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At the end of Solaris, I am never entirely sure what has just happened. I have seen both film versions several times and they are among my favorites. There is a 1972 Russian version by Andrei Tarkovsky and the 2002 version by Stephen Soderbergh, produced by James Cameron. The source is a 1961 Polish science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem. There have also been television and stage adaptations.

is based on the idea that if we were to encounter an alien species, its means of communication might be so different from our own that communication as we know it might not be possible. It is our tendency to anthropomorphize that makes us think aliens will be pretty much like ourselves. Lem posits that there is no reason to believe that, there is just as much reason to think they will not be like us in form, thought, motives and communication. The Soderbergh film adds another dilemma, most specifically, "what if you could undo the worst mistake you ever made but the cost would be to give up everything else in your life?"

There is no way to write about Solaris without risking spoilers that I really don't want, so I will paraphrase the Wikipedia summary which does a good job of telling the story without revealing too much.

is about the ultimate futility of attempted communications with the alien life form on a far-distant planet. The intelligence with whom human scientists are attempting communication, is almost completely covered with an ocean that is revealed to be a single, planet-encompassing organism. What appear to be waves on its surface are later revealed to be the equivalents of muscle contractions.

Kris Kelvin arrives aboard the research station hovering (via anti-gravity generators) near the oceanic surface of the planet Solaris. The scientists there have studied the planet and its ocean for many decades, a scientific discipline known as Solaristics, which over the years has degenerated to simply observe, record and categorize the complex phenomena that occur upon the surface of the ocean. Thus far, they have only achieved the formal classification of the phenomena with an elaborate terminology— yet do not understand what such activities really mean in a strictly scientific sense. Shortly before psychologist Kelvin's arrival, the crew has exposed the ocean to a more aggressive and unauthorized experimentation with a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Their experimentation gives unexpected results and becomes psychologically traumatic for them as individually flawed humans.

Doctor Kris Kelvin is a psychologist of some prominence. His life has become disappointing professionally and personally. His wife, a troubled woman, committed suicide during an argument/separation some years ago. The science he has worked so hard at has not gone in the direction he hoped. In the Russian film there is some estrangement between Kelvin and his father.

Against this background comes a request to Kelvin to go to the Solaris space station and find out why they have ceased communicating with Earth. How lost and directionless he has become is revealed in his response, "Is this what everyone wants me to do?"

When Kelvin arrives on the station he finds it in disarray and the scientists have become reclusive and secretive. Kelvin does not solve the mystery, the mystery engulfs him as he seeks answers. The results are an intriguing film experience in both the Russian and American versions.

Tarkovsky's film had only a small budget for special effects but that doesn't diminish the impact of the story. The cast is uniformly excellent and the acting superb. Tarkovsky uses a lot of symbolism and likes lingering shots of landscapes, etc. People who like foreign film will not be surprised by the leisurely pace and the few scenes that seem to go on too long.

Soderbergh's film didn't get much respect when first released due to inevitable comparisons to Tarkovsky's film, considered a minor masterpiece. Over time the explanation that Soderbergh's film was not a remake but in fact a different telling of the same story was accepted and now the film has developed a following among science fiction film fans. George Clooney turns in a strong performance and Natascha McElhone does as well.

Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is considered to be a masterpiece and established Tarkovsky as something of a film genius, well deserved in my opinion. His Solaris shows the same brilliance and even with subtitles is highly recommended to anyone interested in serious science fiction. Soderbergh's film has the virtues of being far more accessible, faster paced, and an enhanced, more pointed exposition of the interpersonal drama and philosophical questions.


  1. Garuda's Avatar
    Both are still on my 'to watch' list. We rented the DVD of the Soderbergh version some weeks ago, but, unfortunately, it was damaged and we only got to watch the first half an hour...
  2. Doc's Avatar
    That's why I left out any spoilers. I hope you get to see them soon. If there was a choice I would wish you could see Tarkovsky's version first but, no matter, nothing will be lost by seeing the Soderbergh version first. I look forward to reading your reaction when you've seen it.
  3. CasperParks's Avatar
    I have a vague memory of watching the 2002 version. It’s at the local library, will have to pick it up.
  4. Doc's Avatar
    You can watch the Russian version here:

    I'll be interested to read what you think of them.
  5. CasperParks's Avatar