is a sham. We don't want other worlds. We want mirrors.”

Recall Gordon's explanation to Kelvin: “She's a mirror that reflects a part of your mind. You provide the formula.”

This story is a mirror for us to help us see inside ourselves.

Solaris was a mirror that reflected Kelvin, Gordon, Snow and the other characters. It reflected the things that were central to each their lives – the things they loved. When those things are taken away, they leave open wounds that never heal. That emptiness is not natural. It causes an anomaly in reality that was not supposed to happen and people suffer because of it.

For Kelvin, his center was filled with love for his wife whom he lost in his own carelessness. Solaris showed him the gaping hole that was left there when she died.

Snow's center was himself. He's weired enough to have never grown attached to anyone else, and his own character is so bizarre and off center that the place inside that needs filling remained empty.

Gibarian's visitor (which I did not discuss) is consistent with this interpretation.

What about Gordon's visitor? We never find out who it is. Here's what we do know: She was not content to have him/her around. I have to step out a little here; and maybe that's the point: Gordon's visitor permits us to make a very personal application. In order to be consistent, the visitor must be someone she desperately loves. However, this person requires a great deal of personal attention. I submit that the person may be crippled and requires a lot of physical maintenance. Gordon, being perfectly willing to provide these needs (demanding and burdensome though they be) to her loved one, is not willing to work so hard for a non-human construct who has the same needs and infirmities as the original. Thus, we hear a man's scream that Kelvin follows and attributes to the odd music that Snow is listening to. But the scream is that of Gordon's visitor as he is murdered by Gordon. Moments later, when Kelvin speaks to Gordon through her partly opened door, we here shuffling in her quarters and she tersely ends the conversation and slams the door. We are reminded of her statement, “I never get used to them – these resurrections.” After which she marches straight to her quarters, wheels her visitor to the Higgs device and atomizes him.

This theory may explain why Kelvin sent his first Rheya-visitor away. She was more dependent on him than the original; and he knew it wasn't her. Why should he tie himself down like that for a non-human Rheya construction? She needed him too much. On the other hand, he was pretty dependent on his second Rheya while she was fairly independent. Maybe that's why he wanted to keep her.

In case we don't get the point, there is a helpful scene – one of those wake-up-twice type scenes – where you are not sure if it is a dream or something that really happened. The dead Gibarian appears to Kelvin.

Gibarian: You think you're dreaming me.

Kelvin: You're not Gibarian.

Gibarian: No? Who am I then?

Kelvin: A puppet.

Gibarian: And you're not? Or maybe you're my puppet. But like all puppets, you think you're actually human. It's the puppet's dream... being human.

...

Kelvin: What does Solaris want from us?

Gibarian: Why do you think it has to want something? That is why you have to leave. If you keep thinking there's a solution, you'll die here.

Kelvin: I can't leave her. I'll figure it out.

Gibarian: Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you? There are no answers, only choices.

There is a place in our hearts that we fill with love. We experience the natural state of things. But when that which fills the space is ripped away – as it always is, a wound remains that will never heal. What happens is unnatural and contrary to everything else in nature. Either we go on with life as if that empty space remains filled or we go on with life numb with the full grief of the very real emptiness.

There are no answers. Only choices.