Solaris (2002)

Solaris 2002

She's no Natalya Bonderchuk, but what are ya going to do?

dir: Steven Soderbergh


It takes a fair-sized pair of brass balls to remake a sci-fi film “classic” considered a classic by people with beards who smoke pipes. Either that, or just plain hubris wrapped up in a blanket of arrogance with a side helping of laziness.

Sometimes it works out well, usually it’s just disastrous. The list of remakes gone wrong in ratio with the ones that succeed is tremendously large. It’s something akin to 100,000 to 7. Those remakes that worked out well were War of the Worlds, The Fly, The Thing and maybe Scarface with Pacino. And maybe one of the Deep Throat remakes. Almost every other remake has, to use the official cinema studies term, sucked dog’s balls.

It’s true. The Pope agrees. Remakes work out bad even when they’re okay, because the viewer still tells themselves “eh, even if it’s passable, why should I watch this instead of the original ever again?”

Often the remake is so wretched that it causes audiences to bay for the director’s blood. Gus Van Sant was roundly ridiculed for remaking Psycho, allegedly shot-for-shot (it’s nothing of the sort), and that recent Wicker Man has made the director, Neil LaButte, and not its invincible star Nicolas Cage, something of a laughingstock.

Rarely does the remake surpass the original. This instance, with Soderbergh’s ambitious remake of the original 1972 Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky, I humbly submit is one of them.

Sure, the original Solaris is complex and highly intellectual, and has reams and reams of purple prose exegesis written about it. But for my money it fails at what films are primarily supposed to succeed at, which is to be watchable. It might be brilliant and ever so transcendent, but that’s all stuff you’re told away from the actual screen, afterwards, by people trying to convince you that it’s great and you’re just not smart enough to get it. As a film, as something you actually sit there and watch for three hours, it’s a fucking chore.

In contrast, the new Solaris is complicated, emotionally dense, (mostly) well acted, beautiful to look at, and has a sublime orchestral score by Cliff Martinez. All plusses in my book. And it runs for only half the length of the original, which is achieved solely by not replicating the constant and supernaturally dull scenes of the main character walking up and down the same goddamn corridor.

Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is very depressed. He walks through rainy streets with a hangdog expression on his face. Despite being so very, very sad, his primary bread and butter is as a psychologist in this slightly futuristic brave new world.

We see flashbacks to the cause of his pain. A woman, Rheya (Natasha McElhone), and their charming and cheesy meet cute, fall in love, get married, and then commit suicide stages, all of the stages in a healthy relationship. When Kelvin receives a message from a friend on a distant space station, it’s at the deepest point of his funk.

By the time he gets to the station, orbiting a strange planet covered in an ocean that may be itself an alien intelligence, the friend who contacted him is dead. Kelvin morosely walks around a cramped and shiny environment trying to work out what the hell is going on.

Gordon, (Viola Davis) one of the scientists he finds onboard is strange, paranoid and evasive. She refuses to allow him to see into her room, and she acts like she’s a few strands away from going completely postal. Another scientist, Snow (Jeremy Davies), seems to be somewhat retarded, but I don’t think that’s because of the film: it’s just the actor being a dickhead. Davies persistently gives the most mannered, annoying performances in nearly everything he’s in that I’ve ever seen. This is one of the most irritating that he’s ever managed. He does, however, play a part in a truly unique twist on the phenomena of Solaris that comes neither from the original Stanislaw Lem book or the Tarkovky version of the film.

When you’re confused and perplexed, the best thing to do is to get a good night’s sleep, even as you have a strange, glowing planet menacing you just outside your window. So Kelvin goes nigh-nighs on the futuristic bed, hoping to dream of a time when he didn’t walk around with a hangdog expression on his face all the freaking time.

Kelvin awakes to find that he is not alone. The woman he misses most, the woman whose absence hurts him like nothing else, Rheya, is right beside him. Instead of just having sex with her, no strings, no questions asked, he is too affrighted by the fact that she shouldn’t exist.

Priorities, man, priorities. Her very existence fills him with such confusion and dread that he puts her into a pod and shoots her into deep space with no hope of return.

He has been warned by the other scientists onboard, and his dead friend Gibarian in the form of a video recording, that Solaris seems to be drawing out people’s memories and creating versions of people they long for. But Rheya isn’t the “real” person she was when she was alive, she is a version of her based on Kelvin’s quite imperfect knowledge of her before she died. So this version of Rheya, who looks and feels real, can’t explain to Kelvin why she committed suicide.

It should come as no surprise that she reappears the next time he sleeps. This visitor knows nothing of the previous, nor does she understand what she is. Sure, there’s a scientific, over-complicated explanation of what she (and the other visitors) are constructed from, which would make the technobabble Trek-head geeks scratch their heads in confusion, but what’s really important is what she means to Kelvin.

And why is Solaris doing this? The scientists think that it is trying to make first contact with them, but their efforts are stymied. Though, true to form, they figure out a way to destroy them if they need to.

This version does diverge significantly from the earlier version, especially in terms of the ending and how the essential mystery of Solaris and its effect on people is manifested, and I’m quite grateful for that. I can see the merits of the Russian version, but I find it painful to sit through. I have no problem sitting through this one, and in fact I very much enjoy doing so.

Soderbergh has managed to make this a very powerful, meditative, evocative story, complete with astounding visuals and a musical score that truly complements the tale being told, rather than telegraphing how we’re supposed to feel about any given moment. I know there are plenty of people that hate the flick because it’s a pale, Hollywood version of the original, and I know there are people who hate it regardless because they find it boring and confusing.

I don’t find it boring, and I do find it confusing, but in a way that provokes me to think and feel more about it each time I see it. I remember after watching it for the first time, and discussing it with a friend of mine, whose opinions I generally respect but disagree with when they come to films. I was saying something like, “But what really bugged me is that I couldn’t figure out exactly what the ending was supposed to mean.”

And in an offhand manner, he said “Why does it have to mean anything?”, which I took to mean “any specific thing?”

That actually helped it all fall into place for me.

Both films have the fundamental themes of the nature of humanity, and the limits of human comprehension, but this version of Solaris really speaks deeper to me of such a magnitude of alienness as to render the question unimportant in the face of the truth of what makes us human. Is Rheya’s atomic structure, or the exact nature of the radiation being emitted by Solaris as relevant as what Kelvin and Rheya can feel for each other, or Kelvin resolving his feelings of guilt and longing? Is it that guilt and longing that makes him and us human? Would that make Rheya human?

These are the questions I delight in asking, in being asked, in the form of a film that also manages to be a film that I can enjoy watching whilst being asked. That’s why I consider it to be a more successful (artistic) telling of this tale than the Tarkovsky version, much as I respect the Russian master. Soderbergh is plenty respectful to Tarkovsky’s vision and version, but chooses to go in different directions, to his credit. Keep what works, discard what distracts, add what adds.

This is what science fiction films, when they’re not tied to merchandising franchises and CGI-action fests, are capable of. The special effects are here to help tell the story, not distract audiences from the fact that they’ve seen this same shit hundreds of times before and that beneath a sci-fi blockbusters shiny exterior is a hollowness that should fill them with terror. But oh, look, shiny distractions! Me happy!

Solaris is bold, tranquil, hurtful and beautiful, and I will happily watch it again and again. If some of the editing wasn’t so deliberately confusing, and if someone else had played the role assayed and assaulted by Jeremy Davies, I’d rate it even higher as a misguided, misunderstood and much missed classic for the ages.

8 times one is brought up cold by the contemplation of infinity out of 10

“And death shall have no dominion. Dead men naked they shall be one with the man in the wind and the west moon. When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone they shall have stars at elbow and foot. Though they go mad they shall be sane. Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again. Though lovers be lost love shall not. And death shall have no dominion.” – Solaris, by way of Dylan Thomas.