Thursday, May 29, 2008

Solaris - One Novel and One and a half Movies

Solaris - Stanislaw Lem; One Novel and One and a half Movies

Kris Kelvin is a psychologist who is requested to come to Solaris - a distant, mysterious planet - by a friend, Gibarian. When Kelvin arrives there, he knows things are a little off...Gibarian has killed himself, the robots are locked up, and the only other humans on the station (Sartorius and Snow) won't offer any information about what is going on. Kelvin is warned to be careful, to lock his doors, etc. but isn't told why. he soon finds out why: Kelvin falls asleep, and when he wakes up, there is Rheya, his wife who killed herself ten years prior. He is obviously scared and disturbed by this, and in his desperation he manages to get her on a little space craft and ship her out into space. He falls asleep again and when he wakes up, there is Rheya. But it isn't the same one that he just sent into's a new copy.

As it turns out, everyone on board has had these visitors. you can't kill them, as it is discovered that they are made of some type of subatomic particles (or some other scientific anomaly) and therefore they are able to regenerate after an injury, including drinking liquid oxygen. They don't really sleep, they are never hungry, and they get violently angry when they are left alone. Sounds sort of like Gremlins, doesn't it? I wonder what happens if you get them wet... Anyhoo...Snow, Sartorius and Kelvin know it has something to do with the ocean, because the visitor thing didn't start happening until they began beaming x-rays at the ocean.

Ok...a little about the ocean. It covers the entire planet of Solaris and appears to be a single living organism. It shows some signs of being sentient, or conscious in some way (though different from our normal conception of "conscious"), and it reacts in unexpected ways to stimuli by creating physical phenomena that science cannot explain. It's a being (of some sort) capable - in theory - of communication, as are humans...but the two just don't speak the same language. And they don't have a universal translator like they do in Star Trek.

The rest of the novel deals with how to get rid of the copies, should they get rid of the copies, how to deal with the ocean, should they try more experiments, etc. In the end, Kelvin and Rheya don't live happily ever after. Snow and Sartorius create some type of ray gun (not really a ray gun, but we'll pretend it was) that would disintegrated the visitors, and Rheya asks to be destroyed. She began to have emotional issues when she realized that they called her Rheya, she looked, talked and acted like Rheya, but she wasn't Rheya; yet Kelvin, though he knew she wasn't actually his dead wife, projected all all his hopes and dreams and guilt about her death onto the copy. The last paragraph of the novel has Kelvin soon going home, exploring the ocean for the first and last time. He hopes that there might be something out there for him and Rheya: "I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past."

I found myself occasionally getting lost in the mumbo jumbo of symmetriads, asymmetriads, mimoids, etc. or whatever the heck all that was, and the theories and treatises on Solaris that Kelvin keeps reading. But it really wasn't important to the overall plot of the novel, and reading information about Solaris and Stanislaw Lem leads me to believe that the author put it in there more as a spoof of science and science fiction as opposed to it actually meaning anything specific in the grand scheme of the novel. The point was to show that humans know nothing about this planet and its ocean, but that hasn't stopped them from filling libraries with theories on what they planet is up to.

The point of Solaris really is that we don't go into space looking to find new worlds, new creatures, etc. We just want to find another version of ourselves. Here is this ocean...that they have somehow figured out is sentient - alive. And it does all this stuff the humans studying it don't understand. So they write books...and books...and books...and books filled with theories about what it is doing, how and why. They continuously try to communicate with it on their own terms. Why is the ocean sending the astronauts replicas of people out of their past? There must be some it cruelty? Is it because the ocean thinks that that is what they want? WHAT IS THE MEANING? I think in the end of the novel, it is clear that there was no meaning. Somehow the ocean was able to tap into the mind of those people on the station and found these people there that they the ocean replicated it. It wasn't trying to be malicious, or nice, or just was. And any continued search for a meaning, a purpose, for logical human-like communication was futile.

Most people who enjoy reading and watching movies usually have an opinion on which to do first: watch or read. Most people I know who do both prefer to read then watch. I am the opposite - I like to watch then read. My attempts at doing it the other way around usually fail in terms of my appreciation for the film...I simply lose interest. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and Carrie (based on Sister Carrie, not the Stephen King one) come to mind immediately: an hour into those movies I was doing other things. I'm not even sure I watched all of Carrie. This also happened with Paul Theroux's Mosquito Coast and Evelyn Waugh's Scoop - both books I generally liked, but when it came time to watch the movie, I was already over it. There are some film adaptations, however, that if I hadn't read the book, I wouldn't have had a clue what was going on. Of Human Bondage for example. That is also how I felt with Steven Soderbergh's 2002 adaption of Solaris starring George Clooney, which I watched at the novel's half-way point.

I remember seeing the trailer for this movie, which was pitched as being a sweeping love story by the producer of Titanic...Ghost in Space, if you will. I imagine that a person who went to see this Solaris based on that premise would be very disappointed, and probably confused. The background information that is presented in the novel, where it is clear that the ocean is creating these replicas, was essentially left out of the film and I would have been totally lost as to where Kelvin's dead wife came from without the information from the book. Sure, Lem does have a compelling love story in Solaris...Kelvin gets a second chance to make things right with Rheya, but in the movie it is presented as a real possibility that Kelvin could return to earth with her (and he intends to). In the book, though Kelvin and Rheya discuss the life they will have on earth when they return, they both know it isn't possible due to the instability of her physical makeup and also thanks to Earth's extraterrestrial immigration requirements. There is a futility, and hence a sadness about her return to Kelvin's life in that they know it is only temporary.

In response to Soderbergh's movie, Lem himself stated, "the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space...I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of human encounter with something that certainly exists...but cannot be reduced to human concepts, images or ideas." He goes on to say something to the effect that had he intended Solaris to be a love story he would have called it Love in Outer Space instead. Maybe it should have been "Love in Outer Space, starring George Clooney's naked bum - twice!"

I titled this entry "...and One and a Half Movies" because there is an earlier Russian version of Solaris (1972), which I tried to watch tonight. I'll be honest - I feel asleep for about an hour in the middle of it, and then decided to finish Book #5 of Dance to the Music of Time. Had I actually watched the film, this post might have been called "...and Two Movies +" because the Russian version is almost 3 hours long. The actor who played Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is no George Clooney, and if there is a shot of his posterior in this version, I'm glad I was either asleep/not paying attention. I will say that based on what I actually watched of it, it was closer to Lem's original than Soderberghs. I guess maybe I should have watched it before I read the book.

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