Movies that are religious experiences, Part 2 (Solaris)

Movies that are religious experiences, Part 2 (Solaris) October 19, 2011

A little while ago, I posted about my favorite movie, The Fountain.  It is one of three of my all time favorite movies.  The second one is Solaris.  I first saw Solaris at the international film theater as an undergraduate.  It was the 1972 Russian version by Andrei Tarkovsky.

Solaris (1972)

I went right out at read the book by Stanislav Lem, which became one of my favorite books. It was remade in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh, and starred George Clooney.

Solaris (2002)

The remake is actually pretty good, with the exception of the last scene — but I will get to that.

The basic plot of Solaris is this: there is a distant planet, Solaris, which is circled by a space station.  On the station, there is a miracle happening.  And somehow the planet is causing it.  Each of the inhabitants of the station has a “visitor”.  The planet spontaneously generates these persons using information from the minds of the inhabitants while they are sleeping.  In some instances, these visitors are unwanted.  In the case of the main character, Kelvin, who is visited by his dead wife, the visitor is desired.  It eventually becomes apparent that the visitors are not strictly-speaking human.  They are immortal and will resurrect if they are killed.

What I get from the movie is summed up in a phrase from the last line of the book: “I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.”  Cruel miracles.  The miracles in Solaris were cruel because they took place without regard for the wishes of the human beings involved.  They were cruel because they were unpredictable.  And they were cruel because their meaning was inscrutable.  The humans could not communicate with Solaris and the planet seemed indifferent to human desires or needs.  In short, Solaris is a metaphor for God.

Cruel miracles is perfect expression my understanding of divinity.  Not only because I identify God with Nature, and Nature can seem cruel, but also because Nature is wonderful and awe-inspiring, so that it seems “miraculous”.  Not “miraculous” in the sense of violating natural laws, obviously, but seemingly extra-ordinary, even when it is not.  But throughout all this wonder and awe is threaded the “cruel” reality that Nature is ultimately indifferent to human life and unresponsive to our search for meaning.

In the movie, each of the characters copes with these miracles in different ways.  One tries to destroy the miracle.  One commits suicide.  Only Kelvin, in the end, embraces the mystery, and persists “in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.”  Having faith in cruel miracles means, I think, just being willing to be present, as a witness to the wonder and beauty and terror of this world.  As Annie Dillard in  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek writes when she catches the awe-inspiring sight of a mockingbird’s descent:

“The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

The following excerpt comes from a critical analysis of the book Solaris.  Unfortunately I have lost the source, but it sums up why I love Solaris:

“Terror for man arises from the universe’s inability or unwillingness to communicate with him.  It is the tragedy of man’s imperfect machinery for gaining knowledge.  The alien represents the limits of man’s knowledge and the implacable silence of the universe.  The silence alludes to nature’s indifference about establishing contact with man and, on a deeper level, the fundamental nothingness of the universe.  It symbolizes existential absurdity.  When man exceeds these boundaries, he lapses into anthropomorphism.  How does man react when confronted with the incomprehensible and uncommunicative, but benign?  He may commit suicide, or try to destroy the alien, or refuse to acknowledge the validity of the alien.  Each represents a capitulation or a refusal to come to terms with the new world.  But the hero is transformed by the events.  The change is to accept a new posture and a new world in which man is not supreme and must instead wait expectantly while believing in cruel miracles.  The alien presents a challenge to man that frustrates while also elevating him so that he may pursue ever higher goals.  The key to this philosophical puzzle is that man must eventually learn in certain situations to forgo control and to give into the subconscious aspects of his personality and the world.  The hero is willing as no other to go with the mystery and chaos of the alien and, in the process of yielding ‘control’ over his destiny, to renounce his anthropomorphic vision of the universe.  The possibility is that he will learn of an entirely new mode of being, which the other control-obsessed typical human beings could never entertain.”

When confronted with the silence of Nature in response to our pleas, for answers or salvation, we can despair, we can try to destroy Nature, we can imagine another world where human beings are supreme, i.e., heaven (what the writer above calls a lapse into “anthropomorphism”), or we can embrace the mystery that is this life.  I wonder if our undeclared war on our planet is not a product of an unconscious desire to destroy the “alien” so to speak.  Solaris challenges us to look the alien other in the face, and accept the miracle that is Nature (or God), in spite of the concomitant cruelty of its silence.

The reason why I don’t like the last scene of the American remake is because it implies that Kelvin and his deceased wife are in some kind of heaven, at least some place beyond death, where love endures.  Where the Russian film ends, the American remake adds one more scene, the happy ending that seems to be obligatory in all American dramas.  The American version tries to tie a bow on what is otherwise a perfectly framed unanswered question mark.  To pose any kind of heaven as an answer to the fundamental mystery that is Solaris is, I think, to betray the real message of the movie/book: that if we are not to capitulate to the meaningless of life, then all we can do is “persist in the faith that the time of cruel miracles is not past.”

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  • Max

    Doesn’t the ending in the book imply that Kelvin end up with Rheya in the end, in Solaris itself? I think Soderbergh simply gave more detail to the ending. I don’t think its heaven they are in, its Solaris itself, creating a much larger copy than it previously had done with the visitors.

    • That’s a valid interpretation of the last scene of Solaris (2002). By “heaven” I didn’t rally mean a Christian heaven, but a “heaven” in their own minds. Wherever they are, I didn’t like the happy ending. I think it’s important that Kelvin be left waiting for the time of “cruel miracles” to return. I went back and looked at the ending of Solaris (1972) [ ] and it is closer to the 2002 version than I remembered. Kelvin is on Solaris, but on an island made to look like the earth of his memory — which would support your interpretation of the ending of Solaris (2002). Rheya is not there though. The book itself ends with Kelvin on the surface of Solaris, waiting for Rheya’s return.

  • Max

    You’re absolutely right. I believe Solaris is an extremely intelligent sentient being that simply makes contact in its own unique way. I also believe that Solaris, at least the 2002 movie has some sort of redemption theme going. If you remember, it was Gordon that said the whole mission was for assessing the viability of Solaris for a potential energy source. They were looking to exploit it and the planet reacted, possibly in a negative way by bringing to the surface each crew members’ repressed memories. But not with Kelvin. True he was haunted by Rheya’s death but his visitor was more agreeable company than Gordon’s(whom we don’t see) or Snow’s(which is somehow himself as a visitor). I think Solaris given its advanced intelligence could in some way deduce the intentions of each individual crew member and thus reacted accordingly. Gibarian kills himself, and yet there is a copy/visitor of his son aboard the space station. Was he ashamed of his own son? OR ashamed that he had been away for so long and his son was growing up without his father? Perhaps coming to the conclusion that his life would be that way(often away on business) and it would not make much of a difference what kind of presence he would have in his son’s life and therefore being dead would be more or less the same? I don’t know, I’m just speculating. They all had much more morbid guilt than Kelvin, his guilt was more genuine I feel. Solaris probably felt his more noble intentions i.e. make everything right with Rheya and in the end rewarded him, and punished Gordon, Snow and Gibarian. The redemption theme. Solaris is the secular version of heaven and hell, as you said a heaven in their own minds, or in the case of the rest of the crew, a hell in their own minds. In the book, I don’t exactly remember the last few lines, but Kelvin I think says something along the lines of going to the surface to find her. Since Solaris’ surface is toxic without a suit I’m assuming he wanted to die and become a copy of himself and be re-united with Rheya. And in the 2002 movie, he does die, gets sucked into Solaris, the whole station does. And when he thinks he’s on earth he finds out his wounds heal quickly and then Rheya shows up. They are both copies but feel and remember everything the originals did. This is Solaris’ way of rewarding them for seeking redemption and not selfishness(Gordon with her scientific quest to exploit Solaris for its potential energy, Gibarian by running away from his duties as a father and Snow for being the ultimate narcissist and copying himself) I think Stanislaw Lem meant for a happy ending, he just left it a bit of a mystery. Of course he was critical of the 2002 version. But I like it, even if it strays from the novel. The soundtrack is amazing, and the visuals too. The blue/purple planet coupled with Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack can be so soothing.

    • I’ve gotta agree about the music and the visuals. The 2002 version was stunning. And honestly I have to fast forward through the 1972 version now. I didn’t know Lem reacted to the 2002 movie — do you have a link? Heck, I didn’t even know he was still alive.

  • Max

    No Lem died in 2006. Here is his English website:

    Solaris for me is probably the best scifi I’ve ever seen. K-PAX and The Fountain are good as well. Though I don’t know if the Fountain could be considered scifi.

    I would not be surprised at all if there is a Solaris out there in the universe. Lem’s idea that Aliens don’t have to be humanoids is pure genius. We are so preoccupied with the idea of little green guys coming down from flying saucers that we forget that there could be an alien life form like Solaris out there. If it ever were to be discovered in our time, people on earth would react as ignorantly as they did in the book and the 1972 movie. Bombard it! With X-Rays as in the book or with weapons. We would be so afraid of the idea that out there lurked a sentient being that could read and manifest into reality our darkest secrets. Lem was right. We are looking for mirrors, not other beings. We want to extend the borders of earth to the universe.

    • We do the same thing with God. That’s why I think Solaris is a metaphor for God. Inscrutable. Miraculous but mysterious. And we either want to project our own image onto the mystery or turn it into a resource or, if all else fails, destroy it.