Watching Solaris (2002), the version of Stanislaw Lem’s novel adapted and directed by Steven Soderbergh (there is a previous one by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky), I couldn’t help thinking about Christianity’s philosophically challenging notion of heaven.
Briefly, Solaris is a story about this spaceship which is orbiting an alien planet — named Solaris — in which very strange phenomena have been happening. Unable to come up with an explanation of what’s going on, a scientist on board, Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who is a friend of therapist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), asked the latter to come up to the ship and help him to figure things out. Kelvin, who is a psychologist who helps people deal with the lost of loved ones, agrees and is sent there alone. Once there, he discovers that really weird things are happening: people who doesn’t exist are appearing out of nowhere. Gibarian’s dead son, Snow’s alter ego and Kelvin’s dead wife (Rheya, played by Natascha McElhone) are among the apparent ghosts. At the end, the ghosts are actually replicas made out of the memories kept by the livings that Solaris — the planet — somehow is able to recreate anf bring back to life. One crew member — Dr. Gordon — figures out how to permanently annihilate the replicas, including Kelvin’s wife. However, the device used to achieve that consumes a lot of the spaceship’s energy supply, making the return to earth impossible. In the last sequence, Kelvin and Dr. Gordon prepares to return home by using one of the small vessels.However, Kelvin seems to change his mind and stays… or at least it seems so.
One of the last scenes shows Kelvin back at home or what seems a replica of his house back on earth. The scene itself replicates another of the movie’s first scenes. However, this time things behave little weird. He cuts his finger — just as he did in the first scene at the beginning — but his skin regenerates the same way Kelvin’s wife face regenerates after an attempted suicide back on the ship. At that moment, Rheya reappears and tells a shocked Kelvin that all their past misgivings have been forgiven, suggesting that from now on they will have the opportunity to start over and enjoy a new and eternal life together.
In many levels, Solaris poses us a lot of interesting questions. However, it is this last scene the one that poses me the question I want to talk about in this note. Rheya’s words are an interesting key — one that suggests a possible explanation about the planet’s real meaning. If we look at what this last scene offers Kelvin — the portrait of a new life together in which he and his wife will live forever without pain and guilt — we couldn’t help thinking about why this seems to be so familiar. It is familiar because what this scene offers us is nothing else but a representation of a heavenly paradise… of heaven. (By the way, what heaven actually offers us is a life without anxiety… and we should remember that, as Freud told us, anxiety is the only real human emotion… all other human emotions are in their very essence faked.) If we look at the Judeo-Christian tradition, heaven is that metaphysical place in which life transcends itself, in which death is no more and in which there is no more suffering nor guilt (an anxiety-free zone). However, this Solarian heaven is not the regular Christian one, in which heavenly creatures are ontological independent of earthly ones. Instead, it’s closer to Swedenborg‘s, who thought of heaven as inhabited by ghostly replicas of past earthly beings.
Now, what really intrigues me about this Solarian heaven, as suggested by my reading of the movie, is the fact that this version of heaven is, essentially, an individual phenomenon. Kelvin seems to experience heaven not as a place in which he comes to be part of some sort of heavenly society or collective. Rather, his version of heaven is tailored-made to him. If we look at the whole story of his relationship with his wife, the few things we know about her — her depression and insecurities and so on and on — we may conclude that this “heaven” could never be hers. (In that case, why is she the one who must forgive and forget?) So, the movie poses me many interesting questions about the nature of heaven itself. Of the many possible versions of a perfect world people may have about heaven, which one is the universal (collective) one? Which one is the one that satisfies everybody’s fantasies about it? Is there a heaven or a multi-verse of heavens, each one suited for every single human being who have ever existed? What’s the relationship between the notion of heaven and our fantasizing about it? Can such a place exist in which everybody’s fantasies about it can be realized? Or, is it heaven that place in which we are allowed to enter only if we agree to leave behind our very human nature — our capacity to feel (anxiety) and fantasize (desire)?
I suspect that the real thing may actually be nightmarish. I base this suspicion on what we have learned from psychology: that fantasy realized is what we call nightmare. Maybe, as the old tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice teaches us, heaven and hell — at the basic phenomenological level— may not be that different after all. But that’s something we might talk about another day. First I need to read the original novel and take another look at Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation.
By the way, here is Lem itself talking about the original.