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Love in Outer Space - Or Just in Your Head?

Ocean planets, sci-fi, George Clooney, and a history of the mind in the movies

By NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech -, Public Domain,
The diagram compares the planets of the inner solar system to Kepler-62

In galaxies near enough to our own there could be dozens of earth-like planets. Amongst these exoplanets there exist at least two “ocean planets”. Named after the Kepler spacecraft that first spotted them Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f are claimed to orbit the star Kepler-62 every 122 and 267 hours. Kepler-62, which is smaller and cooler than our sun, keeps these two planets in its “habitable zone.” In this position they may receive enough light and warmth for moving liquid to be present on their surfaces. Research published by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) suggests that both planets may have surfaces that are totally covered by ocean.

Stanislaw Lem might have thought he had it right, if these water worlds had turned up while he was alive. In his 1962 sci-fi novel, Solaris, Lem imagined an exoplanet that he called Solaris. If you’ve seen the movie versions of his book you’ll know that Solaris, which orbits “two suns, a red one and a blue one,” was completely covered with a jelly-like ocean, a syncytium he calls it, and was a “ocean planet” just like Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f. But in Lem’s imagined universe Solaris was not coated with your usual salty brine. It was layered with a living and thinking organism that thoughtfully enveloped the planet. You could imagine Solaris’ sticky brew as a sea of brainy grey matter. This liquid organism is capable of thought and of will. Stanislaw Lem was quite certain that live water worlds like Solaris existed and that they would eventually be discovered. It’s fun to imagine. The prolific science-fiction novelist and philosopher Lem died in Kraków, Poland in 2006 aged 84.

Stanislaw Lem, "Solaris". Cover artist K.M. Sopoćko

A space station from earth orbits the ocean planet, Solaris, in Lem’s novel. Its main task, apart from recording and researching the nature of the planet-embracing organism, is to make contact with whatever life form is within. The research crew doesn’t make a very good job of it and the future support from Earth for the station looks bleak. Frustrated at the planet’s watery silence the three remaining scientists on the dilapidated station provoke Solaris by blasting it with “with extremely hard X-radiation”. This happens just before the arrival of a psychologist who specializes in hallucinations, Dr Kris Kelvin (George Clooney in 2002). He’s been sent to adjudicate the future of the Solaris Station. The brainy water planet was not keen on the bombardment and gets its own back by attempting to control the thoughts of the crew on the station. The ocean is able to read the minds of the three remaining scientists. Using their “suppressed, walled in, sore spots of the memory,” it throws up “guests” or doubles who appear to the crew members on board the station as “materialized projections of what our brain contains regarding a particular person.” Kelvin is confronted with the loving double of his dead wife, the suicidal Harey. Kelvin is convinced that by leaving Harey years earlier he had killed her.

The possibility of “civilizational contact” between the space travellers from Earth and the alien mind of Solaris is what drives Stanislaw Lem. Contact is made with Solaris, but it’s not the kind that the space travellers from Earth understand or expect. The water world sends up its neutrino doubles to punish the researchers. Solaris is angry with the space travellers not just because of their X-radiation, but also because of their attempts to colonize and to annex space and its planets. Dr Snaut, one the last three researchers left on the station, bitterly explains to Kelvin: “we are not trying to conquer the universe; all we want is to expand Earth to its limits … We’re humanitarian and we’re noble, we’ve no intention of subjugating other races, we only want to impart our values to them, and in return to appropriate their heritage. We see ourselves as Knights of the Holy Contact.”

Lwów, Poland was Stanislaw Lem’s birthplace. In 1945, after the end of the Nazi

Stanislaw Lem
Source: By Courtesy of Lem's secretary, Wojciech Zemek. Resize and digital processing by Masur. - Stanislaw Lem 2.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0,

occupation of the region around Lwów, and after the subsequent annexation of his home city into the Soviet Ukraine, Lem and his surviving Jewish family were moved from his birth city, now known as Lviv, to Kraków. He remained in Kraków off and on until his death of heart disease in 2006. This was except for the period of 1982-1988 when martial law and continued Soviet influence in Poland forced him to live away. His life was coloured by colonization and annexation, first by the Nazis and later by the Soviets. It’s easy to hear Lem’s voice in the bitter complaint of Dr Snaut. And it’s easy to see the Earth explorers with their aim to colonize and annex as being, in his mind, like the Nazis and then the Soviets. What does this make Solaris? It makes the angry and inscrutable mind of the ocean planet a mirror of Lem’s life ambitions. He’d like to strike back too. The novel Solaris is sci-fi but it’s also a protest product of the Cold War.

Andrei Tarkovsky (who died in exile from Russia in France in 1986 aged 54) released his version of life above the water world ten years after Lem’s. The 1972 remake of Solaris runs in black-and-white and in color for a head rubbing 166 minutes.

//, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Andrei Tarkovsky

Lem hated Tarkovsy’s version. He renamed it “Love in Outer Space”. The Russian Solaris concentrates on a portrait of a marriage ruined by the man’s personal ambition and the wife’s edgy psychological state. Tarkovsky’s Hari (Harey in Lew’s novel) seems to have suffered pretty severe depression. Eventually she injects herself with some of Kelvin’s laboratory poisons. He’d left her. Hari is not the only depressive in the movie. The suicidal Gibarian, Kelvin’s mentor, the scientist who blasted Solaris with X-radiation, suffered from it. The helicopter pilot Burton (maybe named after Robert Burton the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy) is accused of suffering it after his aviator's report on the nightmare seascape on Solaris. His superiors decide that he is suffering “a hallucinatory complex”, one that’s “brought on by the planet’s atmosphere, as well as symptoms of depression, exacerbated by the associative zone of the cerebral cortex.” But we know that Solaris can make anyone depressed. Kelvin himself seems to spiral into the illness after Hari’s double appears then permanently disappears. In the ending of the film Dr Kelvin is trapped on the watery planet as a permanent melancholy “guest”.

It’s a huge heavenly embodiment of depression. That’s the easiest way to understand Tarkovsky’s ocean planet, Solaris. How can this be? Tarkovsky, I suspect, has in mind the long historical tradition of associating planets with emotional states and moods. The great planet Saturn has been linked regularly with melancholia, the Greek term for depression. It looks to me like it must have been Saturn that Tarkovsky had in the back of his mind when he made Solaris.

Jacques de Gheyn (or Zacharias Dolendo (?) after Jacob de Gheyn II), Saturn as Melancholy, 1595/6

The link of Saturn with depression is very common in European literature, particularly during the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. I’ve reproduced this illustration before, but it makes the connection between the planet Saturn and depression very clear. It’s worth a second look. (You can find other similar versions on my website.) The depressive astronomer (whose posture gives the game away) sits on a globe or planet and he holds a compass in his right hand. The globe on which he is slouched is probably the planet Saturn. Tarkovsy knows the tradition and uses the melancholic planet Solaris to mirror the misery of Kris Kelvin’s life. Solaris is a movie about depression but it’s also part of a long European train of thought concerning the illness that goes right back to the ancient Greeks. Depression is the change that Tarkovsky makes for Lew’s “Knights if the Holy Contact.”

The bond between Solaris, Saturn, and depression is made really clear in Melancholia. In Lars von Trier’s 2002 art-house movie the future of the earth is threatened by a vast planet named, yes, Melancholia. The huge globe, the size of Saturn, gradually swings past the earth.

Justine as the bride in "Melancholia"

It misses our planetary home, but loops back to wipe us all out. The earth is engulfed by Depression in Melancholia. But, as a self-confessed depressive, it may appear to the melancholy Dane, Lars von Trier that we’re all in the same gloomy boat as him. The planet is a symbol for his psychology. The bride Justine, the film’s lead character, is characterized as wildly depressive. Is she Lars von Tier’s typical human being? It seems so. It's also fascinating to see that von Trier deliberately uses motifs from Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Hunters in the Snow is prominent in both movies and so is the vision of a suffering, disturbed horse). This makes the connection between Solaris and von Trier’s Melancholia hard to avoid, planet and movie.

And at last we meet George Clooney. He perfectly plays the psychologist Dr Chris Kelvin (Chris now, not Kris) in Steven Soderbergh’s expressive 2002 remake of Stanislaw Lem’s story of the vengeful mind of the water world. Soderbergh’s film differs from the Polish and Russian originals by ignoring the link between Solaris and

George Clooney and Rheya - happily ever after?

depression, and then by giving Rheya (Hari is renamed Rheya in this version) a much more disturbed mind. Is she depressed or is it something even worse? It seems worse. Soderbergh focuses a lot on the causes of Rheya’s mental instability. It makes this a very modern take on the troubled mind. For Soderbergh Rheya’s problems are in her genes, her upbringing, and in the instability of her family. Rheya fears motherhood with Kelvin and aborts their child. Kelvin erupts violently and leaves. Rheya commits suicide in despair. We learn all this through flashback while her double appears amorously on the station. Soderbergh’s Solaris focuses on a grieving and guilty man who is hoping that his dead wife really has returned and isn’t just a “guest”, a neutrino double. In the end of the movie there’s some resolution. Chris Kelvin seems to have died, destroyed along with the space station (another change Soderbergh makes), and he’s now a “guest” himself. After Rheya’s reappearance, all seems to be forgiven and Chris lives happily ever after, we hope, with his “guest” wife. Is that a happy ending or is it just a double's dream?

The mind of the ocean planet becomes an emotional touchstone for Lem, Tarkovsky, von Trier, and Soderbergh. The four artists offer a mini perspective on how emotions and moods can shift through time and how they can be linked with the strangest of things – here a cinematic Kepler-62e or -62f. For Stanislaw Lem the mind of the water world was a symbol for the resistance of the Polish and Ukrainian people to the colonizing Soviet Russia. For Tarkovsky and for Lars von Trier the giant planet is a symbol for depression, a Saturn, a very old fashioned and European way of looking at things. For the nimble Steven Soderbergh Solaris becomes a place for love lost and love found, but a love that is lost through the ill effects of mental instability. George Clooney and Rheya, the double of his wife projected up by the briny Solaris, end up living together on the planet at the end of the movie happily ever after. Is the love real, or is it all in Clooney’s head?

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