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Your average, run-of-the-mill sci-fi fan could easily feel ripped off by Solaris because there are no laser blasts or spaceship dogfights. It isn’t Star Wars, and it isn’t Star Trek. Where those movies are adventures, Solaris is a romance, a mystery, a drama, and an ethics debate.

Calling Doctor Kelvin

Husband and wife explore the differences between human and personGeorge Clooney stars as Dr. Chris Kelvin, a psychologist who has recently lost his wife. Kelvin gets summoned to the space ship orbiting the planet Solaris. Some sort of space madness has struck the crew.

Kelvin arrives to find only two crew members still alive: Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis). They both refuse to tell Kelvin what’s happening, choosing instead to let him experience it for himself.

Body Double

What’s happening is that Solaris is somehow tapping into the crew’s dreams, then creating living, breathing doppelgangers on the ship. Kelvin’s double takes the form of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone).

These nearly perfect human replicas are made of different stuff than we humans. Their minds have one key difference as well: although they have memories of certain events, they don’t recall actually having lived through them. Their minds appear to have been programmed an artificial pasts. Otherwise, they appear as human as you or me.

Gordon has found a way to kill the doppelgangers. They are susceptible to a certain type of ray. Gordon killed her double, as did many of the crew members who are now dead. Gordon wants Kelvin to kill his, too, so that they can pilot the ship back to Earth.

But Kelvin isn’t sure he wants to kill his double. His “wife” knows something is wrong with her, and it terrifies her. When she learns that she is somehow not human, she is confused and frightened, as any normal human being would be. Her human reactions make Kelvin want to learn more about these things before deciding how to behave toward them.

Intelligent Design

The first mystery of Solaris is how these doppelgangers come to be. The crew’s most obvious fear is that some intelligence on Solaris is creating them, either as military spies or as scientific probes. Whether humanity is being studied for weaknesses or living under an alien microscope, both possibilities are somewhat troubling.

Snow mentions that they might simply result from a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s possible that our science just isn’t ready for Solaris. If there is no purpose to the doppelgangers, then there is no reason to be suspicious, only curious.

But the natural assumption is that these doppelgangers were made. That’s the same assumption that the “intelligent design” anti-evolution crowd makes in regards to human origins on earth. But maybe, like evolution, this is something that just happens and we aren’t intelligent enough yet to know how it works.

Layers of Film

On the surface, Solaris is about Dr. Kelvin and his emotions. He loves and misses his wife, and here on the ship she lives again. In a commercial film (which this is), the love story between George Clooney and Natascha McElhone necessarily takes center stage. But it is the least interesting of the conflicts in Solaris.

The most intriguing conflict exists in the subtext. It examines the very nature of what it means to be human, or in legal terms, to be a “person.” For if a doppelganger has desires, feels love and pain, if it thinks and avoids being hurt, then it too should be afforded the rights of a person.

Does killing a doppelganger constitute murder? If not — if these things aren’t people — then can they held accountable for crimes committed?

These are exactly the sorts of issues that science fiction, as a genre, is good at. Science fiction can address social issues without appearing to take sides in modern political arguments. Science fiction can explore racism, for example, by substituting “racial minorities” with “alien species.”

Solaris uses the genre to explore the nature of personhood. I suppose the most applicable debate would be the abortion debate, deep down where the very definition of “person” is explored, although it also applies to theories of crime and punishment, or the notion of rights.

Conclusion

Beneath the Hollywood romance, Solaris is a psychological mystery. It’s driven by the question, “what is going on, and why.” It asks whether the force from Solaris is benevolent or malevolent, and whether there even is a volition. It asks whether we can we learn from this phenomenon, and whether we should we destroy it if we don’t understand it.

These are some interesting questions for a movie to ask, although perhaps not for everyone. Solaris is very good, but perhaps only for pensive audiences. If you’re looking for Star Trek 10, you’ll have to wait another month.