Runtime: 120 minutes Discs (CD version): 2 CD ISBN: 9781405646284 PRICE: £12.99 (CD) / £6.60 (DOWNLOAD)
If you have ever gone about the sad work of trying to recreate lost love; ever seen a smile that reminded you of some other smile, some other time, and been drawn to it; ever been aware of the vague and muted unhappiness of irreconcilable regret settling into your life like an unwelcome guest…you have trod some part of the psychological territory of Stanislaw Lem’s dreamlike, mystical and timeless 1961 science-fiction novel, twice adapted for the screen and also turned into an opera.
Psychologist Kris Kelvin has been despatched to the orbital research station over the alien planet Solaris to investigate disturbing phenomena among the crew, but finds his friend Gibbarian dead and the remaining scientists mad or in obsessive seclusion. The bitter and acid-tongued Dr. Snow will only hint at the nature of the malaise that has been infecting the crew, insisting that Kelvin will not understand until it begins to affect him too.
That night, Kelvin wakes up to find his dead wife sitting by his bed, watching him sleep, unaware of how she got there; but this is no phantom, and it soon emerges that the vast and ethereal plasma of the ocean over which the space station hangs has mimeo-eidetic properties that can easily pluck out the secret, tormenting wraiths from the subconscious minds of the crew-members and give them a new – if confusing – corporeality.
The ‘visitors’ are child-like and guileless, but unwilling to be even momentarily separated from the tormented souls from whose memories they sprang. Are they ‘people’ in any meaningful sense? Is Solaris itself experimenting on the scientists who came to study it? Does it want to repel or please its ‘guests’? Is it a plasmic sea reflecting the impossible, subconscious needs (if not desires) of the crew, or an emergent cosmic intelligence trying to evolve into a god?
Lem poses more questions than he answers in this fascinating voyage into solipsism and the topography of guilt, touching on many quandaries that will be familiar to fans of his contemporary Philip K. Dick, in an examination of the nature of the human soul that might defy any genre except science-fiction.
The ‘retrospective’ narrative of this BBC production solves the over-description that science-fiction radio risks to indulge, and Kelvin (Ron Cook) jumps in and out of his recounting of the mission as necessary.
Writer Hattie Naylor concentrates, as in the most recent film adaptation, on the mechanics of Kelvin’s relationship with his not-wife Rheya (played with a slightly off-putting colloquiality – compared to the cast in general – by the very able Joanne Froggatt), and distils well the poetic nature of the piece without abandoning for too long the progression of moral dilemmas that hallmark the plot. In a small and very competent cast, Tim McMullan stands out as the apparently insane Doctor Snow, whose own ‘visitor’ is far less agreeable than Rheya.
The intense and esoteric loneliness of the orbital scenario is perfectly captured by Alice Trueman’s crystalline, synth-based soundtrack, which has many thematic and structural similarities to the haunting Cliff Martinez score in Soderbergh’s 2002 adaptation. The score itself is liberally applied in a sound-mix of the first order, with rather better audio-effects than the amusing but unconvincing ones that The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy popularised in radio sci-fi for a long time,
Despite the sterile science-fiction mise-en-scéne, Solaris is a highly emotional and even harrowing work whose poignant themes deserve serious treatment, and the BBC have honoured here the memory of the late Lem in a production that leaves you agreeably bereft.
Solaris is available from January 7th as CD and digital download. See the BBC Shop for more.