The Polish novel Solaris (1961) was announced as a classic from the day it was first published in English. Its author, Stanislaw Lem, was Eastern Europe’s most successful science fiction writer, and intent on showing the whole English-language world just how the genre should be written! Lem’s fictional planet, Solaris, behaves as a giant alien mind, one essentially unknowable to human intellect.
Set in the near future, the central character of the story is a widowed therapist Kris Kelvin (George Clooney) who is sent to the space station orbiting Solaris to investigate the strange and fatal hallucinations of the crew.
It seems the sentient – and possibly malevolent – planet has been probing the minds of the humans orbiting above its surface so that it can confront each of them with visions of those things they most love or fear. Kelvin’s wife (Natascha McElhone) had committed suicide on Earth but is given back to him in a vision. She knows she is an alien artefact, and, in despair, attempts to kill herself … over and over.
A cinematic predecessor to this movie was the Solaris was released in Russia in 1972. It was a meditative, beautiful film but incorporated an impenetrable 20-minute introduction.
Soderbergh’s Solaris has a coldly beautiful look and is also meditative, at least by American standards. But fans of the book should be warned to expect a new, albeit equally convincing, ending.