Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) famously ends with the astronaut Dave pointing toward an alien monolith using the gesture with which Adam reaches toward God on the Sistine chapel ceiling in the portrait of creation. The aliens who sent the monolith, then, are man’s creators through their interference with the evolutionary process and by recreating man free of his bodily limitations at the end of the film.
Andrei Tarkovsky decided to reply to this in his Solyaris (1972), ending with an image of human reconciliation taken from Rembrandt’s The return of the prodigal son. (This painting is in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg). The difference is in the diagnosis of man’s problem and the direction of its solution. Kubrick is interested in the disparity between man’s nature and his aspirations. Since the problem is in his being (his physical constitution) what he needs as a re-creation on a better model. Tarkovsky starts with man’s moral brokenness, which precedes the problems of his physical nature, though they are related. The physical context, which Kubrick saw as the problem, must be restored before man can approach a moral reconciliation.
Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002) returns to Kubrick’s image from 2001. Why is that?
In this picture the psychologist Chris Kelvin, sent to fix the failed mission at a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, reaches out to the hominid created by the planet. By this time in the film these hominids are seen as extensions of the planet’s consciousness, with a particular mission to man, making them analogous to the alien monoliths in 2001. These hominids, patterned on human memories, have a self-identity, but it is only as complete at the available memories of them seen from the outside viewers who remember them.
The images in 2001 and Solyaris occur at the end of these films. Soderbergh, however, uses his a little earlier, when the space station is being absorbed into the planet. Then the real ending starts and it is there that the topic of reconciliation is taken up.
Kelvin seems to have returned to earth but it turns out that he is a hominid replica of his original self (which presumably was not able to survive physically on Solaris with the destruction of the space station). The replica of his dead wife, which Solaris had first created on the space station, also appears. He asks her:
“Are we alive?”
To which she answers:
“We don’t have to think like that any more. Everything we have done is forgiven. Everything.”
Here, then, is the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it is only presented when the two can relate as replica to replica. These characters have been recreated, on analogy with 2001, with new bodies for which the problem of mortality is solved. Free of mortality, the picture suggests, there is an easing of the human predicament. The existential crisis is lessened, and with it the problems of meaning and of guilt.
Soderbergh, then, sides with Kubrick. Man’s problem is not in the first place moral and relational, but a problem with his physical nature, which cannot support the aspirations of his mental or psychological nature. When these inner states are made to survive in an indestructible body and environment, sustained by the godlike planet Solaris, man’s problem is eased, if not resolved.
The incoherencies in this are: 1) Is this really Cris Kelvin and his wife, or are they dead with their original bodies, and what the planet has created merely models replicating them? 2) If we don’t “have to think like that any more”, that is, according to the ideas of life and its purpose as they were understood in the natural bodies, what else changes? Is there a place for human purposes, or would they go away with the human bodies and human situations? 3) What can it mean that everything is forgiven? Why does this change of being equate to forgiveness? Who forgave whom? Why does she say “is forgiven” as though a third party did it (the planet Solaris acting in the role of God)? Doesn’t she really mean that the old scores are irrelevant now?