Colors from the Past: On Memory in Solaris

Solaris | Twentieth Century Fox
Solaris (2002) | Twentieth Century Fox
Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, Solaris, is a science fiction story deeply concerned with philosophical questions, a meditation on memory and the obstacles we run into in our attempts to communicate. Set on a space station orbiting a fantastically alien planet, the novel takes care to describe its setting in colorful, almost poetic language. Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh each adapted Lem’s book into fascinating films, full of expressionistic color choices. But while Tarkovsky used unnatural color tints to heighten the dreamlike qualities of memory in his version, Soderbergh would use color, some thirty years later, to help us understand the time and location of any given scene, allowing the viewer an insight into the emotional state of its characters.

Both Tarkovsky and Soderbergh share a tendency to splash entire frames in a single tint. Their approach to color often recalls the films of the silent era, before the advent of full color. In silent film, color tinting was used to signify time and setting: blue for nighttime scenes, red for fire, and so on. But filmmakers in the silent era understood that the choice of color need not reflect the way things look in the real world. Color was not reserved for setting alone, but could also be used to reflect mood: green for a sinister feeling, pink for romance, etc. For filmmakers like D.W. Griffith, tinting was a tool for organizing narratives in his films—in his Intolerance (1916), intercut stories can be distinguished simply by their different tints.

The invention of color film changed what it meant to use color. Whereas tinting had often been a fanciful, expressionistic choice, the technology of color film was born of a realistic impulse; to represent the world as it really looks. Filmmakers interested in the demonstrative rather than the realistic possibilities of cinema were often slow to embrace color film. Tarkovsky himself felt ambivalent about it at first, condemning it as a novelty and
a mistake in 1966, because “in everyday life we seldom pay any special attention to color.” Rather than using only black and white, however, Tarkovsky frequently used color in an expressive way. Andrei Rublev (1966) is shot almost entirely in black and white, but he filmed the painter’s icons in color at the end of the film. In Mirror (1975), he slips between black and white and color, while the film jumps back and forth between past and present, reality and memory. Stalker (1979), too, alternates stretches in full color (most startling when the characters first enter the Zone), in high-contrast sepia tints (for the drab world outside the Zone, but also for some stretches inside the Zone that may or may not be dreams), and in a washed-out tone (scenes underground, among others). Tarkovsky uses his color choices to force the viewer to actively confront what they’re looking at, to question which images are literal moments in the story, which are dreams, and which are memories.

For a director like Tarkovsky, Solaris was source material ripe for adaptation. When Dr. Kelvin first looks out of the station to the landscape below, he describes the planet this way: “Beneath the orange sky of the cooling sun the ocean, ink-black with bloody flecks, was almost always covered with a dirty pink mist that fused sky, clouds, and waves together… the light gleamed like the burner of a powerful halogen lamp. It made the suntan on my arms look almost gray.” The book is riddled with descriptions like this, noting the way the light hits the station, when it’s too bright or too dim, which colors appear—and how Kelvin himself feels while taking note of them. Kelvin is a psychologist, sent from Earth to a station at Solaris to investigate the scientists who call the station home. The crew had been studying the mysterious planet, but now all appear to be suffering some kind of mental breakdown; it’s Kelvin’s job to figure out what’s gone wrong, and why.

He arrives to find the station in disarray and the crew unhelpful. Before too long, he finds a woman in his room who is not part of the crew. They’d had a connection back on Earth; her appearance on the station should be impossible, and yet she’s right there with him. In the book, their past is slowly revealed through Kelvin’s narration. But in the film, Tarkovsky brings in the past through flashbacks and recordings made by the characters, while their previous relationship on earth is slowly reassembled through dialogue.

Tarkovsky’s adaptation is slow and methodical, much like the book. Unlike his previous films, most of Solaris was filmed in color—though some scenes were shot in black-and-white and then later tinted blue, a technique harkening back to the early days of color photography, when tint was used to convey mood and setting. These sections are most prevalent in the scenes set on Earth, in memories, and in video recordings made by his characters. Tarkovsky’s use of unrealistic color leaves a viewer wondering: What is real? What makes a memory “true”? Can it ever be as true as a video recording? And if the memories change, can they still be true?   

Steven Soderbergh, like Tarkovsky, is interested in the expressionistic use of color; it’s a recognizable hallmark of his filmmaking technique. Soderbergh has served as his own director of photography for nearly all of his movies since Traffic (2000), and has constantly experimented with unconventional film stocks, filters, and post-production techniques to achieve unusual looks. In fact, in an approach that D.W. Griffith would likely have approved, Soderbergh actually color-coded the three interwoven stories of Traffic: one storyline in blue, one reddish brown, and one yellow. (Each storyline was filmed on different stock—the Mexico-set yellow sections, in particular, overexposed to give them a rough, hot look.)

Soderbergh’s adaptation of Solaris (2002) uses color in a way that’s less intense than Traffic, but no less expressionistic. The film uses color to adapt the story through a different lens from its source material: Instead of retelling the story from the cerebral stance of the book, or with the philosophical bent of Tarkovsky’s film, Soderbergh instead turns his version of Solaris into an exploration of emotion and states of consciousness. He is most invested in the emotional states of the characters in the story—past and present, in the real world, and in dreams. Much like Tarkovsky’s choice of blue washes, Soderbergh’s color choices are a tool that help him reflect his vision.

Soderbergh approaches the story from a different angle, showing Kelvin’s relationship with the woman—her name is Rheya here—through flashback and dreams, all with minimal dialogue. As with Traffic, color is a shorthand to keep the viewer in the loop about where they are in the story. On Earth, before Kelvin leaves for the station, we see mostly gray, brown, and a hint of the signature Soderbergh yellow. The colors here feel cold, despite their earth tones. As flashbacks and memories of Kelvin and Rheya’s past are gradually introduced into the story, the earth tones grow warmer, brown and green and red. Soderbergh uses a graduated ND filter, typically used to darken bright skies along the top of the frame, in both indoor and exterior scenes. The images of Earth look as though a veil is hanging over them, giving them a dreamlike, mournful quality. The colors on the station orbiting Solaris are much harder and sharper: silver, blue, and gray; cold and metallic and sterile. Solaris itself is royal blue at first, but eventually blossoms into cyan, red, magenta, and purple as the story progresses.

Although the color tones serve to mark location, Soderbergh uses them for a dual purpose. Just as Tarkovsky used blue to color the “windows” of the recorded videos scattered throughout the station, communicating the concept of memory, Soderbergh uses color as a window into Kelvin’s mind, a mirror of his emotional state. Before Kelvin leaves Earth for Solaris, he’s numbed by grief, closed off from the world. The tones in these opening scenes are muted, mostly grays and browns, with Kelvin shown in silhouette, his back to the camera, rarely speaking to anyone face-to-face, despite his profession as a psychologist. There’s a splash of yellow in his apartment, but even this is muddy. There’s no intense color to be found in these scenes, only deep shadows.

In contrast, the Earth in flashback is colored by warmer tones, taking over the entire frame instead of punctuating the gray washes of Kelvin’s sadness. Kelvin is surrounded in flashback by bronzy browns and greens. Deep red first enters the picture in small details (a costume, a coat, a flash in the background) when he and Rheya meet, a representation of their love and passion. As their relationship grows more difficult, the red begins to subsume all other colors, until the browns are reddish and the greens are gone entirely. Their relationship has consumed them, and it’s destructive—the red is now a stand-in for anger, rage, discomfort. Their house is painted red; a womb, an incubator for both their love and their disconnect and discontent.

The colors of Earth stand in sharp contrast to the silver and gray of the station: an unknown entity, a puzzle for Kelvin to solve. When Kelvin first arrives, the only sign of life is his face, although he wears an olive suit, an indication that he’s carried his sadness on earth with him to the station. The rest of the setting is nearly as pale as the city Kelvin left. As the story progresses, though, Soderbergh introduces more color into the station: first the deep blue hue cast by Solaris, nearly monochrome, an echo of Tarkovsky’s memory-blue. Tarkovsky’s blue evoked memories of relationships, but it’s a kind of head-memory, less overtly emotional than Soderbergh’s. The blue that Soderbergh uses evokes a familiar unknown, a blue planet very much unlike our own blue planet, a blue shade on the face of a woman from Earth with whom Kelvin is intimately familiar, yet whom he never expected to see again.

One character in all three versions of the story refers to the planet Solaris as a “mirror,” because it takes the memories of the people in the station nearby and reflects them back in the form of “visitors.” These visitors are perfect copies of their loved ones, replicated from their memories. And yet, despite appearing to be the people they’re replicating, these visitors are not—and cannot ever be—the people they represent, because they’re made entirely from outsiders’ memories: incomplete, inaccurate. As the station takes on the color palette of the planet it’s orbiting, so too does the planet Solaris take on the memories of all the people who visit it, reflecting them back for us to see.

In Soderbergh’s scenes, the color balance is shifted slightly, like a printer that’s run out of one of it’s ink colors but keeps printing: there’s no blue in Kelvin’s past, and no yellow on the station. The result is a feeling of imbalance, of something missing. Kelvin in flashback lacks perspective; he doesn’t understand how to work through the difficult parts of his relationship. Kelvin on the station is burned by grief, and can only see Rheya as a balm, but her unexpected return is not a solution to his problem. Their situation soon becomes untenable.

Until it doesn’t.

Late in Soderbergh’s film, we revisit Earth, darker gray than the beginning, but the same yellow in the same kitchen—and yet the color seems different somehow, more whole, the yellows overlapping with the blues and reds just enough to provide a complete picture, more true-color than anything else we’ve seen so far. It’s a quick snapshot of a complete human being, no longer missing something fundamental, but it’s unsettling because we’ve grown so used to seeing dreamy yellows and sharp magentas and cyans. True color—and by extension, the relationship depicted in the scene—looks strange.

In each version of Solaris, Kelvin’s memories of his relationship with Rheya are brought to life in the form of his visitor. But only Soderbergh uses color to bring the emotional facets of the story to life, by grounding emotion in time and place. The result is a more intimate experience, an emotional embrace of a film that lingers long after viewing, sometimes dormant, sometimes demanding that we acknowledge its memory.

Solaris floats in space, pulsing rosy and blue, waiting.