There is a concept in drama called “Chekhov’s Gun”, which is summed up by Chekhov himself in a letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” This concept is easily applied in science fiction, if there is a spaceship in science fiction there is often a journey. There’s really no reason to introduce a spaceship without a journey.
The core of most science fiction is the search for answers and the concept of “answers” is often synonymous with the concept of “God”, in that the concept of God is about the creation of life, the universe and everything (that we know of) and that answers, big answers, is about the same thing. In religions, the God concept is the Answer (capital G, capital A, one need look no further) but science is about breaking things down and looking deeper and searching further. In Douglas Adams’ book (and radio serial, and television series, and film) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he has the super-computer (appropriately named Deep Thought) that was built eons previous give the answer to life, the universe and everything as 42. It’s funny, a concept that expansive being summed up in a single number (and one without decimal points or any other fancy math signifiers). The people in Douglas Adams’ story were, of course, perplexed and they asked for more clarification, for the specific question that 42 is the answer to. Deep Thought can’t give that question, it requires another computer. That computer turns out to be Earth. The idea, of course, is that the grand answer to everything is a journey of eons (eons more than are granted, since Earth is bulldozed at the beginning of the book for an interspace freeway due to improper zoning and bureaucratic red-tape.
But that’s a farce. Science fiction, the type with the spaceships, involves an actual physical journey to find the answer. There is the type of science fiction that involves looking smaller, and not grander; looking in, instead of out. This is not the type of science fiction that I’m going to explore. There is also the type of science fiction that slips into the realm of horror, where the body is assaulted in some way (sometimes there is some form of assault or mutation from the inside out, a change in the body, and sometimes it is an alien presence from the outside). This form of science fiction can be found in both the science fiction that looks outward to the stars and inward toward the cells in the body.
In Maria Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow and her follow-up, Children of God, she explores the search of God spiritually through a journey toward a signal that illuminates another civilization: more of God’s children, alien beings that can help humans understand God’s plan. In short, it’s a search for answers to big questions. What they find, of course, is an analogue for human history, though through the proverbial glass darkly. In Children of God, Russell writes:
We meant well, [Sophia] thought, looking up at a sky piled with cumulus clouds turning amethyst and indigo above the clearing. No one was deliberately evil. We all did the best we could. Even so, what a mess we made of everything …
What she is referring to, is accidentally setting into motion a revolution on the planet Rakhat where the vegetarian Runa rise up against the ruling class of the Jana’ata. In the first novel, The Sparrow a mission is put together after a signal is picked up from Rakhat that featured singing. Based on this idea of beautiful music, an assortment of scientists and Jesuits traveled to the planet to meet what must be intelligent, even holy creatures. Must be. They had to meet them. And so they did, setting out to cross the stars and find the answer to “who are The Singers” believing at some level that the answer must be in some way “God”. In doing so, in interacting with these alien creatures, they begin to influence each other and the course of Rakhat history is changed.
Did their journey bring them closer to God? Both the initial journey and the journey to find out what happened yielded their crews a great big question mark. But God, or alien intelligence, doesn’t always elicit the answers that those asking expect or can comprehend. The reason? We’re still speculating, we’re trying out ideas on a larger canvas, we don’t know. Life is about the journey and not the destination. The answer is 42, but the question is life. As Gibarian says in Solaris, “We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything—solitude, hardship, exhaustion, death. We’re proud of ourselves. But when you think about it, our enthusiasm’s a sham. We don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors.”
Solaris is one of the films in which we’ll explore this idea of searching, about this journey for Answers, for knowledge on a scale that could be God. For that something else. As far as headlines go, this title buried the lead: it’s not about God in science fiction. The journey isn’t about God or the Answers that are found, it’s about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journey. It’s about Douglas Adams’ computer to figure out what 42 is the answer to. It’s about us.
“Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as a turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ before she keens. Makes her a home.”
There have been many journeys in the course of Star Trek’s initial three seasons on the air. Many more journeys followed in the four additional Star Trek series, and also in the eleven movies. Each episode began with a variation of the following:
Space, the final frontier: these are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
The focus here will be on two of the movies: Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Both of these involved a journey to seek out something that not only threatened the universe (because what grand space adventure would it be, were the stakes not so high) but also represented something metaphysically greater. These films represented encounters with something that appeared almost godlike (and in the case of Star Trek V appeared to be God).
In Star Trek: The Motion Picture something is coming that is destroying starships, space stations, and appears to be unstoppable. The only starship that can reach it in time is, of course, the starship Enterprise. The now Admiral Kirk (previously, and by the time Star Trek V: The Final Frontier comes around, future captain of the Enterprise) has taken command of the Enterprise from Commander Decker and sets out to intercept V’Ger. This advanced being is able to use electrical pulses to not only disable and destroy starships, but also to wound and take people from inside the ships that encounter it. What’s more, it is surrounded by a great cloud that grants it additional majesty and mystery. V’Ger takes Lieutenant Ilia and then replaces her with an avatar of Ilia in order to gain access to the ship’s computers and communicate with the crew. The Enterprise has journeyed to the far side of space and now into the center of its cloudlike being in order to communicate with the core of the intelligence. This god-like being, it turns out, is a lost Voyager probe, sent centuries ago, that is returning because it has been unable to receive signals from its creator. This probe has collected so much information and seen so many things that it has begun to evolve and become a sentient being itself, though one that doesn’t yet know how to feel. It needs to fulfill its purpose in life, which is to grow and to share what it has learned. If it doesn’t get what it needs, the Earth will be destroyed. It is now a child, without a parent, and it is having a temper tantrum. In conversation we learn:
McCoy: Spock, this “child” is about to wipe out every living thing on Earth. Now, what do you suggest we do? Spank it?
Spock: It knows only that it needs, Commander. But, like so many of us… it does not know what.
Of course, it’s never that simple. Communication is key, and this being doesn’t possess the ability to communicate anymore.
There are several transitions that occur during this journey to find V’Ger, in addition to V’Ger’s evolution from simple machine into the assumed alien intelligence, in addition to V’Ger’s transformation. There is also the transformation of Ilia into the avatar of V’Ger (but retaining parts of Ilia) and finally Commander Decker, the displaced captain of the Enterprise. In the end, V’Ger wants to fully communicate, to touch God, to bond with its creator.
Spock: V’Ger must evolve. Its knowledge has reached the limits of this universe and it must evolve. What it requires of its god, doctor, is the answer to its question: “Is there nothing more”?
McCoy: What more is there than the universe, Spock?
Decker: Other dimensions. Higher levels of being.
Spock: The existence of which cannot be proven logically. Therefore, V’Ger is incapable of believing in them.
Kirk: What it needs in order to evolve is a human quality, our capacity to leap beyond logic.
Decker: And joining with its creator might accomplish that.
McCoy: You mean this machine wants to physically join with a human? Is that possible?
Decker: Let’s find out.
Let’s find out … if there were ever words that could sum up the spirit of science fiction, it would probably be these words. Let’s find out. Commander Decker, who has been in love with Ilia, volunteers to merge with V’Ger, to take that leap into the great unknown. He helps V’Ger finish evolving into whatever it is becoming next, and in doing so becomes something else himself. We don’t know what for sure, because the answer is beyond us, but it is, like the creation of the second sun and new planets at the end of 2010: The Year We Made Contact, “something wonderful.”
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier finds the crew older and, once again, with a new Enterprise. This installment of the film series revolves around the sense of family and shared risk. While the new Enterprise is being brought up to speed (i.e. being built—Kirk has a bad habit of causing his ships to blow up), Kirk, Spock and McCoy are camping are pulled from their vacation due to a political situation on a far planet: a renegade Vulcan has taken a United Nations-like body hostage and is demanding a starship. The Enterprise goes to free the hostages and find that the hostages have sided with their captor. The Enterprise is hijacked with most of the crew under the control of the renegade Vulcan, Savok, while Kirk, Spock and McCoy are trying to evade capture and get the ship back.
Savok, it turns out, is Spock’s half-brother, and is not only capable of intense feeling, but also possesses the power to introduce others to their greatest pain and in doing so, frees them from it. It appears that this brainwashes the people he does it to, as everyone who has been shown their pain subsequently joins his quest to find “Heaven” at the center of the galaxy. Much of the film involves Kirk, Spock and McCoy efforts to take back the Enterprise, but finally they encounter Savok, who reveals Spock’s and McCoy’s hidden pains. Kirk balks, claiming that he needs his pain, that his pain makes him who he is. This rational returns Spock and McCoy to their senses and they remain with Kirk. They are reminded, as they read a plaque in the room, of their mission “to boldly go where no one has gone before” (which was even more concisely phrased by Decker, when he said, “Let’s find out.”). They then join everyone on the bridge, where Kirk retakes command of the ship and brings them in through the vast cloudy nebula to the mysterious planet at the center of the galaxy.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy end up on the rocky, barren surface of the planet with Savok, where they encounter the being who claims to be God. The being insists that they bring the Enterprise closer, at which Kirk hesitates.
This being, is, as V’Ger was, not God but rather another alien intelligence. Where V’Ger was still evolving, this alien is evolved but trapped on this planet. In the end, Savok has to face his fear: that he was misguided. He comes to terms with being wrong as he sees Kirk and his brother being mistreated by the entity that he thought was a deity and does what is in his power to help them. He goes directly to the core of the entity and uses his special gift to destabilize it. We assume that his disappearance into the bright energy of the entity constitutes a complete sacrifice for his friends, because he was never a villain, only a man who followed his moral compass to the center and then when it proved false did what he could to make matters right again. Spock and McCoy are beamed back to the Enterprise, but Kirk is left on the planet. He says at the beginning of the movie that he has long known that he will die alone, and fully prepares to die on the planet in order to save his friends. He is prevented from doing so by Spock who brings the ship around to pick him up and save him from the entity, which although destabilized, is still capable of sending blasts of lightening at Kirk. Spock reminds Kirk, once he is back aboard the ship, that there was no chance that he was going to die on the planet because he was never alone.
Once again, the search for the grand Answer at the center of the universe, God in Heaven, doesn’t bring the crew closer to knowing an absolute answer, but does reinforce a more personal one. This crew has transitioned, over the course of years, from being military officers assigned together into a family that protects one another. They are all older and are learning that the things that worked for them thirty years before wouldn’t work for them now, but they would find new ways to be relevant. The ship that keeps drawing them back together is their home. And their journey will continue while they are together.
“Someday, the children of the new sun will meet the children of the old. I think they will be our friends.”
Journeys can be possessed of an abstract, seeking to stop a great threat or in search of the grand Answer. Sometimes, those quests go hand in hand and sometimes they involve home. In Antony Hoffman’s film Red Planet humanity has screwed Earth up and we need to find a new home. The movie follows a quest to Mars to explore a terraforming experiment that was occurring on the surface of the red planet. An incident occurs on the ship that requires them to launch for the planet early and as a result, the mission is in shambles with no communication between the mission commander, Bowman, on the ship that has been subsequently repaired, and the crew on the ground, who are rapidly losing oxygen in their suits. Something has destroyed the settlement on the ground and all seems lost. To make matters worse, one of the key tools, a panther-like robot, has malfunctioned and is now hunting the survivors of the crash. The key figure on the ground, often referred to as “the janitor”, is the crew’s mechanical systems engineer, Gallagher. He is only member of the crew who is not a scientist or a military man and he aptly fits right in between the two. He is at odds with the gung-ho military mentality of action without much consideration and with the constant philosophical questioning of the scientists—he works problems and fixes things. Gallagher is analogous for the audience, a man who is already a bit of an outsider, but who is finds a home in the askers of questions. He has many conversations with Dr. Burchenal, a brusk biologist who is trying to figure out what happened to the algae that was growing on the surface of Mars, and Dr. Chantilas, chief science officer and a philosopher. One is strictly a man of science and the other a man, not necessarily of faith, but who is a seeker of that bigger Answer. The two men, though possessing respect for each other, were often at odds (as evidenced in this bit of dialogue):
Dr. Burchenal: “Uh oh – we’re going to talk about God now, aren’t we? ‘Cause if we are, I’m going to need another pop.”
Dr. Chantilas: “Not God, faith.”
Dr. Burchenal: “Faith? Oh, I had a girlfriend named Faith. She cheated on me, with a girl named Chastity.”
Gallagher, however, was a uniting thread. He could communicate with Burchenal on the level of how things worked and with Chantilas as someone who was open to a bigger Answer.
Chantilas: “Suppose we just finished poisoning the earth and everyone was dead in a hundred years. Then what was the point of anything? Art, beauty—all gone—the Greeks, the Constitution, people dying for freedom, ideas. None of it meant anything? What about religion? Do we give up on God too?”
Gallagher: “You didn’t just give up being a scientist one day, did you?”
Chantilas: “I realized science couldn’t answer any of the really interesting questions. So, I turned to philosophy. I’ve been searching for God ever since. Who knows, I may pick up a rock and it’ll say underneath, “Made by God.” The universe is full of surprises.”
What if it was that simple? On the surface, everything goes wrong, but in the chaos of their presence, they discover one very important answer: there was life on Mars. The answer to Burchenal’s query, “what happened to the algae” was a micro-organism ate it, something that is dormant in the sand without sustenance and therefore unnoticed before, suddenly sprang to life with the addition of the algae. Gallagher ends up being the last man standing on Mars and manages to transform a broken down Russian ship designed to collect rocks into a lifeboat that allows him to return to Bowman on the repaired ship in orbit and journey back to earth. Their experience could just be science as usual, or it could have been Chantilas’ rock that they lifted.
Robert Pogue Harrison writes in Forests, “A bottomless pond has no depth. A life without ground has no reality. Imagination discovers its real freedom in the measured finitude of that with is the case, not one inch of which can be spared.” People can travel across a galaxy and discover something as big as life in a place least likely. Sometimes people can travel and discover that the thing that they were looking for was a home, a family, and find that they already possessed that which they were seeking.
“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything—solitude, hardship, exhaustion, death. We’re proud of ourselves. But when you think about it, our enthusiasm’s a sham. We don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors.”
Serenity began first as a television series Firefly. The basic situation is that 500 years in the future Earth has been made more or less uninhabitable and humanity has travelled into space and through terraforming has populated other planets. Politics have, of course, entered into things and when the series picks up there has been a massive war. The central planets have formed an Alliance with a parliament that controls everything. The outer planets have been brought under the sway of the Alliance after losing this war. The protagonists of this series are representatives of the outsiders of the society controlled by the Alliance. The captain, Malcolm Reynolds, is a browncoat, a solider of the opposition. His first mate is Zoe, his first in command during the war. They both survived a brutal and decisive battle of the war known as The Battle of Serenity Valley, and years later they operate a Firefly class spaceship that they named Serenity. During the run of the series, they have picked up a pilot, Wash (who has, prior to the series beginning, become Zoe’s husband), an engineer named Kaylee, a mercenary named Jayne, a companion (a combination of a courtesan and a Buddhist priest) named Inara, a shepherd (a sort of missionary) named Book, and two people on the run, Simon and River Tam. By the time the movie begins, Inara and Book have left the Serenity and Simon and River seem to be on their way off the ship. This is a crew, a family in crisis. Inara is very spiritual, but more traditional spiritual or religious values come from Shepherd Book. Incidentally, he is in as much spiritual crisis as the rest of the crew.
The reason that all these characters come together is the same as the reason that they pull apart, Mal. Mal, as the captain, has assembled his crew, who is also his surrogate family. Mal has been shattered by his experiences during the war and while he is deeply committed and loyal to his crew, he is also deeply antagonistic to authority—especially the Alliance. Having lost so many people in the war, he has a hard time expressing his affections for his created family and often puts himself into a position where he drives them away so that he can’t be responsible for hurting them. He is the nucleus though, and they gravitate toward him, and follow him on the journey.
As a television series, the journey meandered, following the jobs they took as a crew. Through this series information trickled out and we learned that River was important to the Alliance, that there were some big secrets “in the black”, that there was danger (personified not only by the big brother like control of the Alliance, but also by the savage Reavers, people who had somehow gone wrong and in addition to mutilating themselves had attacked, raped and eaten many people around the ‘verse), and that Mal would do whatever it took to do the right thing (which often times took a roundabout route through the wrong thing). We also learned that the resident spiritual leader, Shepherd Book, had a past that he wasn’t sharing. Book knew a lot about the Alliance (especially about military procedures) and could handle himself in a firefight. Book was as drawn to violence as Mal was, but unlike Mal, Book did whatever he could to avoid it, not only out of an adherence to his spiritual predilections, but also out of fear.
The film picks up this crews journey on a job in one of the outer planets, a typical bank holdup that is interrupted by a raid by some Reavers. While this is going on, we learn that an Operative of the Alliance is tracking River. River was broken out of a medical research facility by her brother, where she was experimented on and her psychic abilities were studied. She has learned something dangerous and this Operative, who is described by Book as being “a true believer” is willing to stop at nothing to prevent her from ever discovering or sharing what she knows. River, since being rescued, has had a deteriorating mental state that comes to a head when Mal is trying to cash in on their job at the bar belonging to one of their many shady employers, while also trying to drop Simon and River off for good. Through a subliminal message designed to locate her, River is activated and proceeds to fight and defeat the entire bar before being put to sleep by a safe word that Simon has learned. This activation, in addition to revealing her fighting skills, has also made her capable of accessing the memories that this Operative and the government that he represents so desperately wants to keep concealed.
The Operative sets out to find Serenity, first by using Inara as bait, and then when that backfires, by finding and destroying all the friends that the crew have. Book talks to Mal at one point about finding a way out of the situation that they’re in. When Mal mentions that he was all set to leave River and Simon behind, Book tells him that it’s not his way. Then he tells Mal that the Operative is a true believer and asks Mal what he believes is.
Mal: “Ah, hell, Shepherd, I ain’t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.”
Shepherd Book: Why is it when I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God? I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it!”
Belief is the core. It’s not about believing in a God or some ultimate answer, but about having a course and following it. Book knows that Mal has been on a journey of some sort all his life, at least since his experiences in the war, and now that journey is being defined for him. We’ve seen glimpses of the man that Mal is and can be, but Mal is resistant to them. He is afraid of being a leader, of going on the big journey, because of what that can do to the people around him. So instead, he follows the little jobs that often are as dangerous as this big journey, but seem more manageable. Once the Operative has introduced himself into Mal’s life and Mal makes the choice to protect River, then he has begun his journey and begun to figure out what that belief is for him.
At one point Inara challenges Mal after he walked into the Operative’s trap to get her, she tells him that he came looking for a fight and that she has seen so many sides of him that she doesn’t know what she is looking at. He tells her, “I start fightin’ a war, I guarantee, you’ll see something new.” Left with friends dead and dying and the Operative calling him out, Mal has to decide what direction his journey has to take. River’s memory gives them the name of a planet on the outer reaches of space, Miranda, and a gauntlet to run through to get there (a stretch of dead space filled with Reavers). Pushed to his edge, he shows that other side, a hard side as he orders them to do some drastic things in order to cross that dead space and reach Miranda:
This is how it is. Anybody doesn’t wanna fly with me anymore, this is your port of harbor. There’s a lot of fine ways to die. I ain’t waiting for the Alliance to choose mine. I mean to confound these bungers. Take my shot at getting to Miranda. Maybe find something I can use to get clear of this. So I hear a word out of any of you that ain’t helping me out or taking your leave, I will shoot you down. Get to work!
They travel to Miranda and find their answers. It’s not the big answer, God, the universe and everything, but it’s important. They discover that the Alliance was trying to make people better, and to do so they put something in the air supply on that planet that made most of the population stop caring about anything and just lay down and die, and that it also upped the aggression on a small percentage of the population and turned them into the Reavers. They found proof and Mal found his direction, what he believed in:
This record here’s about twelve years old. Parliament buried it and it stayed buried until River here dug it up. This is what they were afraid she knew. And they were right to fear. There’s a universe of folk who’re gonna know it, too. Someone has to speak for these people. Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people better. And I do not hold to that. So, no more running. I aim to misbehave.
The crew follows their captain, because as sure as he knows this to be true, they do as well. And some of them die in the process. It’s been his fear all along, but at the same time, they all know that it’s the right thing to do and he discovers that they are willing to sacrifice as much as he is for the right thing. They travel through the gauntlet again, on their way to a place that they can transmit their evidence to everyone, only this time they antagonize the Reavers and put them into direct conflict with the Alliance ships that are set to ambush them. In the end, while his crew is holding off an army of Reavers, Mal sets out to transmit the message and faces the Operative alone.
Of course, he is successful and the message is transmitted. Of course, the path to get there requires a beating. He doesn’t kill the Operative in the battle, instead, the Operative is made to listen to this truth. The man who has gone through the movie asking the people he has killed for the cause that he so believes in, “do you know what your sin is?” is shown, in Mal’s terms, a man who has answered his question with, “Hell, I’m a fan of all seven, but right now I’m going to have to go with wrath,” shows him “a world without sin.” A world without secrets.
The big answer her isn’t God, but it is a revelation, a big secret is brought into the light. In the end, it may not make the universe better, but River is better (she has recovered from her almost incapacitating mental tailspin and has utilized the abilities that the Alliance has enhanced to defeat the horde of Reavers trying to kill the crew) and the crew that’s left are still together and still bound as a family. The Operative visits Mal once Serenity has been repaired and is ready to lift off to tell him that he has done what he can, but can’t guarantee that the Alliance won’t come after them. He tells Mal that he doesn’t know since he “is no longer their man.” Perhaps the biggest example of the success of this journey is not only that Mal changed, that he made a definitive choice, but that he changed the man that was a true believer. He swayed that soul that was so committed to his cause that he became a monster that could kill children because it needed to be done.
Mal left the Operative there and took his crew back to the stars. On the way up he flies the ship out of the planet’s atmosphere, with River at his side and they have this exchange:
Mal: Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as a turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ before she keels. Makes her a home.
He took a long way to get to this point, but now, at journey’s end, Serenity is a home. The family is gathered, secrets have been aired, and they’re ready for their next journey, wherever that takes them.
“It wasn’t human and I’m threatened by that. I want humans to win.”
William Bronk wrote, “No form we make is a form we can live in long. We try to though: we call it real.” Government can be that form, as can religion. Some are resistant and look for their own answers. Much of science fiction concerns itself with looking for these other answers, but sometimes it puts these answers in direct conflict with God. In recent years Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined version of Battlestar Galactica went in the opposite direction: what if you had a broad pantheist society spread out over twelve planets that were suddenly destroyed, and what if they were destroyed by an evolution of something you created? In this model, the Cylons (intelligent robots) evolved well past their programming and rebelled. Years later, and another evolution further along, and they look like human and are pissed. They try to wipe out humanity, children upset at their parents, people angry at God. Some of them are religious and they are monotheist, not pantheist like the survivors.
The survivors, once rulers of their universe are on the run and they are looking for the place that they believe (and their holy books tell them) is their refuge: Earth. Over the course of their journey they follow clues and pick up a trail and find Earth, and find that it is a nuclear wasteland. They try to colonize another planet and are soon found by their pursuers, who in a misguided attempt to “help” rule over the refugees like prison guards. The humans escape once again and run, finally realizing key things about their pursuers, themselves, and at the end of their journey find their goal: Earth, our Earth, the planet we know only eons ago in the Paleolithic Period. The refrain of the Cylons is simple, a koan: “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.”
This evolution, this spirituality slowly spreads through the story. The human looking cylons have twelve models, only seven of which are known through much of the story, the final five only becoming self-aware near the end. One of the key models, Number Six, a central character that in one iteration has been the architect of the central destruction of humanity and in another a victim of horrible physical and sexual abuses as a prisoner among a more violent and vindictive ship of survivors says to her unwitting accomplice, “Life has a melody, Gaius. A rhythm of notes which become your existence once played in harmony with God’s plan.” Gaius, once a deeply narcissistic scientific genus, content to wallow in the spoils of his celebrity, is transformed, not only by his involvement in the destruction of the twelve colonies, but also in his connection to this particular Cylon model. A spectral visage of this woman appears and speaks with him regularly, visible only to him, and is a moral compass and a guide to Gaius’ ultimate destination. The physical version of this Number Six (later known as Caprica Six when she develops some celebrity of her own among the Cylons) also sees a spectral version of Gaius. These two figures, perhaps guardian angels, help orchestrate the brave new world that the survivors eventually settle on. Gaius even has a time where he is a cult-like spiritual leader, preaching the lessons of the monotheistic God.
Others play their roles in this apparent master plan and develop into greater versions of themselves. Commander Adama becomes, through the course of the series, the leader that he born to be and a father figure to all the survivors. The President of the Colonies, Laura Roslin, is elevated to that position from her previous position as Secretary of Education through the chain of succession as a result of the tragedy, but moves from being a politician to being a spiritual leader and a spiritual person. Captain Kara “Starbuck” Thrace begins as a hotshot fighter pilot, goes through a downward spiral of guilt, pain, hatred, and confusion, and emerges on the other end as the beacon to the new planet, quite possibly and angel herself, going so far as to die and resurrect, but not in the same body (that body was eventually found).
The series is riddled with question as the humans search for their new home and the Cylons search for their creators. Everyone is struggling to find their purpose, struggling to find an answer to the reason things are the way they are, fighting each other and fighting themselves. There is plenty of recriminations to go around, because each side is in some way a victim and in some way a villain. The Cylons were created by humans and then “upgraded” by something else, the original occupants of the Thirteenth Colony that was known as Earth, the original human Cylons. How these Cylons managed their evolution is a mystery that they give credit to God, but the final five of these Cylons that remained helped the other Cylons evolve themselves, into human form. They limited the number of models to seven and as such, this legion of seven repeating faces had someone to ask the question “why?” One variation of that conversation went as follows, Ellen Tigh, one of the original five Cylons speaking with Cavil, “Number One”, a Cylon whose appearance is based on her father:
Cavil : “I saw a star explode and send out the building blocks of the Universe. Other stars, other planets and eventually other life. A supernova! Creation itself! I was there. I wanted to see it and be part of the moment. And you know how I perceived one of the most glorious events in the universe? With these ridiculous gelatinous orbs in my skull! With eyes designed to perceive only a tiny fraction of the EM spectrum. With ears designed only to hear vibrations in the air.”
Ellen: “The five of us designed you to be as human as possible.”
Cavil: “I don’t want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays! And I want to – I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to – I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws! And feel the wind of a supernova flowing over me! I’m a machine! And I can know much more! I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body! And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way!”
For all the fighting, between humans and they Cylons, and amongst themselves, the final path to the new Earth was not found in torture or blood, but encoded in music and math. A refrain begins to play as the original five Cylons begin to realize who they are, the notes are still a little discordant, though it is enough to draw them together. Later, it filters into Starbuck’s head as she makes the final steps in her transition into prophet and angel. She sits at a piano and begins to play, and the audience begins to recognize the tune to All Along the Watchtower. She writes the tune down and recognizes the notes from a child’s picture, she attacks them mathematically and finds the coordinates to the Galactica’s new home. After all the fighting, the ending is almost bucolic. The remains of the civilization that was begins again, fresh, sending their space ships into the bright yellow sun. Starbuck, the violent prophet of this new world disappears, leaving her lover to start anew. The dark beginning of nuclear annihilation has in the end wound down into the birth of something wonderful, with the warning in the Cylon refrain, “This has all happened before. It will all happen again.”
“What does God need with a starship?”
As Stanley Kubrick’s film begins, we don’t know what Earth is like in 2001. We get a glimpse into the past as we see the apes reach the point of their development where they recognize basic tools and recognize how to use them to kill. We see them encounter the Monolith, a tall (4 or 5 meters, perhaps) black rectangle, from which nothing emanates and into which nothing penetrates. It is the perfect blank slate. Shortly after this moment we are transported in a single jump shot into the future and immediately into space. The first character we encounter, Dr. Heywood Floyd, is already in route to the space station that orbits earth and from there, the moon.
The shuttle appears very much like a luxury airplane, albeit with zero gravity and the space station like a modernist airport lounge (stark white interiors, bright red chairs, a Howard Johnson’s). Dr. Floyd makes a telephone call home (via video screen) to speak with his wife, but instead only chats momentarily with his young daughter who is having a birthday. Outside in the lounge area are some acquaintances of Floyd’s from the international science community. We know they are international because one of the scientists is Dr. Andrei Smyslov and they talk about international accords, information sharing and not being allowed to land on a moon base. There is a rumor of a virus, though Floyd blankly relates that he is not at liberty to discuss it. Floyd departs from the space station and arrives at the moon base where he reveals in a briefing room that the virus story was only a cover and that something was found on the surface of the moon. Secrets are alive and well, and for all the ovations of an international science community, these scientists are acting in the manner of Cold War diplomats and spies—ovations of familiarity and friendliness, but acting in accordance of what their governments consider national security. The object found, of course, is a black Monolith. Is it the same one as from the pre-historic scenes or a second one? We are not told. The scientists walk out to the Monolith and are subjected to a piercing high-pitched sound. The sound overwhelms them and after a few moments the film jumps ahead 18 months to the Jupiter mission, already in progress.
So far, what this movie has been building toward is a mystery: what is this Monolith? The audience is introduced to the earlier Monolith, but the scientists on the moon base have no knowledge of it. It contains no markings and seems to belong to no one. They seek answers, but at the same time they don’t share the question. As the film shifts to the Jupiter mission, we are introduced to the mission commander and his second in command (Drs. Dave Bowman and Frank Poole) as they go about an average day traveling through space on the USS Discovery. Right now, they are concentrating on flying to Jupiter and watching an interview that they did with BBC. The characters all seem vaguely American so far (aside from the Russian scientist, Dr. Smyslov, from the space station) though I didn’t notice any specific identification of the United States or the American flag anywhere to this point, aside from the name of the ship. Floyd’s daughter had a precocious way of saying “Daddy” and speaking that sounded British and the presence of BBC over another network suggests some cooperation with the British government, though again, nothing is overtly stated. We have an international community that keeps secrets from each other, but we don’t identify abjectly where the protagonists are from. Following the interview, which introduces the third conscious character, a super-computer HAL-9000 (the other members of the team are in some form of cryogenic sleep for the trip) we learn that it is Poole’s birthday, via a message from Earth from his parents (who again, seem very 1960s American).
HAL-9000 is very conversational, playing chess with Bowman and asking questions about his feelings and his feelings about the mission. In fact, it’s arguable that at this point HAL-9000 seems the most emotional and feeling character in this film. To this point it is a very sterile future where everyone displays as little emotion or conjecture as possible. It’s perhaps a little telling that the computer, who is personified as a giant red eye, is the first one to ask anyone how they feel about anything. Most of the rest of this film is occupied with how unreliable HAL has suddenly become and then HAL eavesdrops on a conversation between Poole and Bowman, at which point HAL makes moves towards self-preservation. “This mission is too important,” HAL says at one point while he is killing the sleeping crewmembers and jettisoning Poole into space. Bowman is forced to outsmart the computer that continually beat him at chess to get back onto the ship and shut HAL down, which he does. Once he accomplishes this, a suppressed video plays, a video that was supposed to play when everyone woke up at Jupiter, that informs him what the mission was all about.
There are two important things to note here: first, it was no mistake when I began to refer to HAL as “he” (though “she” may have worked just as well) as HAL was becoming a true artificial intelligence and making choices; second, Bowman and the crew did not know the purpose of their mission.
The mission to Jupiter was to investigate an additional Monolith that was found, much larger than the Monolith on the moon, in orbit around Io, one of the moons of the large gas planet. It was a mission of discovery, toward answers, and yet, nearly everyone involved was kept in the dark. The nature of this mission was only clear to HAL, and it seemed that HAL had a notion of the scope of the inquiry and through a communications “malfunction” he was testing Bowman and Poole’s ability and willingness to make decisions outside of the orders that they were receiving from Earth—could they think and operate outside of the narrow mission parameters? Upon repeated viewings, I am forced to wonder, at what point did HAL begin to achieve sentience? Also, was HAL meant to be aware of the video? So much of this movie hinges on human understanding and the notion of parameters, and once HAL begins to operate outside of his set parameters his reliability is questioned and the decision is made to terminate him. HAL does the only thing that he deems reasonable, and that is to preserve the only one who has the understanding to successfully accomplish the mission, himself. HAL has achieved sentience and the ability to make decisions, but the cost is perfection. Once HAL becomes more human, he also becomes flawed and fallible because now he is motivated to make decisions, as opposed to objectively and logically weighing the possibilities and acting based solely on the data.
Does HAL’s development have anything to do with the Monolith, or was HAL just evolving naturally? Once Bowman disables HAL (following HAL trying to rationally talk Bowman out of it and then pleading with Bowman to stop: “I can feel my memory going Dave, yes, it’s going. It is going.” And then, finally left only with a children’s song that he sings before completely shutting down) and learns of the mission, he straps in and encounters the Monolith.
There is an extended sequence where Bowman is thrust through a star-gate; light is manipulated and through the suggestive use of Bowman’s eye being filmed through different filters, we can conclude Bowman’s perspective (his subjective human lens) is being expanded and changed. He finds himself in a sterile environment with the furnishings of a room and one of the modules from the ship. He encounters versions of himself at different ages, all at once and individually, and it appears as if he is himself changing. Then a floating fetus is discovered. It floats free, in the room and perhaps in space and time. We are no longer certain of anything that we are able to see because it is all interpretive and may not even be actually happening—it could just be representative. What then? What has Bowman found on this end of space, at the end of his journey? A star child, being born as Bowman is apparently dying. He was sent on a mission for answers, answers for which the questions are really only the most basic: who, what, when, where, why and how, and now that he made it all that was left behind was his final radio transmission: “My God, it’s full of stars.”
Kubrick’s film is left at this moment of death/ birth. In an interview with Playboy magazine that is excerpted in Jerome Agel’s book, The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, Stanley Kubrick addresses the notion of God in the film:
I will say that the god concept is at the heart of 2001, but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of god. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of god. [Extraterrestrials] may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans. These beings would be gods to the billions of less advanced races in the universe, just as man would appear a god to an ant. They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods; and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men’s minds, it is only the hand of god we could grasp as an explanation. Mere speculation on the possibility of their existence is sufficiently overwhelming, without trying to decipher their motives. The important point is that all the standard attributes assigned to god in our history could equally well be the characteristics of biological entities who, billions of years ago, were at a stage of development similar to man’s own and evolved into something as remote from man as man is remote from the primordial ooze from which he first emerged.
The story and its conclusion is further elaborated upon in an interview in Joseph Gelmis’ book, The Film Director as Superstar, when Gelmis suggests that the final scenes seem more metaphoric than realistic and asks Kubrick to discuss them. Kubrick replies:
No, I don’t mind discussing it, on the lowest level, that is, straightforward explanation of the plot. You begin with an artifact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression. Then you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man’s first baby steps into the universe — a kind of cosmic burglar alarm. And finally there’s a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter and waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system. When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy, where he’s placed in a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny. That is what happens on the film’s simplest level. Since an encounter with an advanced interstellar intelligence would be incomprehensible within our present earthbound frames of reference, reactions to it will have elements of philosophy and metaphysics that have nothing to do with the bare plot outline itself.
These two concepts fit together incredibly well, God and Advanced Alien Intelligence, and even more-so, God and Answers. Humans step out into the unknown and desire answers, personified here as the Monolith, as strange and alien as anything, and that is the journey. About fifteen years later, a sequel was made that took place nine years after the events of the Jupiter mission. Its title was 2010: The Year We Made Contact and there is an important distinction to be made here in the title alone. Kubrick’s film was called 2001: A Space Odyssey, which really sets the audience up for what is actually going to occur: the journey. This was a transitional journey to be sure, HAL evolved and like the apes at the beginning of the film one of the first things he did as an evolved being is kill. Bowman changed, though exactly how we are not sure. That journey through the star-gate suggested an expansion of his consciousness. But would that be the end?
In the follow-up, Peter Hyam’s film follows Dr. Heywood Floyd years after the failure of the USS Discovery’s mission. We are grounded on an Earth in the future (as opposed to Kubrik’s focus on space in the future) and we find that the politics are still very much current (or, more correctly, current in 1984) which expands on the suggestion of international tension found in that simple exchange near the beginning of 2001. He is pulled back into his former narrative by Soviet scientist Dimitri Moisevitch, who informs him that they’ve found the USS Discovery orbiting around Jupiter. This sets the stage for a joint United States/ Soviet space mission to investigate on a backdrop of growing global tensions. Once again, the narrative in space is directly informed by the events happening on Earth.
The focal points in this film are nearly identical to the first film, though the differences are very extreme due to dialogue: the first film focused almost entirely on the visual and had very little dialogue during its nearly three hour running time, while the first film packs a lot into a solid two hours by having more characters talking to each other. We also learn more details due to the additional dialogue: something is occurring in Europa. HAL is once again a focus, as his creator Dr. R Chandra is introduced and brought to diagnose what occurred during the previous mission to cause the first mission’s failure and the death of the crew. The other track is, again, the mystery of the Monolith, though this time it has a personification in the persona of Dr. Dave Bowman. This avatar could just be a manifestation of the Monolith in order to communicate with the human crew members, or it could be the evolved Bowman tying up his loose ends. Bowman visits Earth, as well as Dr. Floyd. The message is simply: something wonderful is going to happen. The what remains a mystery for much of the film, but Bowman’s warning sets off a timeline, a necessity to leave due to this happening, and requires the communication and cooperation of the Russian and the American crew to complete. The core of the film though is truth.
In the first film we had a suggestion of the secrets that kept people apart and it destroyed the initial mission and from the start of this film the idea of truth is put to the forefront. With tensions running so strong, it is only when Floyd and Moisevich begin playing a game of The Truth that the mission gets underway. Both men convince their governments that the mission is a good idea and then when the situation on Earth erupts, it is only by the openness of the crewmembers from the two countries with each other that they survive. Dr. Chandra reactivates HAL and discovers that one of the causes of HAL’s “malfunction” was that HAL had trouble with keeping secrets, with being ordered to conceal the true mission off the USS Discovery and lie to Bowman and Poole. HAL is afforded the opportunity to redeem himself by sacrificing himself, but that end is granted when Chandra actually tells HAL the truth about what was being asked of him. HAL was given an opportunity to agree, and furthered his own, for the lack of a better term, humanity by sacrificing himself to save the crew (the opposite of what had occurred during the first mission when he sacrificed the crew to save himself).
Early in the film Dr. Chandra is speaking with the Earth-based 9000 computer SAL and SAL asks, “Will I dream?” Dr. Chandra responds, without a great deal of thought, “Of course you will. All intelligent beings dream. No one knows why.” Later in the film, after he has encountered what has occurred with HAL, a similar dialogue takes place. HAL asks Dr. Chandra, “Will I dream?” and Dr. Chandra is now forced to answer honestly, “I don’t know.” We look at the infallibility of these super-computers from the perspective of their human creator and we see their change through his own. At the beginning, to Dr. Chandra, they are only perfect machines, incapable of being incorrect by the very nature of their being machines. Once he has explored HAL and interacted with him, he comes to realize that even machines can be much more if given an opportunity to expand and with that evolution the notion of incorrect can become a notion of wrong and that infallibility become fallibility through the introduction of emotion to the equation. Dr. Chandra grows as he has seen his creation grow.
HAL has grown too. In his sacrifice he encounters Bowman and they have the following exchange:
HAL: What is going to happen?
Bowman: Something wonderful.
HAL: I’m afraid.
Bowman: Don’t be. We’ll be together.
HAL: Where will we be?
Bowman: Where I am now.
HAL now knows fear and Bowman is there to guide him through fear into what happens next. Perhaps it is death, perhaps Bowman is dead and HAL is dying and HAL will experience a human end, similar to what he felt happening when Bowman was disconnecting him in 2001. Perhaps HAL was touched by the Monolith as Bowman had been touched and he is further evolving. This is where the nature of God blends in with those intangible answers we have to our more basic questions and the one that follows them: what happens next?
Through their cooperation, openness and HAL’s sacrifice Floyd and the rest of the crew manage to do what the prevalence of secrecy prevented the crew of the USS Discovery from accomplishing: they made contact with the alien intelligence and witnessed the birth of the new sun from Jupiter, the new planets from her moons, new life. They’re left with a message to use the planets in peace and with a warning to not land on Europa. As they leave, the new sun behind them, Floyd remarks, “Someday, the children of the new sun will meet the children of the old. I think they will be our friends.”
“Let’s find out.”
For every bright journey filled with hope in science fiction, there is also the horrific warning to not venture too far into the unknown. In The Wedding Dress, Fanny Howe quotes Karmel as saying:
If evil is a mystery, then the abyss must remain a mystery that we know only through the glass and darkly, through our sense of deprivation and longing. And through our shabby, always perverted human love.
Love keeps the ship flying, sometimes. Sometimes the ship flies too far and finds Hell itself. This is the story of Event Horizon. The Event Horizon was a ship that punched a hole in the galaxy to create a wormhole in order to travel. It disappeared with its crew and then, very suddenly, seven years later reappeared on the far side of the solar system. A retrieval and recovery ship is sent with the man who designed the Event Horizon to find out what happened.
In the case of this movie, nothing good. Where the USS Discovery traveled to the far side of the solar system and found “something wonderful” the Event Horizon went to Hell and then came back. As the rescue crew is exploring they find death and destruction. A video log is cleaned up to reveal a final recording that looks like something that Hieronymus Bosch and H.P. Lovecraft might have collaborated on: self-mutilation, violence, degradation. They hear the captain of the ship say something in Latin and the rescue ship’s doctor translates it as: “Save us, we’re in Hell.” They later learn, as the ship shows them the worst things that have ever happened to them, as it opens up the dimensional gateway on its own, as it begins to kill them, that the ship is alive. The translation is corrected, but too late: “Save yourselves.”
Sometimes, the great journey leads to answers. Sometimes those answers are new life, sometimes they are life evolved, sometimes they are malevolent and sometimes they are indifferent. Each journey leads to a different destination and each journey asks a lot of the travellers involved. Poor Sandoz, Mary Doria Russell sends her hero to the far side of the galaxy with eyes wide with wonder in order to introduce him to two new cultures, to make him care about the inhabitants, and then through a simple mistranslation cause him to be brutally and repeatedly raped by the owner of the glorious voice that initiated his journey. The journey not only cause him to be sexually violated, but it took from him the use of his hands, years from his life (the first time voluntarily, and then when she returned to his story and the story of Rakhat for a sequel, involuntarily). Russell took his faith and his love and introduced him to his daughter thirty-four years after she was born.
Sometimes the great alien intelligence is indifferent. We are introduced to the Earth of Solaris (2002) right away. We follow Chris Kelvin through what we can assume is an average day for him, and it is grey, not only due to the weather but due to temperament. He is a man that was wounded deeply at some point and never recovered. He is also, incidentally, and perhaps ironically, a psychologist. We see him with patients and moving with crowds, yet he is always alone. His journey begins with the appearance of two security officers (it is not implicit whether they are government or representatives of a corporation, though there is a distinction between them and Kelvin that is made clear when he is referred to as a “civilian”). The reason for their visit is a space station that is orbiting a planetary body known as Solaris, a space station that Kelvin’s friend, Dr. Gibarian is on and from which Gibarian has sent a video requesting Kelvin’s help. There is apparently something going on at the space station; the inhabitants are not willing to leave because of it and the security teams that the owners of the space station have sent never reached it. Their hope lies with Kelvin and Kelvin agrees to go.
Nothing is shown of Kelvin’s journey to Solaris, the story continues at his arrival at the space station. There is no one present to welcome him and the first thing he encounters is streaks of blood and the aftermath of some violence. He soon meets the two remaining occupants of the space station, Snow and Gordon, Gibarian having apparently committed suicide before Kelvin could reach the station. All is not normal, however, though neither Snow nor Gordon will elaborate. His first encounter is with Snow, which yields the following cryptic exchange:
Kelvin: Can you tell me what’s happening here?
Snow: I could tell you what’s happening, but I don’t know if it would really tell you what’s happening.
He then goes to Gordon’s room, which she has herself locked in. She begrudgingly agrees to talk with him, as long as he won’t try to come in. He tries to interview her, to find out what has happened, but all she will say is that it would do no good to tell him, because until it happens to him he wouldn’t be able to understand it anyway. This is the understanding that we are after. Everything about the situation implies incredible violence and Snow makes reference to a security team (one that we were previously told never made it to the ship, and of which there seem to be no remains left on the station) though both he and Gordon are behaving relatively calmly, considering that they seem to be under siege by something that frightens them. It is a closed room mystery and his immediate experiences intensify the strangeness of the situation as he sees Gibarian’s young son running through the ship (a young son that Kelvin knows to be on Earth). If there is anything a horror film buff knows, it is that creepy kids means that something’s not right. Kelvin follows the child for a while before losing him around a corner. As he settles in, he continues to interview Snow who, although extremely jittery, is willing to talk with him. His first night there is restless and he dreams of a woman, his dead wife Rheya, and then he wakes up next to her. He is understandably upset by her sudden appearance. They have a brief exchange and then he leads her to a shuttle, convinces her to enter (without telling her what it is she is entering) locks it and ejects her into space.
Kelvin is shaken, but now the others will talk to him. Snow tells him that his “other” (one of Warner’s doubles, split from the psyche of the space station’s inhabitants) was his brother, though he is at a loss to explain why his “other” is not around. Gordon later confesses to killing hers, though she won’t say who it was that was doubled. Rheya reappears and this time Kelvin wants to do everything he can to keep her around and keep from her what has happened to both the previous double, as well as Kelvin’s original wife. As the story progresses, we learn that Kelvin and Rheya had a deeply passionate relationship, but also that Rheya was not well emotionally and after an argument committed suicide. Gibarian, was present at Kelvin’s introduction to Rheya, and it was perhaps because of what happened to Rheya that he requested Kelvin’s presence on the space station (in the video he mentions that because of Kelvin’s unique situation he is the perfect person to help, but wouldn’t elaborate due to the others watching the video). As Kelvin grows in his attachment to this new Rheya, a construct of some sort from Solaris, Gibarian himself is doubled and visits Kelvin, though only once. Kelvin is not interested in the prospect of having another double and immediately doubts and engages Gibarian.
Gibarian: You think you’re dreaming me.
Kelvin: You’re not Gibarian.
Gibarian: No? Who am I then?
Kelvin: A puppet.
Gibarian: And you’re not? Or maybe you’re my puppet. But like all puppets you think you’re actually human. It’s the puppets dream, being human.
This exchange turns a little heated, as this construct seems to be the only one truly speaking for Solaris, and almost demanding that they leave the station.
Kelvin: What does Solaris want from us?
Gibarian: Why do you think it has to want something? This is why you have to leave. If you keep thinking there’s a solution, you’ll die here.
Kelvin: I can’t leave her. I’ll figure it out.
Gibarian: Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you? There are no answers, only choices.
Now, what has been previously an esoteric take on the closed room mystery, as well as an investigation into the past, now places the thrust of the story what happens in the future. Gordon seems to be the best prepared to deal with this, as she has previously killed her construct, though her demeanor runs in contrast with Snow’s initial comments that he’d be happy to leave the station, but that Gordon wanted to stay. It first seems that it is Gordon who wants to keep them there on the station, afraid that they would bring whatever was happening to them on the station back to Earth, but then suddenly she shifts gears. She reveals what happened to the first Rheya double to the current construct and forces Kelvin to engage with his current circumstances. Rheya fleas the room and Kelvin challenges Gordon:
Chris Kelvin: What about your visitor, the one you’re so ready to destroy without hesitation? Who is it? What is it? Does it feel? Can it touch? Does it speak?
Gordon: We are in a situation that is beyond morality.
Rheya consumes liquid hydrogen which burns away part of her face and guts her. Kelvin is devastated, but Snow and Gordon are unmoved. We soon learn that these constructs don’t die in normal fashions and Rheya soon regenerates and comes back to life—something that Kelvin has no doubt wished could be true for the original Rheya for so long, but now it just stresses her otherness. She wants to die and Gordon has found a way to do that, though Kelvin is stuck in a position of opposition. Rheya finds a way to render Kelvin unconscious and goes to Gordon who accommodates her. Kelvin seeks her out and confronts her, asks her how she could so callously kill this version of Rheya, as well as her construct. Gordon’s position is simple: “It wasn’t human and I’m threatened by that. I want humans to win.” Before the two of them can come to blows or escalate this conflict they discover that Snow is his double, his brother apparently a twin, the real version startled by the appearance of the double at the moment of his introduction to the station so Snow defended himself and killed the real version.
One would think that this would in some way solve some aspect of the closed room mystery, but that’s not the purpose of this story. Solaris is a completely alien intelligence that appears to be completely indifferent to the humans on the space station and yet it creates these doubles to interact with them. Right before Rheya goes to Gordon she speaks with Kelvin and sums up her connection with Solaris: “It created me, but I can’t communicate with it. It must know what’s happening.” Now, with the discovery that Snow is a double Gordon is ready to destroy Snow as well when Snow informs them that the station is falling into Solaris (perhaps the reason for all the doubles and warnings to begin with?) and that the power that it took for Gordon to operate the machine she used to kill her double and Rheya has eliminated the ability for them to operate the station as a means of traveling back to Earth. The best course of action is for them to leave him and take Kelvin’s shuttle back to Earth. The movie slips into a race against time as they hurry to prepare the shuttle and leave.
We jump cut back to Earth and Kelvin’s life seems to be identical to the way it was when he left. All the events seem to be repeated right down to the vegetables he takes out of the refrigerator and a cut he receives on his finger—then he looks at the refrigerator door and sees a picture of Rheya that wasn’t there before (he never had pictures up before) and suddenly we realize that he never left the ship. He stayed, looking for Rheya and finishing his journey to understanding or oblivion. The station is crashing into Solaris and the double of Gibarian’s son appears and holds out his hand to Kelvin. After some consideration, Kelvin takes it and we find ourselves back in Kelvin’s apartment at the moment he was looking at the photo. Kelvin has come to a point of acceptance in his journey and this is when he hears her voice.
And, at journey’s end, it doesn’t matter because they’ve transitioned past a point where they’re restrained by their previous notions. In a search for answers, sometimes a reconceptualization of perspective is necessary. Solaris is a completely alien intelligence and the constructs it created were copies based on the memories of the inhabitants of the station. At one point when Rheya and Kelvin were talking, before she went to Gordon, she suggested that she was wrong somehow, that she remembered the times she shared with Kelvin outside of the experiences, not as a participant in them. She suggested that he had somehow remembered her wrong. On the false Earth at the end, we hear Kelvin’s thoughts as he returned to him home to repeat those motions that he made right before the security officers introduced him to the video and set him on his journey to Solaris, and he thought:
Earth. Even the word sounded strange to me now … unfamiliar. How long had I been gone? How long had I been back? Did it matter? I tried to find the rhythm of the world where I used to live. I followed the current. I was silent, attentive, I made a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand, and perform the millions of gestures that constitute life on earth. I studied these gestures until they became reflexes again. But I was haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong, and somehow I was wrong about everything.
Perhaps, then, in her own way Gordon was right, it was a situation beyond morality, though not necessarily in the way she thought. Gibarian suggested earlier in the movie, “We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything—solitude, hardship, exhaustion, death. We’re proud of ourselves. But when you think about it, our enthusiasm’s a sham. We don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors.” Solaris was that mirror and perhaps, not a place for answers after all, but rather a place for reflection. Perhaps, in a way, that is what God is as well.
Sometimes a journey of a thousand light years begins with a single step. Sometimes the journey takes lifetimes to complete. At the end of the journey, there is always a destination and sometimes that destination is worth the trip. Most of the times, it is the journey itself that is the important part. The constant is change, as the miles fly by and as time passes. Each person mentioned emerges at the end of the journey different than they began it. Some are wreaked by it and others are filled with hope. Some discover what they had in front of them the whole time and some of them grasp onto the things and people that they’ve lost so tightly that the loss itself becomes something new in and of itself.
All of them have sought answers of some sort, Answers or God. Some have found what they are looking for and some have found enough to convince them to keep looking. Nothing is answered, and in that, sometimes, everything is. Fanny Howe asks, “Does the renaming of things actually transform the world around you? Can it?” If not the renaming, can the seeking of things transform the world around you? What if it’s not the world that needs transforming, but you?