Now, let me preface by acknowledging that I’m not really a fan of reboots; reboots are a lazy way of producing media, bypassing the need to come up with new story concepts, usually giving most development to individual, eye-catching scenes while largely ignoring the rest, and ultimately creating a lackluster (or outright sad) version of an old film or series. That said…
Stanislaw Lem, the author of the novel Solaris, has said on more than one occasion that he was not happy with the two movie versions of his book, the 1972 version by Andrei Tarkovsky, or the 2002 version by Steven Soderbergh. There was also a 1968 made-for-Soviet-TV version of the story, which, unfortunately, I’ve never had the chance to see. Lem’s reason for being unhappy was because all three versions virtually ignored the real point of the novel, to instead focus on the central character, Kris Kelvin, trying to reconcile with a seemingly resurrected version of his wife Hari/Rheya, who had committed suicide years before.
The romantic tragedy was what Tartovsky and Soderbergh wanted to center their movies on. But Lem’s novel was primarily about the mysteries of alien intelligence. In the novel, the planet Solaris was a single gigantic life form, and the scientists in the planet-studying space station in comparison were as microbes on the surface of a human brain. This conceit is central to the observations of the planet, as it seemed to create spontaneous surface constructions somehow inspired by the scientists and other human visitors… then created creatures clearly drawn from the scientists’ specific memories about people in their pasts. The underlying premise was that it would be virtually impossible to interpret the actual thoughts and intents of Solaris, that the living planet was too different from human intelligence to ever be understood.
This premise was apparently considered too much for modern audiences to understand, and was abandoned by Tarkovsky and Soderbergh. (I understand the Soviet teleplay did just a bit better.) But despite the perception of the dimness of the modern audience, I think we should have a Solaris that centers on that premise. Perhaps the idea that there might be intelligences out there that we’ll never understand might be humbling enough to make an impact.
The earlier Solaris movies avoided much coverage of the human-inspired shapes extruded on the ocean-like surface of the planet. Perhaps the cost of creating those shapes with special effects forced their lack of appearance; but that should not be an obstacle today, especially as it is the second-best indication that the planet is functioning so far beyond human understanding. Some of the shapes emulate human shapes, and some emulate their technology, such as their flying vehicles; clearly an indication that Solaris is somehow aware on some level of the humans above it, even if the humans don’t know how. And others seem like wild abstractions, their possible meanings a mystery.
The first-best indication of Solaris’ tapping into human thoughts are the creatures appearing on the science station, simulacrums of human beings known to the scientists on the station. The simulacrums look and act like the real thing, but simple examination reveals that they are not exact copies, and deeper examination reveals that they’re not made of the atoms humans are made of. They are not easily killed, and if they are ejected from the station (as most of the scientists attempt by forcing them into escape pods and jettisoning them), they simply reappear the next day.
Unfortunately, both movies barely touched on how the humanoid creations (simulacrums , I’ll call them) impacted the scientists other than Kelvin. It was clear that the scientists didn’t want others to see their simulacrums… but not why. Of the two movies, actor Viola Davis’ depiction of Gordon in the 2002 movie was certainly the most traumatized and angered by the existence of her simulacrum, but the audience never found out why.
The reality, as depicted in the novel, was that these simulacrums were all based on personal traumas of some kind. Besides Kelvin’s wife, the other characters reflected losses or significant embarrassments to the other scientists, and the simulacrums were constant reminders of the scientists’ past mistakes, failures or shames. Kelvin, therefore, wasn’t the only one being mentally tortured on the station. In Lem’s novel, one scientist committed suicide when confronted by his personal simulacrum, a mute “giant negress.” The other simulacrums are not seen by Kelvin (and the reader) in the novel, though we are aware that they’re there. The first movie portrays one simulacrum as a vaguely glimpsed dwarf; in the other, the dead son of one scientist, which at least hints at a personal pain similar to Kelvin’s pain at being reunited with a copy of his suicidal wife.
And the fact that they could not figure out if the planet was doing this consciously or unconsciously, to help or to torture them, if it had a reason to test them or if it even knew they were there, was conveniently glossed over, replaced instead with Kelvin’s temptation to keep his simulacrum and ease his pain, versus the desires of the other scientists to make it stop and end their personal nightmares.
In the end of both movies, the remaining scientists evacuate, the station is destroyed by falling into the planet, and Kelvin gets a happily-ever-after ending, though his final state is left ambiguous. Again, the state of Solaris itself is short-changed, the mystery of the planet-sized intelligence and Man’s ability to know it discarded behind an emotional salve.
In an episode of the first season of Babylon 5, a semi-recurring character encounters an alien creature as far beyond us as humans are to ants, as later described to the character by the Narn Ambassador G’Kar. That episode remains one of the most significant episodes of that series, the first hint in a series that taught us there were aliens on another level more advanced than humans will ever hope to be. Episodes in various of the many Star Trek series also showed us more advanced aliens, though they were usually still similar enough for American audiences to understand them. Many of them were clearly inspired by stories like Solaris, which postulated a galaxy far beyond our ability to fully understand.
And of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey showed us alien intelligences so far beyond us as to be almost incomprehensible, communicating to us only through their tools, the monoliths. Director Kubrick wanted to create “the proverbial intelligent science fiction movie,” and he proved such a movie could succeed.
But from the original Solaris, we’ve been short-changed, given a heady and mind-blowing science fiction concept about alien intelligence and our place in the cosmos and rendering it down to, as Lem himself once put it, “Love in outer space.”
Hopefully someday, a director on the level of a Nolan or a Scott will be brave enough to take on Solaris and tell Lem’s real story, not the minor romance that previous directors have been so obsessed about. Maybe we’ll see the roiling activity on the surface of the planet, inspiring us to imagine the mysterious activity in that planet-sized organism. Maybe we’ll get to see the other simulacrums, and get a much deeper window into the fears, foibles and traumas of humans. And maybe, when it’s all over, we’ll have a better understanding of Solaris, and of our place beside it.