Aldous Huxley once remarked: "Every person's memory is his own private literature." Well, then, what a vast territory we each have to explore all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches of a lifetime. Some potent experiences rise to the top of our consciousness, and we are drawn back to the past. Sometimes we are allowed to savor magical moments of bliss and true peace. Other times, unpleasant or painful memories emerge from where they have been stored until we are ready to receive them. We never know what to expect from this private literature. It always has an element of mystery.
These dimensions of memory are explored in Steven Soderbergh's fluid and alluring science fiction film Solaris. It is a new adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's novel, which was previously filmed in 1972 as a Russian production directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a psychologist in Los Angeles sometime in the future who is grieving the death of his wife. He carries on his sessions with therapy clients but there is a noticeable emptiness in his life. Then he receives a strange video communication and a plea for help from his close friend Gibrarian, who is the commander of a distant space station, the Prometheus. Chris decides to take on the mission. But when he arrives on the space station, he learns his friend has committed suicide. A scientist called Snow (Jeremy Davis) babbles on incoherently. "I could tell you what's happening here," he says, "but I don't know if that would really tell you what's happening here." Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis) is also exhibiting odd behavior; she has locked herself in her room. "Until it starts happening to you," she tells Chris, "there's really no point in discussing it."
Unhinged by the bizarre actions of these scientists, Chris has a restless night. He dreams about the day he first saw his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) aboard a train and then at a party. It was almost as if they were destined to meet. The chemistry was perfect in an evening of love. When Chris wakes up, he is startled to discover Rheya beside him. They talk and then, convinced that she is an hallucination or an alien being, he gets rid of her. Of course, this act draws out all the guilt he is carrying about their troubled past: the long wait for her to marry him, her depression, her dislike of his friends, an abortion, and her suicide. Rheya returns again as a phantom and is angry that she doesn't feel like herself. That discomfort may be accounted for by the fact that she is his memory and not her own person.
Although Solaris can definitely be seen as a love story, its most affecting and powerful theme is that of the mystery of the human adventure and the yearning we all have within us to redo the past and make up for our mistakes and the messes we have caused. Written for the screen, directed, photographed, and edited by Steven Soderbergh, this cerebral and open-ended drama allows us to explore the private literature of one troubled man. As we watch his story, the everyday world we live in begins to seem as unfathomable as his. We wander down the corridor of our memories and feel the limits of reason and logic. We realize that the inner work we have to do is endless as we probe the past and try to discern the meanings in our intimate relationships. Eventually, we reach the same point as Chris who realizes "there are no answers, only choices."
Relax and let the multiple mysteries in Solaris wash over you. Let the images steep in your mind for a few days. Try harvesting some of your memories. Treat them with respect and don't hurry or reject them. Figure out what they have to say to you. Follow Soderbergh's lead here. He's given us a fascinating portrait of the process of hallowing the mysteries of memory, love, and yearning.
The most interesting extra on the DVD is the audio commentary with director Steven Soderbergh and producer James Cameron talking to each other about their different approaches to science fiction and this story. There is also a "making of" featurette by Soderbergh, another one by HBO, and material on the screenplay.