(A lightly edited reprint of a recent Nowa Fantastyka column.)
My stuff has been compared, on occasion, to the work of Stanislaw Lem. I find this intimidating. It’s kind of a high bar to clear; when expectations are calibrated to such altitudes, it’s easy to fall short.
Fortunately there’s a way to distract from that constant likelihood of failure; if you’re not quite up to scrambling onto the shoulders of giants, you can always rip into the efforts of others who’ve tried. So today I’m going to take a look back at what is probably Lem’s crowning literary achievement, as interpreted through the eyes of two outsiders. One of these is Russian— Andrei Tarkovsky— and his vision has been hailed as a cinematic classic: nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, winner of the Jury Grand Prize there, winner of Japan’s Seiun Award and frequently cited as one of the greatest SF films ever made.
The other outsider is American. Steven Soderbergh’s vision won no awards, tanked so badly in theatres it never even recouped its production costs, and was reviled by no less a luminary than Salman Rushdie before it was even made.
I’m talking, of course, about Solaris. Guess which version I prefer.
It’s not that there’s anything egregiously wrong with Tarkovsky’s; it is in many ways a truly beautiful film, apparently conceived at least partly in opposition to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but somehow ending up as more of an homage to that film. Tarkovsky’s hypnotic opening sequence, framing a lush and beautiful Earth in a series of static shots,
both echoes and contradicts the arid, hard-focus desert vistas that boot up 2001. The closing reveal of an astronaut trapped in an alien simulacrum of home is conceptually identical to the final scenes of Kubrick’s masterpiece. There’s even a man-taking-an-extremely-long-time-to-pass-through-tunnels-of-light sequence, although in Tarkovsky’s vision the highways are of human construction, the bright streamers courtesy of headlamps and taillights rather than hyperspatial stargates.
Tarkovsky uses his lengthy earthbound prolog to frame Solaris in an epistemological context, to question the nature and utility of knowledge itself: what’s the worth of any pile of disjointed facts, no matter how impressive, if there’s no coherent way to fit them together? Should we seek knowledge at any price? These are essential elements of Lem’s novel, and it’s nice to see them included (although apparently Lem hated the prolog in which they were conveyed). And of course, Lem’s more central rumination on the futility of communication with any truly alien intelligence is right up my alley.
So, a lot to admire. The problem I have with Tarkovsky’s Solaris is not so much with its payload as with how it’s delivered. This is a movie that tells, not shows; it’s jam-packed with monologs and arguments that belabor obvious points. People witter on endlessly about the morality of data collection, or declaim upon Man’s Place in the Cosmos while generally being assholes to one another. (One of them helpfully remarks that “We are losing our dignity and human character!”, just in case we’ve missed that point). Near the end of the film, protagonist Kris Kelvin delivers a delirious ramble about Love and Suffering.
This fondness for discourse reaches an almost ridiculous extreme within minutes of Kelvin’s arrival on the station. Almost immediately upon debarking he starts glimpsing things and people that shouldn’t be there, apparitions presenting themselves in defiance of all logic and expectation. And yet—where you and I might be inclined to grab the nearest crew member by the lapels and say “What is that dwarf doing in your cabin and how did he get here?”— Kelvin just keeps arguing with the locals about the personal integrity of his dead friend Gibarian. It’s a level of incuriosity so profound as to be almost inhuman, a triumph of verbiage over logic that runs through the whole damn movie.
Let us take a moment here to allow you all to roll your eyes at the fact that I, of all people, have the nerve to complain about talkiness in a science fiction story. There you go. Get it out of your system.
Now let’s look at the 2002 iteration of the same story.
It took three quarters of an hour to get us to Solaris in 1972. Soderburgh gets us there in seven minutes; and when we arrive we don’t find the station littered with the refuse and dismembered power cables that Tarkovsky showed us. Soderbergh’s station is pristine, icy, all mirrors and edges and gleaming alloy— which makes the bloodstains smeared across those surfaces even more ominous. Less is more: there’s a minimalism here which heightens the impact.
Soderbergh’s characters are more believable, too. The first time Kelvin sees someone that doesn’t belong, he gives chase; finding someone who does, his first question is What are those things? His reaction to the sudden manifestation of his dead wife at his side— shock, denial, a struggle to rein in bubbling panic and stay rational, for chrissake— is perfect.
Soderbergh’s movie loses more of the novel than Tarkovsky’s does, but is arguably better for it. The epistemology is mostly jettisoned (Solaristics is no esoteric quest for knowledge here, but a grubby hunt for commercial applications), and the viscous self-modeling clay of Lem’s sentient ocean has been replaced by a luminous world suffused in flickering aurorae and sheet lightning. Maybe there’s still an ocean down there, generating all those lights. Maybe it’s something else entirely. The movie doesn’t say; nowhere throughout those stripped-down 94 minutes does anyone explicitly describe what Solaris even is, beyond alien and intelligent. And yet there’s something undeniably synaptic about all those writhing flux lines, something that conveys intelligence without the need for exposition. We see the lights move as Kelvin dreams, we watch those bright filigreed tendrils make connections and forge luminous pathways, and somehow we know that Solaris is watching, and taking notes. It’s a brilliant bit of visual shorthand.
Soderbergh trusts us to connect the dots. That’s the difference. Both films, for example, thumbnail human anthropocentrism with an elegant observation from Lem’s novel: “We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.” But while Tarkovsky buries that gem in an extended framing debate between characters, Soderbergh presents it almost in isolation: a prerecorded snippet from a dead man, playing in the background.
And yet for all the frugality with which he doles out his data points, Soderbergh does offer up something that Tarkovsky denied us: a few moments of something that might pass as actual honest-to-God contact (assuming it’s not just another troubled dream— although can there even be mere dreams when Solaris is walking through your brain?). Kelvin awakens to find his dead friend sitting at his side, eyes glinting from deep within a featureless silhouette. “What does it want?” Kelvin asks the apparition, and I can’t help hearing does it turn into do you in my head. “Why does Solaris have to want something?” says the man-shaped thing in the darkness. “If you keep thinking there’s a solution, you’ll die here. There are no answers. Only choices.”
That’s Lem’s thesis in a nutshell, right there. If anything like those lines were ever spoken in Tarkovsky’s movie, I missed them in all the sound and fury.
There is also a profoundly human element to Soderbergh’s thought experiment that’s missing from Tarkovsky’s. It’s a bit paradoxical. Both movies tell the same story, draw their plots and characters from the same well. If words and emotions are the conduits through which relationships occur, you’d expect to find the strongest human interactions in the movie with the most verbiage, the loudest histrionics— not in George Clooney’s minimalist performance, which has been described as “wooden”. But Clooney’s Kelvin is not a man without emotion; he’s a man whose emotions would overwhelm him if he ever let them out. He doesn’t exposit about his backstory (he doesn’t have to— the movie does, through a series of flashbacks) but you can see it there in the eyes, in the tremor in his voice. As the final curtain falls, the sight of Kelvin in his kitchen— performing the same rote actions that occupied him at the start of the film— evokes the scene in 2001 where space-suited astronauts touch the unburied monolith in the same tentative way their ancestors did, four million years before.
Soderbergh’s subtext is more disturbing, though. Both echoes use repetition to convey a sense of stagnation— but while Kubrick was suggesting that Humanity, for all its artifice, hasn’t really changed, Soderbergh’s Kelvin doesn’t even exist by the end of his movie. What we’re seeing is another simulacrum. And the tragedy is not that this isn’t the real Kelvin, but that the real Kelvin had so thoroughly suppressed his own humanity that it doesn’t really matter that he’s been replaced. Solaris plays with itself, endlessly running its humanoid puppets through the same routines. Maybe it puts them through those paces in service of some profound alien insight; maybe it’s just mindlessly re-enacting the obsessions and rituals that shone brightest in human minds when it was listening in. It’s Lem’s thesis of cosmic futility made intimate, humane, and even more tragic. In contrast, Tarkovsky’s decision to close the same loop using tacked-on daddy issues— invented completely independent of the novel— feels contrived and empty.
There is a double irony in the way these movies were put together. Tarkovsky built his thought experiment in the mold of 2001, a philosophical investigation in which human characters are mere chess pieces to be moved in service of a greater agenda; yet his dialog-heavy approach is the very antithesis of Kubrick’s largely-silent masterpiece. Soderbergh, in contrast, layered a deeply human story onto Lem’s intellectual thesis and made me feel for his characters— yet paradoxically, he drew me in with the same minimalist tools that Kubrick used to put us at a distance.
Both directors created thoughtful, engaging experiments out of Lem’s canonical work. But Soderbergh made me care about the rats as well as marvel at the maze in which they found themselves. That’s a trick even Kubrick didn’t manage, and it’s one I’d love to learn how to do myself someday.
Perhaps that’s the biggest reason I prefer Soderberg’s vision: it gives me something to aspire to. It’s not just a better movie than Tarkovsky’s. Ignored, panned, commercially unsuccessful, I believe that— in a very real way— it’s a better movie even than 2001.
How astonishing, to find myself admitting that.
 It’s not just Tarkovsky. Both he and Soderbergh owe almost as much to Stanley as to Stanislaw, from the look and pacing of their films right down to the atonal, Ligeti-like soundtracks that back up those images.
 I thought they might, at one point. The simulacrum of Kelvin’s wife looks out the viewport and exclaims “What is that?”— to which Kelvin replies “Solaris”, setting the scene for a bit of helpful exposition. But Rheya only nods— “Oh my God, yes…”— and the moment passes. I suspect Soderbergh may have done that just to yank the chains of viewers who wanted it all spelled out…