| December 1, 2002

You can almost smell the desperation of the marketing department, with its tightly cropped luminous photograph of George Clooney and Natascha McElhone’s kiss filling up the movie poster – the TV spots repeating over and over that this is “a love story” – interviews with the stars who state this is one of the most romantic movies made – strategic “leaks” about how much screen time Clooney’s ass gets – a tagline that asks, “How far will you go for a second chance?”
Almost as if answering the question, the other tagline for the film is, “There are some places man is not ready to go.” If the people who walked out of the screening I attended are any indicator, I fear this film may be that place for many audience members. Which is a shame.
Because Solaris is not so much a love story as a science fiction story. No, I don’t mean what passes for science fiction these days (action adventure films set in the future), but the kind of science fiction that author Orson Scott Card once compared to true religious literature. Stories that raise questions about what it means to be human, and stories that wonder what our place is in the universe. Solaris is this type of film or at least as close as we can get in this era of fast-moving action-filled films that are less about ideas and more about thrills. Not nearly as profound as some critics would have you believe, this is a film that tries to make you think.
On its surface, Solaris is about a psychologist called in to bring back the crew of a space station that has shut down its AI and cut all communication – apparently as a result of its crew going mad. Klein (George Clooney) arrives to find bloody footprints and handprints in the docking bay and two remaining crewmembers who can barely function much less explain what is happening. Gradually he realizes all are being Visited by manifestations of people from their memories, in his case, his wife who has been dead for several years.
Solaris, though not credited as such, is as much a remake of the Soviet film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and released 30 years ago as it is an adaptation of the source novel for both films, Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name. Both Lem’s novel and Tarkovsky’s film are generally considered masterpieces. Soderbergh makes a bold choice in casting his interpretation.
At its must mundane level, the events in Solaris can be read as a ghost story or a descent into madness, though the novel and both films strive for something deeper, something more mysterious and something more eloquent. Each succeeds on its own terms, though I think that this new film may serve better as a counterpoint – a harmony – to Tarkovsky’s vision than as a stand alone experience.
In this latest telling, Steven Soderbergh directs a script he wrote, handles the cinematography duties and edits the finished film, ensuring its his vision that gets to the screen. Many of the visual compositions in the film are dense with geometric shapes and layers (particularly the space station interiors), as if veils obscuring the overwhelming, and the film evokes a perpetual night with its dark and brooding color palate. In contrast Tarkovsky’s space station is comprised of cleaner lines and bright light, evoking perpetual day, creating the feeling at times that you need to squint to protect yourself from the illumination. Tarkovsky’s space station is more disjointed and neglected with discarded belongings lining the hallways. His station reflects the states of minds of the remaining scientists, whereas Soderbergh’s uncluttered station charts territories that question notions of design, what is hidden and revealed, what is natural and what is constructed – and the human need (or limitation) to talk in those terms.
I realize that our notion of space craft has gotten dirtier since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) and the 1972 Solaris, so the production design for Soderbergh’s film may owe to that evolving aesthetic often credited as originating with Star Wars and the Alien series. But there is a unity and complexity to Soderbergh’s production design that stands in contrast to the disunity and simplicity of Tarkovsky’s.
The most impressive production design difference between the two film versions of Solaris is the planet itself. For Tarkovsky, water permeates his film, from the recurring image of underwater reeds swaying in the currents to rain falling inside rather than outside a house. Various forms of water are like little echoes of the ocean-covered world that seems to respond to the humans trapped in its eddies. As the film progresses, the water becomes more turbulent, whirlpools forming on the planet as water boils in twin beakers on the space station.
Soderbergh’s film opens and closes with rain, but water seems less pronounced here as a motif, perhaps partly in reflection of the change in the planet’s design. Again, much of this may owe to our current state of special effects, but the planet of Soderbergh’s universe is less a literal ocean than an ocean-like atmosphere, rippling with fissures hinting at some hidden illumination – once again, veils and layers that can never quite be seen through. And like in the other versions of the story, Soderbergh’s ocean becomes more turbulent as it seems to respond to the humans at its edge, shifting from a deep blue at the beginning of the film to fiery red (and finally to a more harmonious honey shade).
One of the most notable differences between the two film versions of Solaris is length. Tarkovsky’s film runs something like 3 hours, taking on an almost hypnotic quality. Imagine those people who find Soderbergh’s film too slow moving trying to sit through Tarkovsky’s. To Soderbergh’s credit, he has streamlined the story to just under 2 hours without losing the sense of slow-dawning awareness.
In order to do this, Soderbergh concentrates on the relationship between the psychologist and his deceased wife who mysteriously appears on the space station. The two time lines – Klein’s original courting of his wife through to her suicide on Earth, and her replica’s seduction of him through to her suicide on the space station – mirror each other not just in content but sequencing We cut back and forth between the two story lines, Soderbergh linking each step in one to a corresponding step in the other. This tight construction makes sense from a filmmaking standpoint, but it seems at odds with the thematic material Soderbergh tries to develop. Tarkovsky’s film is a bit messier (and certainly longer), broader in focus and truer to the mystery.
Which may be why Tarkovsky’s original ending feels more powerful. Soderbergh has to forego that ending because he has concentrated solely on the romantic relationship. The view of redemption here is much smaller; his story is reduced to simply a second chance for love rather than Tarkovsky’s more heartfelt and devastating resolution.
George Clooney (Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11) as the psychologist and Natascha McElhone (Ronin) as his Visitor (and wife) turn in adequate performances, but nothing to write home about. As the wife, McElhone portrays a woman with mental illness to Clooney portrayal of a psychologist who can’t quite connect, but both characters come off as so remote and aloof most of the time that I don’t really buy them being each other’s great loves. It doesn’t help that they flunked chemistry. McElhone does better portraying the Visitor, perhaps because it’s a more complex character.
Viola Davis (Antwone Fisher, Far From Heaven) turns in the film’s weakest performance as the captain, but hers is the least consistent and the most mysterious character – we never see her Visitor though we know she is haunted by one. At first she will not leave her quarters, but then later she does. She initially refuses to leave the station but ultimately is the one to decide they should leave. I’m not real sure how any actor could make sense of all of this for us.
The strongest performance by far is Jeremy Davis (Spank The Monkey, Million Dollar Hotel), who is exceptional as Snow, creating a character not only unable to articulate what is happening despite his apparent brilliance, but the only crew member whose Visitor has stopped haunting him quite so literally as the others. Davis brings the damaged Snow to life.
If you love science fiction, go see this film. Not perfect, but worth your time. And if you can, see Tarkovsky’s film as well. It’s not to everyone’s liking – it’s slow, it’s subtitled, it’s ponderous. But I think you might actually appreciate Soderbergh’s effort more with Tarkovsky as a reference point. Either way …
If you want a love story, you’ll be disappointed. Try Maid In Manhattan.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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