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Steven Soderbergh was too classy to make stupid, popular movies early in his career, and in between no-brainer fun pictures like Ocean's Eleven, his output continues to dazzle, as with the brilliantly constructed Limey. This science fiction remake is almost a complete misfire, however. Putting a high-profile star like George Clooney into a cerebral rumination on love and loss doesn't make it more commercially acceptable. Unlike the still-mystifying 1972 Tarkovsky version, this is a relationship picture. The sci-fi aspects are so muted, there's no reason this even had to be set in outer space. Beautifully designed and shot, the film leaves us dissatisfied and disappointed.
Remaking classic Science Fiction movies was a cottage industry in the 80s and 90s; except for a few interesting re-thinks like Cronenberg's The Fly, the remakes failed to reproduce the original thrills or add new ones. The makers of the new Solaris talk about going back to the Lem book, but there's not much evidence of that: in print, Solaris was a complicated puzzle about the futility of seeking alien life in space - the sentient planet communicates with the Earthmen in multiple dimensions, while the humans, confronted with bizarre miracles, lost track of the logic of their mission.
Tarkovsky's version is a very long and talky contemplation of some of the ideas in the book, concentrating on Chris Kelvin's human reaction to events that disturb him. It's actually a sentimentalized take on Lem's original, asking us what is meant by being alive, by being conscious, responsible, feeling, human. It's a deep-dish piece of work, but the ideas are there.
Steven Soderberg's version ignores most of the levels of meaning except the personal. The phenomenon of Visitors plaguing the scientists seems to be the only thing happening, and the Helen Gordon character reduces it to a choice between zapping the aliens and embracing a fantasy. This Chris Kelvin clearly obsessed over his dead wife before the illusions arrive, and the 'visitor' phenomenon seems to be little more than a cosmic therapy aid.
The form of the film, using many flashbacks to Kelvin's life on Earth, do irrepairable damage to the main story idea. Soderbergh's memories of Rheya are just as real-looking as the phantom spectres created by Solaris, so from the audience point of view, there's no tension when the Visitors appear. We don't feel Kelvin's deprivation, as a vivid flashback of Rheya is never more than a few moments away. When Rheya Mark II suddenly appears, it takes all of Soderbergh's editorial skills to keep 'present' phantoms and 'flashback' phantoms apart. How tragic can Kelvin's predicament be, when, as in the old song, "... all I have to do, is Dre-e-eam, Dream Dream Dre-eam, Dre-e-eam?"
Soderberg retains most of Tarkovsky's visualizations. We're limited to Kelvin's perspective. We don't go into the other rooms to see just who the other scientists' visitors are, and most key events happen off-screen. It is somewhat dreamlike, but it frustrates the expectations of George Clooney fans. He's the macho hero, yet someone has to tell him that while he was sleeping, all the key events of the film took place without him being there.
We're given lots of time to contemplate ideas brought up conversationally, and then dropped. Helen says that Rheya II is probably still orbiting out somewhere, and could be recovered. When Kelvin has his change of heart, why doesn't he try to get her back? New Rheyas pop up magically whenever Kelvin falls asleep, making this Solaris a kind of reverse Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Instead of being duplicated and then destroyed in our sleep, our dearest emotional traumas are mentally cloned for us.
The terrific basic ideas of Solaris aren't developed. Is the planet Solaris trying to investigate the humans through these simulacri? If the whole planet is a uniform lifeform, like the building-block aliens of Quatermass 2, maybe it's trying to understand the 'politics' of beings that are individualized, with isolated consciousnesses that can barely relate to each other. Or maybe, as in Tarkovsky's movie where Solaris creates a clumsily-executed substitute world for Kelvin to inhabit, the alien intelligence empathizes with us and is simply trying to help us work out our unfinished emotional problems.
What Soderbergh does develop is the Vertigo chestnut - we humans don't resolve our biggest mistakes, we merely repeat them. This new version is one big soap opera where Kelvin consistently comes to terms with his problems too late. The planet Solaris is sort of a cosmic casting agency.
Tarkovsky's version sure took its time letting us know the basic rules of Rheya's presence on the space station. The first version can't bear to be separated from Kelvin, and even rips through steel doors to get to him (shades of Forbidden Planet). Each succeeding Rheya is like an update, vaguely remembering the experience of her previous copy, and becoming resentful and suspicious of Kelvin's 'little murders'. Eventually Kelvin's unwelcome companion has been reconstituted close to the original who killed herself back on Earth.
Tarkovsky showed Man's willingness to destroy what it doesn't understand, when the Solaris scientists decide to shoot a deadly ray at the living Ocean below them, just to see what happens. (spoiler) Soderberg's Helen Gordon just tricks the phantom visitors into a disintegrator ray (offscreen), as in Our Man Flint. Once zapped, they don't come back, apparently not even as dreams.
Since this Solaris concentrates on Kelvin's personal predicament to the exclusion of other concepts (even Lem's basic investigation of the idea of interstellar communication), what we're left with is the examination of the emotional-romantic problems inside Kelvin's head. Telling them doesn't really need an interstellar backdrop. 1 He could just hallucinate new Rheyas on Earth, or clone them physically, if that's all that was necessary.
This beautifully-produced Solaris seems a waste. I hope that Phillip Messina's elegant spaceship sets and hardware are in storage, ready to be used on some Robert Heinlein or Philip K. Dick space epic. They're wonderful but superfluous. Tarkovsky really took The Moody Blues' "journey out and in" and brought us to an alien encounter that was the intellectual equal of 2001. Soderbergh is such an intelligent and insightful filmmaker, that it's difficult to explain what he was after.
George Clooney makes an attractive and thoughtful space cadet; neither his acting nor that of Natascha McElhone can be faulted. Their chemistry isn't enough to ignite romantic sparks in the audience, which was probably what disappointed female audiences suckered by Fox's schizo theatrical campaign: Hey, ladies, it's Wuthering Heights in Space! Viola Davis is almost the only other actor to make a blip in the memory circuits, although it's always fun to see Elpidia Carrillo, even in a bit.
Projects like this one appear to collect producers as they roll along. One remembers Solaris being announced as a James Cameron project a while back, and he's still on board as a producer. If he was Soderberg's main creative collaborator, it explains everything.
Fox's DVD of Solaris has the flawless transfer one expects from expensive new movies. The key extra is the commentary by Soderberg and Cameron. Beyond that there's just EPK-style promo docus, an HBO making-of special and a featurette. Soderberg's original screenplay is on board for those eager to plumb for specific meanings and intentions; also a teaser and trailer.
Savant barely sampled the extras; Solaris is certainly worth a gander (it has plenty of against-the-tide fans), but I can't recommend it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Solaris rates:
Movie: Fair +
Supplements: Commentary, featurette, tv special, trailers, script
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 20, 2003
1. This happens all the time in more feeble science fiction stories, that honor the hardware but feature ideas that don't need hardware. You don't need a time-travel story, just so the hero can remember something from the past. And Kelvin doesn't have to go halfway across the universe, just to do a romantic self-inventory.