Our review of Solaris (1972) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published May 18th, 2011, is also available.
"I could tell you what's happening, but, uh, I don't know if that'd really tell you what's happening."—Snow (Jeremy Davies)
Somewhere in space floats the crackling, conscious planet Solaris. It looms over the space station Prometheus, offering humanity the last great mystery of the cosmos. What does Solaris want? What does it think of us? Its silence is a cruel tease, like a god forever withholding judgment.
Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) has come to Solaris for answers. Still broken and disconnected from the death of his wife, Kelvin is going through the motions, investigating the puzzle of what happened to the crew of the Prometheus, what drove one man to suicide and the survivors to the edge of madness. But when Kelvin's dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) awakens beside him, he will discover that the greatest mysteries of all lie within our own memories and desires.
Steven Soderbergh's version of Solaris is two movies at once. At least one of those movies superficially resembles Stanislaw Lem's notoriously opaque 1961 novel. Lem's original version of the story is also several stories at once. Kris [sic] Kelvin's journey to Solaris there is not only an exploration into the slippery nature of memory, but raises the question of what we might do when confronted with something absolutely Other to human experience. The living ocean of Solaris is an entity whose motives—even the very nature of its intelligence—remains even to the end entirely elusive. The novel is also a blisteringly dry satire of the limits of human progress and our own chauvinism about the power of science. Lem's interest in the novel seems much more about how we might deal with a completely alien presence, with the "love story" a microcosm of this theme, in that Kelvin's constant inability to understand Harey ("Rheya" in the English translation) repeatedly ends, as do any attempts to communicate with Solaris, in failure.
Andre Tarkovsky filmed Solaris in 1972 in part as a response to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, with which the book shares many themes (the Monolith's enigmatic plan, the futility of progress). But Tarkovsky wanted to focus his version of the story on Kelvin's relationship with his wife (called "Khari" in that version), stressing the emotional over the philosophical. Admittedly, interference from Soviet censors might have motivated some of the changes, but still, Tarkovsky's version was less about the planet than the people surrounding it.
Steven Soderbergh's version of the story retains Tarkovsky's focus on the relationship between Chris Kelvin and Rheya, pushing Solaris so far into the background of the story that it becomes little more than a backdrop for the tale Soderbergh prefers to tell. This is "soft" science fiction, where hardware and gadgets serve almost no function, and human psychology takes center stage. Indeed, when we first meet Kelvin, moping from place to place on Earth, there are few indications that we are even in a science fiction movie. This future world looks virtually identical to our own. Only after our lonely protagonist is recruited to investigate a cryptic message sent by his friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) do we suddenly realize that this is a science fiction movie, as evidenced by an long spacedock sequence as Kelvin arrives at the Prometheus. There is little technobabble in the film—hell, there is little dialogue of any sort. Soderbergh seems far more interested here in letting his images tell the story. This is refreshingly old school, quite different from the kinetic editing and constant chatter of most contemporary films.
Soderbergh's Solaris is an elegantly staged film, a throwback to the late '60s and early '70s. The science fiction films of that period—2001, Alphaville, Silent Running, and of course Tartakovsky's Solaris—steered away from the pulp conventions of the 1950s in favor of slowly paced, philosophical explorations. Of course, this all fell by the wayside in 1977, when Star Wars led audiences to expect more flash than reflection, but for a few years, science fiction on screen seemed more in league with art films than action ones.
But while most of those more philosophical sci-fi films noted above were quite unsentimental, Soderbergh, for all his visual stylings, is still a big softy at heart. He apes the minimalism of Kubrick at times, with long, dialogue-free stretches. He even borrows liberally from Krzysztof Kieslowski (including a couple of mid-scene blackouts which suggest he has been studying Blue closely). At least Soderbergh's influences are good ones, and as a filmmaker, he is a meticulous craftsman: he writes and photographs and edits most of the film himself to fit his particular vision. Solaris is not a film made by committee, and there are few enough like it in Hollywood that it should be afforded a bit of leeway for at least trying something challenging.
George Clooney, one of Hollywood's more intelligent actors, is quite up to the task of playing the emotionally fragile Kelvin, whose relationship with his wife ranges from romantic optimism to bitter resentment to fear at her mysterious resurrection. In his film career, Clooney has come as close as any actor of this generation to the slippery sexual appeal of Cary Grant, conveying an effortless roguishness (watch Notorious or Charade again to see what I mean). In Solaris, Clooney is forced to stretch as he never has before, and without much expository dialogue to cover him. Facial expressions, gestures, even body positions (as Soderbergh seems to favor filming Clooney from behind to make his responses more enigmatic) allow Clooney to carry much of the film's emotional weight in fairly subtle fashion. For the most part, he is successful.
Where Solaris begins to stray is in its screenplay. The film's second act is strong, driven by the characters and their jumbled memories of Rheya's earlier, tragic demise on Earth. The overlapping style—fractured memories intruding into the present—was also used effectively by Soderbergh in The Limey. Like a Kieslowski film, Soderbergh keeps the philosophical questions (especially about the connection between the "original" Rheya and the "new" version) brewing in the background. He is clearly more interested in the ethical nature of Kelvin and Rheya's relationship: is Kelvin to blame for the original Rheya's breakdown? Is it fair for him to treat this new Rheya like the old one, or is she a different person? This all works pretty well, up to a point.
In the third act (and here is where Solaris begins to resemble another movie entirely), everything breaks apart. Suddenly, Soderbergh introduces a completely new subplot that distracts from the almost claustrophobic focus on Kelvin and Rheya. Then he rushes into a climax that takes all ambiguity in the film and throws it right out the airlock. It is clunky and confusing and awkwardly staged, with a sudden and phony redemption that undermines any subtlety the film has up until that point. Imagine if a character suddenly stepped out of the end of 2001 and explained what it all means. This last act feels like a lesser screenwriter than Soderbergh borrowed the script and started adding notes to "punch up" what he saw as a film that was moving too slowly for the audience.
The sentimental ending of the film is at odds with producer James Cameron's assessment of Solaris as a "wildly passionate film told in dispassionate terms." On a fairly interesting commentary track featuring Cameron and Steven Soderbergh, the two filmmakers joke about their differing approaches to science fiction (Cameron admits he would have explored more of the eponymous planet), as well as Soderbergh's ruthless pruning of the script and film to focus almost exclusively on the emotional content rather than the philosophical ideas suggested by the material. They only vaguely address why the film was such a terrible flop at the box office, however, although Cameron spends most of his time on the track praising Soderbergh's work here as if feeling a bit defensive about the final product. Fox also includes a pair of making-of featurettes: a pretty fluffy HBO segment (where everyone scrupulously avoids calling the film science fiction and stressing the "love story" angle) and a video diary with a bit more substance. Trailers and the screenplay round out the extras.
The film looks lovely and benefits well from a clean anamorphic transfer (although there is a bit of shimmer on high-detail objects), and the 5.1 soundtrack does not get much of a workout, since the characters tend to wander around in cramped spaces (spaceship hallways, et cetera) while Cliff Martinez's new-agey score washes over everything.
At its best Solaris is beautiful, thoughtful, and deliberately paced. At its worst, Solaris is too restrained and spare where more insight into the ideas it presents is warranted, and it suffers from an ending unworthy of all the film's potential. When I first saw the trailer for this film (while I was actually teaching Lem's novel in my popular culture course), I prepared myself to hate what looked like a sentimental and nostalgic Hollywood "lost romance." But the trailer misrepresented Solaris—which is perhaps the main reason the film did so poorly in its theatrical run. Steven Soderbergh's version of Lem's novel is more interesting and engaging than it appears at first glance. Soderbergh and George Clooney take chances that few studio pictures are willing to take these days, and even if it falters a bit toward the end, Solaris is still a more rewarding picture than it might have been in different hands. Do not pay attention to the trailer or to your expectations of more recent science fiction films. Put yourself in a pre-Star Wars frame of mind and you might enjoy Solaris' steady approach to the mysteries of love and memory.
This court has no jurisdiction over the planet Solaris, so it is released to do whatever it is that it does. Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney are also released, as they acted with good intentions. Case dismissed.
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• Commentary by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron
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