‘Solaris’ (2002) is a Romantic Sci-Fi Film That Needs Revisiting

“A movie that is refreshingly and sincerely romantic, marking a dramatic contrast not just to the great bulk of science fiction, but with modern mainstream cinema at large.”
George Clooney in a space suit; the glass of the suit reflects a vast control room.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Science fiction is making waves once again. With the arguably unexpected success of Dune, a weighty space opera that offers complex lore, audiences may be primed for more intricate sci-fi stories. The public’s willingness to engage with that, however, is a marked contrast from Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. Timothée Chalamet managed to attract people in droves for the former, but George Clooney’s much more significant star power — in a less culturally fragmented early internet age, no less — still couldn’t give the latter any leverage. The public at the time was just not interested in this adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s classic novel, and no doubt movie buffs were skeptical that it could match Andrei Tarkovsky’s acclaimed first adaptation. It’s a film that has been relegated to history, but the resurgence of big screen science fiction makes for the perfect time to revisit an under-appreciated, boldly original work of art.

Its competition is immense, considering that Tarkovsky is regarded as one of the best sci-fi filmmakers of all time. His work is slow, meditative, and thoroughly intelligent. His films were seen as a maturation of an often juvenile genre. Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris remains incredible even now. The original book is perhaps even richer and more complex than its film; setting a Hollywood adaptation up to fail, considering its tendency to smooth out the edges of remade classics. The Hollywood take does mask some of the sci-fi behind a tale of grief and love, but whilst some might find that a dumbing-down, it adds a much welcome humanizing element to the familiar tale.

Soderbergh’s version shares the same roots as its source material. The protagonist is  psychologist Kris Kelvin (George Clooney), living on Earth in what seems to be the near future. When he’s asked to visit a troubled research station above the planet Solaris he discovers challenges beyond his capabilities. The station is subject to “visitors,” presumably brought about by the planet itself in its apparent sentience. Kris soon finds himself visited by a duplicate of his dead partner, Rheya (Natasha McElhone). This reworking builds on the foundations of the novel quite differently from Tarkovsky’s film; something  suggested by the station hovering in space, rather than close above the planet’s surface. Solaris here proves to be the instigator of events, but the film is really concerned with the struggles faced by the humans falling apart above it — leaving room for a focus on romance, grief, and the never-ending human battle of emotion versus reason.

Our struggles to deal with the gravity of our own emotion take front and centre, with the film beginning with an original sequence of Kelvin attending therapy for his own grief. Such sequences continue throughout the film, with flashbacks to his deeply romantic but sometimes fractious relationship with Rheya. This is the emotional core of the film and undoubtedly makes her arrival more powerful as, rather than robotically asking the audience how they’d respond, it draws them into the psychological complexities of revisiting your past so viscerally. All of the Solaris stories ask variations on a loaded question: How can we deal with exploring space when we haven’t even mastered our emotions? This version, however, further brings to the surface the difficulties that even the best of us experience in dealing with change and finding purpose.That the core relationship at its center feels so real invites audiences to look at their own lives.

It’s a movie that is refreshingly and sincerely romantic, marking a dramatic contrast not just to the great bulk of science fiction, but with modern mainstream cinema at large. Blockbusters today lack any legendary romances, and there’s a widely recognised coyness surrounding sex. Sex is even an increasing rarity in arthouse cinema, with most films going for tasteful suggestion instead of anything more explicit or authentic. A strong exception is Claire Denis’ High Life (2018), though it is much more interested in the idea of human desire — taking it to surreal, body-fluid-driven extremes —  than it is in presenting believable characters. Solaris is unafraid to present emotional and physical vulnerability between people, with an honesty that might appear unsophisticated to a modern audience. However, the exploration of relationships is compelling because the love feels believable, rather than being deified or made a subject simply for intellectual scrutiny. This honesty makes the beautifully composed shots and sweeping score even more effective, the film’s entrancing mood is the result of all these elements working in unity.

Natasha McElhone leans close to George Clooney as he lays in a reclining chair.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The human drama that is at the centre of the story also made it enormously different to the pulpy sci-fi that it was contemporary to. The Matrix (1999) unfortunately created a landscape where numerous filmmakers tried to copy its combination of philosophical questioning and kung fu, largely emphasising the action like their progenitor but severely lacking its style. Modern sci-fi is stuck trying to make itself look prestigious, perhaps in opposition to the daft noughties movies, resulting in the likes of the sentimental and unintelligent Interstellar and the plodding, emotionally dead Ad Astra. Solaris isn’t trying to fit into any sort of trend, giving it easy rewatchability because it still feels so fresh.

It’s not necessarily better than any other Solaris, and lacks some of the intellectual complexity that they hold. It is definitely the most immediately enjoyable of the iterations, however, because of the personal way it tells its tale. The brilliant ambiguity of Lem’s writing allowed for two major films that make for excellent companions to both each other and the novel. Being a companion piece to classic works should make this a classic in itself, too. More important than that, though, is how it’s driven by real emotion in a time where humanity is so often filtered through comedy or a too-clever veil. This is a film you’ll want to watch more than once, and that stands the test of time.