I had the great fortune this past weekend to be able to watch both versions of Solaris on the big screen, in the main theater of the AFI Silver. Tarkovsky’s 1971 version has recently been restored in a 2K digital version, and the 2002 Soderbergh print was also very clean¹.
Both tell roughly the same story, but in very different ways, and so I’ll give a very high-level plot description. There is a space station orbiting a planet whose oceans seem to be alive with thought. A psychologist named Kelvin is sent to investigate the station, and soon after his arrival and first sleep, he is visited by his dead wife, a suicide. He is shocked; he tricks her and sends her to her death. When he sleeps again, she returns, and he this time attempts to protect her, even against herself, when she tries to kill herself again but miraculously heals. There are slight variations in how the film reaches its end, but in both, Kelvin is shown apparently on the planet’s surface, perhaps a recreation himself.
It’s quite illustrative to see these films back to back. The first is a nearly three-hour meditation, paced almost glacially, with a great deal of running time devoted to Kelvin’s introduction, to nature photography, to a sense of his place on Earth, to the bureaucracy of the study of “Solaristics,” which is in crisis due to what were potentially hallucinations by a pilot. There’s an extended sequence that is simply the filming of traffic, more or less from the perspective of a car in it. We are perhaps an hour in before we have arrived on the station itself, where everything is clutter and disaster, wires pulled out of walls, not the clean lines we would come to see in many versions of the future. The second film dispenses with much of this introduction to Kelvin’s life on Earth, and gets him to the station much more quickly, only to find it in similar but more dire disarray: there are trails of blood leading away from the docking port where he arrives.
The central difference in which the films operate is in the treatment of the relationship between Kelvin and his wife, who confusingly have different names in the films, one Hari and one Rheya². In the original film, we don’t really fully understand the relationship between Hari and Kelvin; she’s quite unknowable, and although we come to know that she killed herself, we don’t see anything of the relationship between Kelvin and her. However there’s at least one telling detail, which I particularly love: she wears a dress that while in theory fastened in the back, actually doesn’t function like clothing should, and he has to cut the dress from her so that she can get into bed with him (and he does so twice). In 2002, we get the relationship between Chris and Rheya in a series of flashbacks, mostly in dreams, some simply in memories. We see them meet, become attracted to one another, we deepen our understanding of each of their characters, we see her suicide, we see him discover the body. We get their relationship in glimpses³.
Each uses these details to underline what these recreations of the women are: echoes of the men’s mental representations of them, and not the women themselves. If the film weren’t so strange, we would even take the dress in the first film as a sort of joke about the fact that men have little understanding of how women’s clothing works. It was perhaps his favorite dress of hers, but he had no idea how she got into it.
Both films end with their protagonists themselves recreated in the great seas of Solaris, though this is revealed in different ways. Both end with these Kelvins seeking connections, though with different people4. Both are in some sense adrift, and the tone of one is very Russian and the tone of the other is very American. 🙂
In both cases, what I think appeals to me so much about these films is the underlying sense of loneliness, the meditation on the essential unknowability of another person. In the second film, this is made explicit as Rheya is very upset at the fact that while she has memories of the events of their relationship that we’ve been seeing, including her suicide, she has no memory of actually being in them, the memory of what it would have felt to be the person acting and not being seen to be acting. This provokes an attempt at another suicide, via drinking liquid oxygen, though as an unreal person she survives and is healed. The original is braver, I think, in simply making her unknowable; we only have the sense of her through how Kelvin behaves towards her, and we know nothing of this inner turmoil when she also tries to kill herself with liquid oxygen. Being bred from Kelvin’s memories, which include discovering the original’s corpse, each simulacrum has as a central characteristic the drive towards self-destruction.
I say that the loneliness appeals to me, and that might seem strange. It’s a fact of the human condition that no matter how much time we spend with another, we will never fully understand what it’s like to be inside the other’s mind. We can never know everything about the others around us, even the ones we love the most. There is a bridge of connection we can never fully cross. We can only stand on our side of the bridge and trust that there’s someone standing on the other side, too.
I try to look at this as a comfort; at least I’m not alone in this loneliness. And that’s what these films do for me, in such very different ways.
¹Sadly, the projection on the 2002 version was not as expert, which was very out of character for the theater. The picture was at one point slightly and maddeningly out of focus, and at another point switching reels was not properly synced. Highly unusual, but there it is. (back)
²I had to look up her name in the novel by Stanislaw Lem. Although I’ve read the book, it was around thirty years ago and the films have erased my memory of it entirely, which is a whole ‘nother discussion to be had some day. That said, apparently the original has her as Harey, and the English translation had her as Rheya, which is an anagram of Harey. (back)
³And this is the shorter film! It’s very efficient. (back)
4This is another essential difference in the films, and one that adds to the running time of the original. 1971’s Kelvin also imagines up his mother, and this underlines a sense of loss of connection, because that’s the one time in our lives where we are truly connected to another person, and we can’t even consciously remember it! (back)