Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, 2002)

It’s a problem when a remake that’s pretty much half as long as the original feels as long as the original, but thus is all in all the case with Steven Soderbergh’s take on “Solaris.”  Alright, so maybe it’s more accurate to say that this update on the story of the mind-reading, person-creating planet is not so much a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film, but rather just a different take on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, just as Tarkovsky’s film was.  Still, though, my inexperienced ass has never gone anywhere near the novel, so I only have Tarkovsky’s masterpiece to go on, so it’s inevitable that almost any judgment I make on poor Steven Soderbergh’s little opus will revolve around the ol’ original-remake comparison.  Thus is life…oh well.  But as I said, this latest “Solaris” update just felt long, like it dragged, even when Tarkovsky’s version was twice as long and went at just as slow a pace, but barely dragged for a second.  That’s not to say that Soderbergh’s version isn’t competent or worthwhile to watch, because it certainly is.  The set design – both on Solaris station and on a not-too-distant future Earth – is cold and soulless, but beautiful, George Clooney does an admirable job as the jaded, widowed psychologist Chris Kelvin investigating the strange goings-on in the station above the seemingly living planet Solaris, and the staging and lighting and cinematography, with the oft-stationary camera and long takes, are all remarkable and arguably surpass even Tarkovsky’s film in terms of technical qualities.  The feeling of emotional isolation, from the dark and rain-drenched city to Kelvin’s apartment with the muted colors and the jarring sound of knife cutting vegetables on the cutting board to the cold metallic setting of Solaris station, is stifling, and damn near stunning.  Soderbergh really is a master of atmosphere through lighting and staging when he tries to be, and he certainly tried here.  The only problem is that Mr. Soderbergh, at least when adapting Polish science fiction novels, doesn’t transfer his gift for creating images to screenwriting.

Granted, both films deal with the central issue of what, if any, kind of identity Solaris’ created people have – after all, the sudden materialization of Kelvin’s wife Rheya, who committed suicide years before, is no more than another man’s feelings about her.  She’s not Rheya, she’s merely the summation of how Chris perceived Rheya – the summation of his memories and emotions concerning the real Rheya – and Solaris’ imitation of Rheya knows this.  It’s a fascinating prospect, wondering whether Rheya can be called a person – she seems to have genuine emotion, after all – or whether she’s nothing more than the unhinged, needy, suicidal woman that Chris saw her as, and that expands to the tough concept of whether any human is truly unique, or merely the summation of what others think of him or her.  Tarkovsky handled that conundrum magnificently, fully fleshing out Kelvin’s wife (named Hari in that film) as a sympathetic character, despite everyone, including her, knowing that she’s merely the artificial creation of a likely-sentient planet.  Ridley Scott would visit that idea again in “Blade Runner” with Rachel, the replicant who jarringly learns of her artificial existence.  Just imagine how it must feel to know you’re not even human, and yet you think and feel and love and hate like any other human would.  What that must be like, how emotionally terrifying and agonizing that must be!  “Blade Runner’s” replicants, and before that “Solaris”’s Hari, personified just how disturbing and painful that would be, and in turn how painful it must be for any person to be unable to grasp who they really are, and as a result I sympathized with Hari more than I did with Kelvin or any of the unhinged scientists who somehow seemed less human than the memory being created out of thin air by a magic planet.  Imagine that.

What we witnessed in Tarkovsky’s film was sci-fi infused with realism, emphasizing the human element so that those philosophical questions were merely in the back of your mind, never force-fed to the audience. What I basically saw Soderbergh’s version of “Solaris” as was a Sparknotes version of Tarkovsky’s version.  All those questions about Rheya and what it means to be a fully emotional human, both to oneself and through the gaze of another, are still there, and indeed this film provides plenty of questions that are fascinating to consider, but it was just much more dialogue-driven than Tarkovsky’s version, which is probably the main reason why it just felt too long, despite a more than manageable hour and a half run-time.  Where in Tarkovsky’s film those questions were inherent to the material, infused in the unbearably stifling atmosphere and the realistic interactions between man and artificial woman, Soderbergh lays those issues out through words, in heady conversations and somewhat overwrought dialogue.  “I’m suicidal because that’s how you remember me,” Solaris’ Rheya tells Chris, and that’s just the beginning.  Tarkovsky assumed that his audience was intelligent enough to consider “Solaris”’s weighty concepts on its own, while Soderbergh’s screenplay tries to spell out for you – kind of like a cheat sheet, having Chris and Rheya and Drs. Gordon and Snow tell you what you should be thinking (“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?”) instead of letting you figure it out on your own, while all those pretty interiors are just there for show.  Where’s the fun in that?

Soderbergh’s film might out-do Tarkovsky’s in terms of effects or technical qualities (even if this update’s docking sequence is practically a shot-for-shot ripoff – or homage, if you want to call it that – of “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” famous docking sequence), but what this latest version lacks is room to let the atmosphere and the concepts behind the plot breathe.  I never felt that ever-present sense that something was just plain off-kilter that made Tarkovsky’s film such a fascinating watch.  In that film, there’s little moments like Kelvin’s arrival at the station, when we’re just as clueless as he is as to what catastrophe met its crew, and he has an inexplicable run-in with a midget that one of the surviving doctors nonchalantly shoos back into his quarters.  Little moments like that really made me go ‘what the fuck’, and couple that with the bland, metallic interiors and just how odd it is that an artificially-created version of Kelvin’s long-dead wife practically makes herself at home, and how that seems more and more normal as time goes on, and eventually the sense of oddness just increases, and Kelvin’s slow descent into madness and his attachment to a physical manifestation of his imagination is subtle, and palpable, and real.  I felt like I was there, slowly growing comfortable with the bland interior of the station and life with both mentally unbalanced scientists and artificially-created memory people – a true sign of subtle madness.  I rarely got that sense of true off-kilter, the subtle paranoia and isolation, both physical and emotional, in Soderbergh’s film.  Sure, Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies as the surviving doctors are appropriately on edge (Davies really overplays his hand in the long-isolated insane explorer/scientist role, though), and Clooney’s barely-changing understated demeanor and his resistance to going over-the-top with paranoid madness on that lonely station (just as was the case with Donatas Banionis’ understated but excellent performance as Kelvin in the original) is admirable and makes the effects of isolation with an artificially-created once-dead wife that much more understated and unsettling.  But, what I got out of this film were great environments and great little moments of emotional isolation, followed by heady conversations where our characters try to make philosophical sense of what it means to be human.  But that stifling atmosphere and those inherent philosophical concepts never came together – like Chris and Rheya, they want to join together as a whole, but remain innately separate.  It’s little more than Philosophy 101, with nice cinematography instead of a blackboard and the easy-on-the-eyes George Clooney and Natascha McElhone instead of an old professor.  Soderbergh’s film is a just about a visual masterpiece, a fascinating concept with tremendous potential and a film with a genuine ability to make you think long after it’s over, but Tarkovsky’s film that came before did all those things too, but wasn’t just a think-piece – it was a full-on subjective experience.

7.5/10

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1 comment so far

  1. Katie on

    Hi nice blog 🙂 I can see a lot of effort has been put in.


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