Saturday, March 29, 2008

Solaris - the boson delusion

Solaris (12)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh (2002)
94 mins
20th Century Fox

One of Maxima's roles in a local charity shop called XV is to phone round volunteers to fill shifts when required. When she realised I had a day off work today, she looked at the rota, saw that both shifts needed covering, and that put paid to my plans to spend a quiet day chewing things over in the draughty old fen.

In a bid to get people to buy some videos and DVDs that have been there so long they may soon be absorbed into the fabric of the building, they've been arranged in a tabletop display, and have been there so long that they seem to be part of the table. We'd happily give them away, but they're not moving. So I took one home.

Having once been a fan of science fiction books - by many authors, including Niven and Pournelle, Frank Herbert and John Brunner - my eye alighted on Solaris starring George Clooney. The cover showed Clooney astronaut-helmed and a space-station orbiting the planet of the title, shown in a soft-focus from which it never escapes during the film.

Suicide features strongly in the screenplay. Psychologist Chris Kelvin, Clooney's character, is grieving after that of his wife when he receives a distress call from a friend on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, only to find that his friend, too, has committed suicide by the time he gets there.

The two crew left on the station are uncommunicative in different ways: Dr Helen Gordon (Viola Davis) just wants to go home, and Snow (Jeremy Davies) looks as if he's ingested too much hallucinogens, either by mouth or by ear (à la Sgt Pepper, acid's aural form).

Asleep, Kelvin dreams, understandably, of his wife, and times that they have shared are shown in flashbacks throughout the film. For example, there's a love scene - which, while not actually pornographic, is filmed with the actors naked, and sits uncomfortably with the film's "12" certification. Kelvin is shown in a rage in a scene that appears to be the immediate aftermath of his wife, Rheya, confessing to an abortion.

Kelvin awakes to find his neck being caressed - by his wife. Having assured himself he's awake, he tricks her into an escape pod then ejects it, turning away as it drifts into space so he doesn't have to look at her face: she does look rather miffed. In space, there are no sheds to retreat to when a man gets that look from his wife.

It turns out that people from the crewmembers' pasts - who have died - have returned to, er, haunt them. Gordon, however, has found a way to be rid of them - by aiming a beam generated from a "Higgs field" at them. After Rheya's shade attempts suicide by drinking liquid oxygen but is frustrated by immortality, she begs Gordon to kill her - which Gordon, we are led to believe, does gladly, for she doesn't believe the shades are human, and states "I want people to win".

The plot promises to mine fascinating seams of meaning, then declares them unworthy of excavation. An interesting theme about the ontological status of our memories starts to develop, then crashes and burns as the "memory", left alone, looks back on memories of her own. Again, Kelvin has a conversation with another apparition about precisely who is hallucinating whom, but that goes nowhere as well.

We are shown a short clip of a dinner-party where Rheya debates the existence of God - that debate never resurfaces, either, but the subject is not entirely dropped; it's a theme, but not as we know it.

It's said by some that the god(s) of the former prevalent religion feed the demonology of the next. Thus, the horned god of the pre-Christian pagan religions - which were eventually given the coup de grâce not by Christianity but by Enlightenment thinkers - is said to have inspired depictions of Satan. You could say that radical militant atheists are trying to do the same job with God - note that the title of Christopher Hitchens' tome is not God does not exist, but God is not great. The still-undiscovered Higgs boson (some sources capitalise both initial letters) is breathlessly referred to by some scientists as the "God particle." A massive underground basilica has been built at CERN to welcome the putative quark at a price which makes St Peter's look as if it was funded from the petty-cash box. I think it's significant that the beam which "kills" the shades comes from a Higgs field. The god particle undoes the existence of those made in God's image.

Except it doesn't. Kelvin and Rheya - whose name was changed from Hari in Andrea Tarkovski's 1972 film of Stanisław Lem's classic 1961 science fiction novel to be homophonic with the Greeks' great mother goddess - return, one presumes, on Solaris, where Rheya indulgently informs Kelvin that "all is forgiven". It would certainly be irresponsible for me to suggest that suicide is unforgiveable, because that's not the case, but we are not treated to any explanation as to who or what has done the forgiving. As the Higgs boson, if it exists, is estimated to last a fraction of a fraction of a second, it would not be a great candidate for this disposition, as it's difficult to imagine it getting up to a lot of forgiving in its lifespan. Assuming the absence of God - who, thankfully, survives all his many obituaries - I can't see the next candidate for apotheosis. Mother Earth, perhaps - almost certainly with a much reduced population of humanity, possibly totally without one; which would be to completely miss the point of Creation: us.

There's a coda. Finally, we see Kelvin back on earth, but he feels "wrong". He has a memory of holding back from entering the escape pod piloted by Gordon to remain on the space station, and one presumes that this earthly version of Kelvin is a shade.

It's the sort of turnaround that was pioneered televisually in Quatermass and the Pit, where an investigation into alien artefacts throws up the conclusion that it is mankind who is in fact the alien. However, whereas the phenomenon of workers running home in the late '50's to catch the latest episode of Quatermass has become the stuff of legend, Solaris's underwhelming ending finishes off a long list of reasons why a charity shop couldn't give it away.

Related post - why the large hadron collider will find the Higgs boson

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