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Director: Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972
Director: Steven Soderbergh, 2003
SOLARIS, novel by Stanislaw Lem, first published in Polish, 1961

This is an attempt to sort out my thoughts after seeing the George Clooney US film, re-seeing the Tarkovsky (for perhaps the fourth or fifth time) and reading the original novel by Stanislaw Lem. Readers who don't want to know what happens at the end of any of these works (the ending of the Tarkovsky is particularly effective if you haven't seen it before) should perhaps avoid reading it, though I shall not be going into too much detail. This isn't a 'review' but, for what its worth, I thought the US film was better than I expected. My expectations were pretty low.
The story, for those who don't know and haven't been deterred by my health warning, concerns attempts to explore and understand a planet  (Solaris) which appears to have a creative will of its own. An investigator - 'Kris Kelvin' - is sent out because strange things seem to be happening on the space station where the research is being carried out. It transpires that they are being 'visited' by embodiments of their memories or of their fantasies, apparently created by the planet. Soon after his arrival, Kelvin is visited by his former wife, Rheya.
The original novel turns on the relations with the planet which is described in very dramatic terms. The space vessel is suspended just above the planet's 'ocean' so it's in the middle of all the dramatic events that keep happening as this ocean throws up all sorts of fantastic shapes. It is a little strange, and quite impressive, that a Hollywood director wouldn't have seen this as an opportunity for the most wonderful special effects (Soderbergh directed the special effects film The Abyss). One expects everything to be understated by Tarkovsky but I think nonetheless that he addresses what Lem wanted to express by evoking the strange and wonderful shapes that appear in the natural world on earth. Thus he begins his film with the mysterious movements of pond weed and he adds a scene in which a small boy confronts and is terrified by a horse in its stable. The boy also meets a girl slightly older than himself and there is a moment of thinking this too is something utterly strange and alien before she smiles in a friendly way and they start playing together (its a sort of summary of the entire film in about 30 seconds).
I have been told that Lem himself preferred the Holywood version to the Tarkovsky. If this is true it may simply be because Tarkovsky has so obviously turned Lem's idea into a vehicle for his own interests, continuous through all his films. Nonetheless the Tarkovsky still seems to me to be closer to the original than the Soderbergh, which I think owes more to Tarkovsky than to Lem. Like Tarkovsky Soderbergh emphasises the life on earth aspect much more than Lem does. Lem refers only very briefly to Kris Kelvin's relations with Rheya on earth and her suicide. Soderbergh makes a meal of it. Tarkovsky adds a whole new theme of Kris's relations with his parents (which I think may be a starting point for Tarkovsky's next film, Mirror).
The Lem book as I said is primarily about the relations with the planet - as such it is really about our relations with that which isn't ourselves, or our ideas/ideals - scientific, political (there are moments when 'Solarism' seems to resemble 'Socialism' as something that is always there to be aimed for but always out of reach) and religion: the planet is a mysterious 'creator'. There are pages and pages which I liked, but others probably wouldn't, on the history of Solarist studies and the various fashions they went through. Although little of this has passed into either of the two films there is still more of it in Tarkovsky than there is in Soderbergh.
It is interesting to note the differences between the 'visitors' experienced by the characters in the three versions. There are four individuals concerned - Kelvin, the 'hero'; Gibarian, who has committed suicide before Kelvin arrives on the station; Snow, the first person Kelvin meets on the station, and Sartorius, locked up in his/her room, a sort of embodiment of pure science.
Kelvin's visitor is, consistently in all three, his former wife/lover who committed suicide when he walked out on her. All three stress the internal drama of the 'visitor' who has human-like feelings and increasingly realises that she isn't the real person she sincerely thought she was.
Gibarian's visitor in Lem is a giant negress, naked except for a grass skirt. She is continuing to wander round even though Gibarian is dead.
In Tarkovsky its a young pretty girl in a diaphanous gown also seen by Kelvin after Gibarian is dead.
In both cases I think we can read it as a sexual fantasy. In the Tarkovsky, Gibarian, in the film he has prepared for Kelvin, says the visitors are to do with conscience and Kelvin later says Gibarian committed suicide not out of cowardice but out of shame.
In Soderbergh Gibarian's visitor is a small boy only seen very briefly at the beginning but who turns up again at the end offering his hand to Kelvin in a parody of the ET/Michelangelo Creation of Adam meeting of two different worlds. No suggestion of anything of a sexual nature - leaving Gibarian's death, I think, rather meaningless.
Soderbergh's small boy may have been suggested largely by the Tarkovsky, in which Kelvin sees and picks up an unexplained rubber ball. In both Tarkovsky and Lem however there is also a vision of a huge child floating above the surface of the planet which is part of the prehistory of the story (it's the child of an astronaut who had disappeared seen by another astronaut who was searching for him).
We never learn anything about Snow's visitor in Lem or in Tarkovsky. Snow's way of behaving suggests that it is something very frightening. In the Soderbergh version it was a double of Snow himself who has killed the real Snow when the real Snow tried to kill him. So the Snow we meet is actually the visitor, a rather ingenious notion. But also, unlike nearly everything in Lem and Tarkovsky, rather pointless.
In Lem Sartorius's visitor isn't seen but is heard in the pattering of small feet and very harsh laughter. Kelvin imagines it as a 'cretinous dwarf'. In Tarkovsky it is briefly seen as a manic dwarf. In both Lem and Tarkovsky Sartorius is the model of an impersonal scientist absolutely refusing to see the visitors as anything other than neutrino systems to be dissected and analysed. He has the same human imperialist attitude to the planet itself. Both the Lem and the Tarkovsky could be said to be attacks on his mentality.
In both Lem and Tarkovsky we realise, though it isn't stressed, that both Snow and Sartorius are continuously 'killing' their visitors, then enjoying a brief respite before they reappear.
In Soderbergh Sartorius is transformed into a black woman who is still the most 'scientifically objective' of the group, perhaps still the most unfeeling with regard to the visitors, but she is portrayed sympathetically, as indeed the most intelligent of the group, the natural leader, and as actually quite capable of human feeling under her harsh exterior. I can't remember that we are ever told who or what her visitor is and no issue is made of it.
The transformation of the objective scientist from negative figure in the Eastern European/Russian versions to positive figure in the US version is, surely, significant.
Tarkovsky introduces a theme of our relations with the natural world which is outside the Lem novel but can be seen as a variant on the central Lem theme of the relations with the planet. Tarkovsky regards the human-made world as harsh and intolerable - hence the seemingly endless sequence of motorway driving in the first - pre-lift off - part of the film. Also the pieces of paper attached to the space station's ventilation system which give an illusion of the sound of rustling leaves. The device of the pieces of paper appears also in Lem but is unexplained. Soderbergh's world is entirely manmade and not pleasant. Kelvin on Earth lives in a curious box like building approached by a rather forbidding metal staircase. Also he seems to have some very obnoxious friends (which is certainly how Rheya sees them). Most oddly - and rather impressively - the artificial sounds of the space station when Kelvin arrives on it are distinctly irritating, as are the sounds of the children's games Snow (or is it his visitor?) appears to be watching when Kelvin first meets him. But nothing is said about the natural world as a possible alternative to all this unpleasantness.
Both Tarkovsky and Soderbergh end with an illusion that Kelvin has returned to earth, then we realise he is actually in a fairly complete simulacrum of earth on the planet. In Soderbergh this is presented as almost positive, a positive step forward for mankind. We have the ET/Creation of Adam encounter with the little boy. Kelvin is reunited with 'Rheya' apparently happily, giving the film a happy ending. In Tarkovsky, Kelvin is reunited with his father but the implications of what we might call this reunion in virtual reality are sinister. Lem ends with Kelvin deciding to stay with the planet and descending to its surface in a space craft. There is no illusion that he is on earth and it is stressed that he has no expectation of seeing the return of Rheya. There is a curious moment when his hand is 'embraced' by a sort of 'flower' that swells up from the planet (a phenomenon scientists had already observed) that could have suggested the hand contact with the boy in the Soderbergh version. The last sentence is: 'I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.'
To sum up, both the Tarkovsky and the Lem have an intellectual content. Lem is interested in the relation between us and the thing we study that is external to us. But as Snow says: 'We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world.' Tarkovsky could be said to have picked up this idea and run with it. His film is about how the world we know that has been created by God (though Tarkovsky is not yet ready to express it in those terms) suits us better than the world we have created ourselves. It is perhaps no accident that his next film was called 'Mirror'. The Soderbergh film includes the quote about the mirror but it really has very little intellectual content. It is an ingenious love story with a happy ending. The difference between Soderbergh on the one hand and Lem and Tarkovsky on the other is the difference between ingenuity and thought.