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SOLARIS (1972 Russian; 2002 English)


PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Personal identity

CHARACTERS (RUSSIAN):
Harey, Snaut, Kris, Sartorius, Burton, Father, Gibarian

CHARACTERS (ENGLISH):
Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), Rheya (Chris’s former wife), Gibarian (Chris’s friend), Gordon, Snow

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ANDREI TARKOVSKY: The Mirror (1976), Stalker (1979), Sacrifice (1986)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR STEPHEN SODERBERGH: Traffic (2000), Erin Brockovich (2000), Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

SYNOPSIS: A space station is set up near a newly discovered planet called Solaris. The planet is in some sense alive and has the ability to create human-like beings on the space station based on the astronauts’ memories of family members. Chris, a psychologist, is sent to the space station to persuade the astronauts to return home. While there a creature resembling his dead wife Rheya appears. Chris is given a second chance with his wife, but this is overshadowed by questions about whether this creature really is his former wife. In the end, he decides to not go back to earth, is transformed by Solaris into a cloned creature, and lives a life of blissful illusion with the Rheya-creature. The original 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem, upon which the two movies was based, contained a lot of philosophical dialogue. The Russian film retains this flavor. The original screen play to the English film, and its initial shooting, also contains philosophical dialogue. However, as Soderbergh states in the director’s commentary that the English film, these portions were pared away in the final cut, opting for an emotional story instead.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. At the outset of the film, Gibarian makes the following statement in his recorded message to Chris: “We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: solitude, hardship, exhaustion, death. We're proud of ourselves, in a way. But our enthusiasm is a sham. We don't want to conquer the cosmos – we want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the cosmos. We are only seeking Man. We don't want Other Worlds. We want mirrors. Maybe we don't need to know what it is, or why. Maybe just knowing that it is should be enough.” What’s his point here, and does his point gain new meaning when we later become aware of what is happening on Solaris?

2. In the original English film screenplay, Snow states regarding Solaris, “Personally, I think it's God. At least, it fits my definition.” What definition of God might Snow have in mind, and is this an appropriate definition of God?

3. Three central features connected with personal identity over time are continuity of one’s body, one’s personality traits, and one’s memories. How do these three features relate to the Rheya-creature’s identity with the real Rheya?

4. Of the three characters that were cloned by Solaris (Rheya, Snow and Chris), which of these came the closest to retaining the identity of the original?

5. In the director’s commentary to the English film, Soderbergh notes that his version of the film has the Rheya-creature agonize over her identity, which was not part of the original novel or the Russian film. We also see this agonizing in the Snow-creature. (In the movie multiplicity, but contrast, the clones quickly accept their clone-status.) If you discovered that you were a creature created by Solaris, what would your reaction be?

6. In the director’s commentary to the English film, Soderbergh states that Chris’s ultimate acceptance of the Rheya-creature was a “male thing”: intellectually he knew that she was dead, but the tactile sensation of her allowed him to accept her as the real thing. Is this a male thing?

7. At the close of the film the Rheya-creature states that “I read my own suicide note. I found it in your things. I realized I was not her.” What specifically about the suicide note prompted her to think that she was not Rheya?

8. Assume in principle that abortion is morally permissible. Did Rheya have an obligation to consult Chris before aborting her fetus?

9. In the original English film screenplay, Chris describes the physical nature of Solaris: “It exists in a continuum that wasn't proven until ten years ago, a higher mathematical dimension superimposed on top of the Universe. An infinite number of them, in fact. It was a violation of all of our various laws regarding the Universe, Space, or Space-Time. It was completely counter-intuitive. We had to unlearn everything.” Does this description bolster Snow’s contention that Solaris is God?

10. In the original English film screenplay, Chris and Rheya have the following conversation regarding God. Chris: “The whole idea of God was dreamed up by a silly animal with a small brain called Man. Even the limits we put on it are human limits. It can do this, it can do that! It designs, it creates!” Rheya: “Even a God that wasn't active, that just created something and stood back and watched?” Chris: “You're talking about a man in a white beard again. You're ascribing human characteristics to something that isn't human. Human beings look for causes and patterns. How could we know what Solaris is up to, if anything?” Chris’s point is that all notions of God that we arrive at will be tainted by anthropomorphism. Is that true?

11. In the director’s commentary to the English film, Soderbergh discusses whether Solaris is either a good or a bad entity, and he quotes Stanley Kubrick who stated that the universe is neither good or bad, but indifferent. Are there any indications about Solaris’s motives?

 
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