Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Philosophy of the Possible: Why "Solaris" Succeeds


Above: an image from "Solaris"
A quick warning: this review contains no major spoilers, but it does contain minor ones.

I finally saw Steven Soderbergh's version of "Solaris," my first exposure to this story. While many critics saw the film as succeeding or failing in various degrees, many agreed that the film was essentially a space-bound love story. But for those of you that felt the love story was rather undeveloped or that the ideas in the film seemed more complex and interesting than the plot let on, I can assure you that you are not alone.

The story is simple enough science fiction: a new planet dubbed "Solaris" has been discovered, but something strange is happening to those researching it. The something strange, in this case, is that people who are important to those researchers begin appearing in the flesh on the research satellite above the mysterious planet. In George Clooney's case, it's his long-dead wife. For another researcher, it's his still-alive but earthbound son. And for some, it's far more complex.

The thread uniting these apparitions is that the resurrected individuals are among the most important in the lives of those to whom they appear. They also remember their lives as their counterparts remember it, whether that memory is accurate or not.

With the current position of scientific discovery in mind, there are many right answers (and many wrong answers) to the question of how these beings actually appear. Even a little scientific forecasting can give us an interesting story about Higgs bosons and Higgs fields holding these new creatures together (this is the route the film goes, in fact). But eventually that science can be proven wrong or right. Eventually the science becomes no more than MacGuffin, nothing more than the "Higgs field" holding the movie together. And finally, as science catches up to science fiction, something remains beyond those predictable scientific explanations, something more lasting and more intriguing.

That remaining something in "Solaris" is a series of questions, some about humanity and some about things above and beyond what humanity can see or figure out.

Regarding the former, the obviously captivating question is whether these apparitions are "life," are "human." The film asks whether these newly-created individuals, whose experiences are limited to those remembered by other people, are actually people themselves. Sure they are facsimiles of the dead or departed, but are they just new copies? What does it mean to kill them? What does it mean to love them?

But even while these provocative questions about memory, loss, guilt, humanity and psychology drive the film's narrative, an even more fascinating question from the second category hangs just behind the veil of the space opera: What are these people? How are they formed, apparently, out of something so ephemeral as memories? And why do they pop into existence in this place alone?

In short, the driving question, the question that drags "Solaris" out of pulp sci-fi territory, even out of psychological thriller territory, and into the philosophy of the possible, is Why?

The location and mechanisms of the apparition phenomenon implies that the planet, Solaris, is creating them. The planet is apparently receiving something from the people studying it from above, decoding it, and sending back something else, something it has encoded. In short, Solaris is trying to communicate.

And that is what fascinates me most about "Solaris." While some science fiction amounts essentially to stories told in space, great science fiction proposes fundamental questions about the world and ourselves and then ventures a guess as to how they might, or might not, be answered. "Contact" did this in a similar manner. "2001" did, too. Even "Sunshine," while not universal loved, attempted this kind of ideological exploration.

In one telling exchange, George Clooney's character asks one of the apparitions what Solaris wants. The film recognizes the inherent human bias in expecting any intelligence to want something from us, and the apparition responds, "why do you think it has to want something?" "Solaris" is willing to get past the trappings of conventional science fiction and ask this difficult question, among a plethora of other equally interesting questions.

This kind of fundamental exploration of what it means to be alive, this kind of casting off of our human biases in favor of something inexplicable, is what makes "Solaris" a truly lasting, truly invigorating science fiction movie.

NOTES: Stanislaw Lem, author of the original novel from which "Solaris" is adapted, has also expressed concern at calling the film a "love story." The ideas he discusses in this article serve to underscore just what makes "Solaris" far more interesting than your average pulp science fiction story.

No comments:

Post a Comment