A long haired, dark eyed beauty with amazing cheek bones is talking to herself, contemplating her situation in a completely alienating situation. A higher power has her positioned to influence our hero of the future. Sound familiar? That hero could be: a starship commander (Star Trek’s pilot episode, “The Cage”), a replicant hunter (Blade Runner), or a psychologist sent to an almost deserted space station, orbiting a distant planet (Solaris).
In each scenario, the female character becomes further and further removed from the simple description of “woman.” In “The Cage,” the female is Vina, an orphaned girl, horribly mutilated as a result of a spaceship crash that leaves her the sole human on a planet of highly advanced aliens. The aliens are, thanks to their highly evolved minds, able to make her appear beautiful to visiting humans. They use her as bait to capture unsuspecting human visitors to become specimens for their cages. At the time—1960s TV-land—this was pretty far out, but now it’s just a quaint stereotype of superior aliens wanting to subjugate humanity.
In scenario two, Blade Runner, our beauty is named Rachael (Sean Young) a replicant—basically a sophisticated robot—with implanted memories. Our hero is Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), and Rachael’s boss/creator uses her to test his crucial blade-running ability to spot replicants who are passing themselves off as humans. Rachael’s implanted memories make her think that she’s a real woman. Despite—or because of—everything, Deckard falls in love with Rachael, as does the starship commander with the orphan in “The Cage.”
In many ways, Solaris pays homage to Blade Runner, and would not have been possible without its inspiration. The key visual clue is the continuous heavy rainfall that occurs throughout Blade Runner, which has its correspondence in the heavy rainfall that Chris encounters in Solaris every time he heads outdoors on earth.
But from the get-go, it’s apparent that Solaris has upped the ante on both “The Cage” and Blade Runner. The same general plot patterns prevail, but Rheya, our female, is yet one step further removed from the normal categorization of human woman—and our hero is even more engrossed in his mysterious counterpart. This is in many ways the ultimate film noir.
As noted, psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is summoned to rescue the survivors of a space station orbiting the distant planet Solaris. To his horror, Chris’s immediate welcoming committee consists of several occupied body bags. While he does eventually locate the two remaining crew members (Snow and Gordon), they are anything but helpful. Their sole contribution is to warn him about the “companions.” The source of these “companions” is the planet Solaris, but what instigates the generation or creation of these amazing entities is never spelled out. We only know that they are the product of a human’s memories. Chris’s own memory-generated Companion turns out to be his dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone).
This is where it gets real interesting. For, although Rheya has borrowed memories like Rachael, Rheya recognizes that they’re not her memories! (Solaris might also be called Memento II.) The tip-off is that the Rheya-companion knows that she hasn’t experienced these memories. The all-important leap that Solaris makes beyond Blade Runner is the acknowledgement that memories—the kind that you build your self-identity with—are not portable. You can’t just upload them like software from host to host. They must be experienced in a living, breathing human body or they aren’t meaningful. Otherwise they are only facts or statistics.
Another fascinating aspect of all this is that the Rheya-companion’s memories are created solely from Chris’s memory. As Solaris progresses, Chris begins to doubt the factuality of his memories of Rheya. But since the Rheya-companion is based on his memory, this becomes yet one more factor distancing the Rheya-companion from the real Rheya. All this confusion doesn’t, however, prevent Chris from falling madly in love with his Companion.
So does Chris love his memory of Rheya or the real Rheya? More significantly, what is the difference between these two kinds of love?
The lovers escape at the end of all three stories. In “The Cage,” their haven is the mind-mirage world of the aliens. in Blade Runner Deckard and Rachael just flee from the horror-show city that was their home in an essentially conventional, let’s-get-out-of-here deal. “The Cage” provides the lovers with an artificial, mirage world. In Solaris Chris and Rheya (?) plummet together towards the planet Solaris. The reason for the (?) is that this can’t be the Rheya-companion because she/it was destroyed by Gordon using a photon-phase-whatever-blaster, and because of Chris’s latest I-didn’t-really-cut-my-finger memory.
The key to understanding the identity of the latest Rheya is two lines from a Dylan Thomas poem that Chris and Rheya-companion keep referring to:
“Though lovers be lost love shall not.
And death shall have no dominion.”
In context, the application of these lines is that Chris and Rheya’s love will live on forever, even after their death. So maybe that’s the real Rheya going down with Chris!
The meaning of death also plays a prominent role in Blade Runner. It’s worth considering the contrast between the Chris-Rheya death scene and that of the final replicant, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner. Chris and Rheya plummet down to Solaris, merging together as one into a greater one (Solaris). Conversely, Roy Batty’s expiring spirit is transferred metaphorically into a dove that flies up into the heavens. So down is a melting pot and up is a solo flight, but death in both cases remains an enigma.