Ritual Drama: Solaris, or Cybele and Attis in Space


Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for Solaris.

One of the many reasons I pay careful attention to commentary tracks on DVDs is to hear writers and directors explain what the film they made is supposed to be about. And one thing that always puzzles me is when the creators don't seem exactly sure what their film is saying. The most egregious example of this is Dark City - none of the principals on the commentary track seem entirely sure what the film means. Perhaps it would be better to ask Andrew Mason- producer of Dark City and the nearly-concurrent Matrix- what the story was about, since it is so rife with blatant Masonic themes. Mason also produced Red Planet, which plays like another piece of blatant Masonic ritual drama. Maybe he has a better idea.

Steven Soderbergh seemed equally puzzled in interviews when promoting his remake of Solaris. He offered a number of vague interpretations in a manner that seemed to demonstrate he was genuinely unsure about the ultimate meaning of the story. But it should be known that Solaris was produced by James Cameron, who also did interviews for the film's junket and its commentary track- and plied Soderbergh with notes and talks throughout the film's making. I'd wager Cameron is a little more sure of the film's ultimate meaning, but would also be less likely to share it.


But one thing I've learned is how many writers can work on a film's script and never be known to the public. That's not to mention all the executives who change a script with "notes," which writers are obliged to follow, or how films can be drastically altered in post-production or editing. There's an awful lot of money at stake with big-budget films and the days of the auteur are over in Hollywood. If it feels like most movies today are written by committees, it's because that's exactly the case.

Another question I've always had about Solaris is who exactly thought that a very dark and meditative mood piece would ever earn back the 50 million dollars they spent on making it- it grossed less than 15 million in its US theatrical release. It's an amazing, hypnotic and moving piece of cinema to be sure, but not even remotely commercial.

When these films are made I automatically begin to wonder why. I start to wonder if someone was going to all that trouble to make a statement. And Solaris makes a pretty disturbing statement if you follow the narrative. I wonder if that's why I find it so fascinating. All of my favorite films are those drenched in hidden subtext. And, more importantly, subtext ordered in sequence, which makes the possibility of coincidence or accident hard for me to believe. Sequence is the very basis of all language.

The film's plot is very simple- George Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a widowed psychiatrist sent to the space station Prometheus, which is orbiting a strange planet called Solaris. Most of the crew on board are dead, as are the people sent to rescue them. The planet is driving everyone insane by producing replicants of people from the crews memories. And when Chris comes onboard (he travels to the Prometheus via the space shuttle Athena), Solaris presents him with a copy of his wife, Rheya (the wife in the Russian original was named Hari).

Besides the spacecraft names, Rheya's name comes from the Greek rendering of Cybele, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize we might be watching a ritual drama unfold. Chris' name is self-explanatory, but it's worth noting that his name was spelled 'Kris Kelvin' in the novel.


The film begins with Chris hearing the voice of his dead wife. In the next shot, Chris walks the city streets while a low-flying jet rumbles ominously overhead. In the very next shot after that, he's counseling a support group for survivors of what is obviously a 9/11-type event. We have no idea of timeframe- he may well have witnessed that event himself.

After matter of factly hitting us with the 9/11 parallels, we are then shown Chris at home cutting zucchini, bringing us almost instantly to the castration symbolism. In case you missed that, Soderbergh hits you again with a extreme closeup of a nasty gash on Chris' finger. And of course as soon as this happens, the arrival of the goddess is inevitable.

Two officials of the corporation researching Solaris show up at Chris' door, heralding the impending onscreen arrival of Rheya/Cybele. We get some nice Horus imagery as a bonus, with the retinal scans on Chris' security system. Chris then flies on the Athena off to the Prometheus and Solaris.

Chris' first sleep on Prometheus brings dreams of Rheya. This is our first shot of her, inexplicably carrying a doorknob between her legs. Chris has a gash, Rheya has a knob. Subtle as hell, don't you think?

Having been introduced to Rheya by seeing her hold a knob between her legs, the first words she speaks to Chris are "don't blow it." Huh. What do you think this is all meant to symbolize?

After the flashbacks, Rheya comes to Chris in his bed. Terrified, he gets rid of her but to no avail. She just comes back. Chris is smitten all over again and doesn't want to let Rheya go. This puts him at odds with Gordon, the scientist who is now in charge of the Solaris mission. She's mortally terrified of the planet and of the visitors. She knows something about them but never tells us what (I wonder if her name is a reference to Gordian, as in the Gordian Knot).

But she's especially terrified that the visitors could very well come back to Earth with them, and that they might never stop reproducing themselves. In fact, her terror stems from the fact that the visitors pose an existential threat to humankind.

As Chris remembers what a mess Rheya was, her copy begins to mirror that. Rheya committed suicide and her copy does the same, with the aid of Gordon. But it only makes Gordon all the more terrified. She and Chris then discover that the only other crew member is himself a copy. Gordon then decides to get the hell out of Dodge.

But Solaris seems perturbed by its guests' rude behavior and decides to destroy the space station. Chris suits up to leave with her but we later learn he decides at the last minute to stay and find the next Rheya. Chris is trapped while the Prometheus begins to disintegrate.

When Chris lays dying on the Prometheus he faces a silent boy named Michael (Miyka'el , ‘who is like God’), who is a copy of Chris' friend's son. Secret Sun readers should know by now he's actually facing Harpocrates, the silent third person of the Trinity in the Egyptian Mysteries. Hermetic and Occult tradition has it that Harpocrates is the essence of the Mysteries himself. The word ‘mystery’ comes from the root muenin, meaning “to close the mouth.” This is similar to the scenario we saw with Doggett in "Medusa."

Soderbergh gives us a ragingly unsubtle bit of symbolism, recasting Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting The Creation of Adam with new characters. Just as Adam is cast in the image of Yahweh and is given the spark of life through his hand in The Creation of Adam, Chris is reborn as the avatar of Solaris when this Harpocrates takes his hand. And as did Yahweh with Adam, this divine child imbues Chris with the essence of Solaris.

Ponder the implications of that for a while.

That sequence where Chris does not board the Athena happens in flashback- before that we see Chris back on Earth. He feels dislocated, and speaks of going through the motions trying to relearn the rituals and routines of life on Earth.

Chris replays the zucchini-cutting bit and once again cuts his finger. Only this time the wound instantly heals just as Rheya's copy did after her first suicide attempt. Notice the placement of the cut zucchini. Ouch.

But the ritual brings the goddess and sure enough Rheya is standing in his kitchen flashing her big saucer eyes at Chris.

Chris realizes he's no longer a human being and asks Rheya a dichotomous question.

And she offers that they are now beyond dichotomy.

Soderbergh opined that Chris was not on Earth but inside Solaris somehow, though the entire scenario he depicts in the narrative (Chris unfamiliar with human activity and working to acclimate himself back to everyday living) contradicts that theory. And of course we have a very strong fear on Gordon's part that the visitors would begin to manifest themselves on Earth, which Chris' disorientation with daily life is completely consistent with. We have no signal at all that Chris is not actually on Earth, nor is it ever even remotely established that Solaris can create this Matrix-like world for it's copies to live on.

So what's the narrative itself saying? It's saying that Gordon's worst fears are coming true- the seed of an indestructible race of alien replicants has come home with her in the form of a copy of Chris and he in turn creates a copy of Rheya. All of which makes me wonder who was in charge of this film. This ending is smack-dab in the heart of James Cameron's worldview- beings coming from outside our reality and taking over (see Aliens, Terminator, The Abyss, etc).

And exactly who is taking over are aliens schooled - reborn, even - in the Solar Mysteries...

6 comments:

  1. Another great analysis, CK. Again, I must reveal my (increasingly obvious) Philistine tendencies -- I haven't seen Soderbergh's film, but did see the original Russian film many years ago.

    The Cameron/Soderbergh production sounds like a fascinating transfiguration of the Lem novel, which was really all about the impenetrable alienness of aliens, and the disastrous failure humans experience when they attempt to contact "the other."

    One can certainly see some connection between Lem's dominant theme and ideas of human penetration of divine mysteries. At a minimum, that desire to contact aliens, like the desire to touch the divine, leaves the seeker utterly transformed and no longer quite human (which is what Lem, an atheist, was worried about.)

    These are themes I remember quite strongly from my childhood and my immersion in the science fiction of that time. Certainly Clarke's and Kubrick's 2001 is explicitly about the transformation of consciousness from the animal to the human to the superhuman. Clarke's earlier "Childhood's End" tells a similar tale, on a global scale, of human transfiguration, with a strong component about how terrifying and dislocating that transfiguration is. I should go back and read "Childhood's End."

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  2. Rdbie,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful and intriguing comments- you opened a new door for this line of inquiry. I'm starting to see Childhood's End not as a novel, but as a blueprint. I read in high school, which amazes me the more I think of it.

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  3. I was never quite sure why they'd remake such an esoteric classic either Christopher...especially one so vague, and yet not so...I think you know what I mean. 2001-ish?

    I think your Alan Watt agenda take is truly on the money...

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  4. Thank you so much for your thoughts on the multiple possibilities of who may be behind certain movies. I'd always wondered about how the underlying esoteric stories of some films didn't quite fit with what I knew of the director.

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  5. I really enjoyed you analysis of Solaris, what amazes me is that how easy it is to watch a movie and not to pick up all these subtle themes.
    (castration etc.)

    The Creation of Adam painting keeps fascinating me as it reappears in popular culture together with space/alien themes as on the poster of the movie E.T - heavily introducing the idea of aliens as "God" into the public mind.


    Posts like these are inspiring.

    /john

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  6. Hi there, great post but when they met on the train he did not have the gash then and the last scene between the 2 in his flat, his picture of her on the cupboard door was gone meaning he had NOT returned to earth - unless he had and had taken it down which may happen in real live but 2 complicatd 2 b shown in film.
    Let me know wot u think. Nevin

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