Solaris (2002)

Shorter and shallower
Steven Soderbergh
George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies
The Setup: 
George Clooney is sent to a mysterious planet to discover why no one has heard from a space station orbiting nearby. Things get weird.

I have been having a little bit of a science-fiction obsession lately, and this film is part of a short, week-long Solaris obsession, in which I watched the original, three-hour Tarkovsky film, read the original novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, and finally watched this version.

The Tarkovsky film is justifiably considered a classic, although it is a bit of a crucible in film watching as it is darn long and FUCKING BORING, at least on first viewing. I have friends who cannot believe I’ve sat through it more than once. So this film has a huge shadow hanging over it, and in turns out that, despite Soderbergh saying that this is another adaptation of the novel, this is truly a remake of the previous film. So Soderbergh has a challenge up front by remaking a classic, and another, more daunting challenge: Making a slow, talky, action-free movie full of complicated philosophical ideas for an audience who cannot pay attention for anything for a full two minutes, and who have come to regard sci-fi as space battles and warring robots. So let’s see how he did!

The first image seems to be an explicit call-out to the Tarkovsky film: a rainy window photographed with a gloomy yellowish light. George Clooney as Chris Kelvin is sitting distraught on the edge of his bed, remembering words that we will soon learn are spoken by his now-dead wife. We have a bunch of quick, character-setting vignettes: Chris walks to work [he’s a psychologist] through the steady rain. He conducts group therapy in a sterile white room, during which a woman complains that the proliferation of images around her causes her to lose her ability to feel. Chris reschedules an appointment. He conducts phone therapy. He goes home to his apartment, where he cuts his finger chopping vegetables. Then two agents come to see him.

They have a video message from Chris’ friend Gibarian, who has been engaged in the study of the planet Solaris. The message says no one can explain what is happening on Solaris, but they think Chris’ unique perspective could be of great help. Gibarian says he hopes Chris comes, then adds: “I think you need to.” We are told that the crew of the ship has stopped communicating, has turned off their AI system, and that a security team that was sent to retrieve them vanished without being heard from. They want Chris to go. One of the good little moments of this version is when Chris, framed by the imposing shadows of the two guards, asks “Is that what everybody wants?” in a scared, childlike way. Soderbergh has had to boil the character-setting moments down to little micro-moments here in order to maintain what momentum he can, and this one successfully sets up Chris as scared and seeking approval, even of authority figures he doesn’t know.

The message offers a good example of the interesting ways in which elements got filtered in different ways from novel to film to remake. In the book, Kris arrives at the station and finds a note addressed to him from Gibarian, which consists only of the names of two books. In the Tarkovsky film, Kris watches a film of a Solarian scientist’s deposition, then finds a video message from Gibarian upon arriving. In the remake, Chris receives a video message from Gibarian before leaving, and in fact calling him to Solaris. Many elements from the novel get filtered through the Tarkovsky interpretation before ending up in Soderbergh’s version.

We close in on the frozen frame of Chris’ friend [which moves slightly] and dissolve to the surface of Solaris. This is one of my favorite sequences of the movie, a wordless 2-minute segment showing the planet and Chris’ shuttle craft docking, set to Cliff Matrinez’s evocative electronic score. So the planet is supposed to be covered in ocean, and is essentially a giant brain. The original film had long shots showing bizarre liquid patterns, very effective for their time and still fascinating today, while the new planet is all-digital, a luminous blue [at the beginning], with these rolling waves of light that send smoke-like arcs of illumination miles into the atmosphere. It’s gorgeous! The design of the planet is one of the highlights of the whole film, and it’s nice to have a nice musical sequence to appreciate it in. Could have been ten minutes, as far as I’m concerned.

So Chris arrives on the station, to find it abandoned, with some bloodstains in various places. Now when I saw this in the theater, people were already walking out, and I was like “Guys, this is a THRILLER compared to the original!” The original took 45 minutes to get to this place, where we’ve arrived after eight minutes. The movie continues playing up its “thriller” angle as Chris finds the frozen body of the friend who called him to the station in a bloody body bag. He then encounters a living crewmember, Snow, played by Jeremy Davies. Snow is chronically freaked out, making all sorts of distracted gestures with his hands, and speaking in valley speak. Chris asks him what’s happening, and he replies “I could tell you what’s happening here, but I don’t think that would really tell you what’s happening here.” They discuss four separate crewmembers, all of whom died or disappeared—mention of which is unique to this version and another attempt to ratchet up the “thriller” aspect. One of the crewmembers is said to have simply disappeared. “How did he disappear?” Chris asks, and Snow replies “Exactly.”

Chris goes to see Viola Davis as Gordon, who refuses to let him into her room. Chris hears noises of someone moving around in Gordon’s room, although there is not supposed to be anyone else on the station. She slams the door, saying “Until it starts happening to you, there’s no point in discussing it.” Chris then chases after a young boy he sees, another element added to kick up the mystery and menace.

Chris repairs to his room [which is designed to look like a deluxe locker] and goes to sleep on his astonishingly uncomfortable-looking bed. He begins dreaming, having memories, the first of which is of being on a train, and noticing a woman sitting opposite him with a doorknob held between her legs. It is interesting that Soderbergh chooses the image that introduced Chris [and introduces US] to Rheya, his former wife, as the image [below] is essentially that of a man holding onto his uncircumcised penis—foreskin, piss slit and all. I also don’t see where this thematic element goes. But at least it’s interesting. They share a moment, but she goes off. Chris then arrives at a party, and who should be there but the woman he just saw. He says hi to Gibarian [the one who invited him to the station], who tells him that as they study Solaris, the planet reacts, but Chris’ attention is on Rheya. He goes to meet her, and they end up going home together and having sex. This sequence is largely wordless, again accompanied by the hypnotic score, and again, this is one of the key features of the film—these lovely dialogue-free sequences.

On the station, Chris sees Rheya in his room, and she approaches him. He kisses her and they have sex. He’s asleep in the morning, when suddenly her hand comes slipping over his shoulder—she’s really there! Clooney gets to give it all to his acting as he gets up and walks around the room, trying not to look at her while he pulls himelf together, then girding himself, and finally raising his gaze to her, at which point he takes a hard emotional hit. Chris is essentially looking at is wife, who killed herself 10 years prior, sitting alive in his room as though nothing had happened.

Rheya can’t understand What Chris is upset about—she has some memories—she is able to recall that they met on a train—but not a lot of them. She’s very happy to see him and tells him she loves him, which freaks him out more than anything. He takes her to a shuttle under the guise of showing it to her, locks her in, and jettisons her into space. Only—and here is a problem particular to this film—Soderbergh seems to confuse being unclear on certain crucial plot points with “subtlety,” which can easily leave people who haven’t the previous version or read the book in the dark. Here, he opens a door, locks her in, and pushes a button. We see her face slightly recede, but she could easily be in an elevator or something. I just think he needs to be much clearer on this point—the audience can’t get emotionally involved in your film if they can’t discern what is happening. And this should be one of the most devastating moments of the film. Instead it’s just a blip.

Amazingly, even something as simple as a crate in front of a door, to bar anyone from getting in—so effective in that Tarkovsky version—is also confusing here. You just can’t tell what it is. I only recognized it this time because I had just watched the other film. Anyway, Chris sleeps again. More flashbacks. He pushed her to marry, but she was reluctant. Finally she agreed. There’s a nice scene of them laying nude on a bed, talking, which makes you appreciate having a mature movie for adults. Rheya tells a rather bizarre story about how her mother stopped communicating with her entirely, and would only recognize her as another, unrelated girl. Okay—where is THAT coming from? We soon see that she has become sullen and moody—she apparently finds Chris' friends insipid, and him not much better. As he’s getting ready for a dinner, he asks her if she’s getting ready, saying “people will notice this time.” She later abandons a dinner party to go upstairs and take a bath. When he says the people downstairs are “my friends,” she utters a contemptuous “Yeah.” We never really find out what the issue is between them, or what Rheya’s problem is, so it’s difficult to get fully emotionally involved in their story.

When he wakes—hey, it’s another Rheya! This one has a vague realization that she came out of nowhere—that she is nothing—and says “I don’t know that I can live with this.” She finds out that she killed herself ten years ago, and asks Chris if he was lonely in the meantime. We then find out what happened in another flashback—that RHEYA is having this time [i.e. the memories are coming back to her]. They argued because she doesn’t want to have a baby and never told him. He left. She took pills, clutching a Dylan Thomas poem that means a lot of Chris as her suicide note. He came back, but too late. They meet with Gordon and Snow. Gordon is horrified that Chris has accepted this new Rheya as his wife, and is mulling taking her back to Earth. “Should we pick up the other one on the way?” she asks, and spills that Chris jettisoned her previous incarnation into space. They talk about possibly vaporizing Rheya while she’s sitting right there.

That night Chris wakes to find Gibarian in his room. This is one element that is actually in the novel, but was, wisely, I think, omitted from the first film, as Gibarian serves no other purpose than as an exposition device, and his appearance [is he really a dream? Is he a creation of Solaris?] causes more confusion than it settles. Part of their weighty philosophical talk includes Chris telling Gibarian he’s a puppet, and Giarian responding: “Maybe you’re the puppet’s dream. The puppet wants to be human.” Dust off those philosophy primers, kids!

Well, Rheya is having major crisis-of-identity problems, as you can imagine, and kills herself by drinking liquid oxygen. That can cause stomach upset. She, however, cannot stay dead, and comes back to life painfully, causing Gordon to deliver a line from the original film: “I can never get used to these resurrections.” So she’s back alive, and offering whiny exposition such as “Don’t you see, I came from your memory of her! That’s the problem! I’m not a real person! I’m not Rheya!” I doubt Soderbergh wanted his audience to think “Christ, poor guy gets his dead wife back after ten years—and has to put up with another round of self-centered whining!” but it does cross one’s mind. Chris at this point is fully in love with her, has abandoned his cares that she’s just an illusion, and wants to live with her. She is, as she mentioned, however, not a full person, but only created from his memories of her. As they succinctly put it in the first film: “She is the embodiment of your conception of her.”

Now things start really getting frenetic, reflected by the fact that the planet is now primarily red, when it was a cool blue at the beginning. We have a repeat [from the first film] of the slow pan that shows us multiple Rheyas. This is a dream here, though, and Chris wakes to find that Rheya has asked Gordon to run her through the annihilator, which did what its name describes, and she is now gone. They find Snow’s body, and soon find out that the Snow they’ve known all this time is his Solaris-created double, who killed his original within the first 30 seconds of his existence. He tells them that since they tried bombarding the planet with radiation [which they did], it has begun taking on mass exponentially, and will soon consume the station. Gordon and Chris make to take the shuttle back to Earth, stat. And here’s where Soderbergh makes a massive muddle of the ending.

We see them heading for the shuttle, then dissolve to a repeat of the rainy window from the beginning. Chris says he had to relearn the minor gestures of human daily life [a passage lifted directly from the book], and says he is “haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong.” Then we see that, back on the station, Chris turned back and remained on Solaris. We see him lying in a corridor when the kid from earlier shows up, holding his hand out, almost touching, in a reference to the famous God-gives-life scene from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Then Chris is back in his apartment, and Rheya is there. Chris asks “Am I alive?” and she responds: “We don’t have to think like that anymore.” We then have a shot of Solaris and… that’s… IT? Yup. Roll credits.

It definitely has its virtues, and if you love the original, I would think you would definitely want to watch this one. The best things about it are the vision of the planet itself, and the long musical passages that showcase it, with the wonderful ambient score. The tone is also good, and works well to draw us back into the flashbacks. Clooney does a good job and it’s a nice change to see him in a totally different role, but the real revelation is just how amazing Natascha McElhone is, especially given the challenge of having to act realistic in a completely unreal situation.

But the movie has a lot of challenges it can’t really overcome. The most major is that Soderbergh is trying to fit a defiantly non-commercial story into a commercial mold. He has to keep things moving and limit himself to around 90 minutes at the most, when the story benefits from a more sprawling, slow treatment. The short vignettes setting up Chris’ character at the beginning are evocative, but ultimately don’t do enough to really make us feel his emotional desolation, and this seriously cripples the film later. Rheya appears, and we find out what she meant to him after the fact, which keeps us at a distance from comprehending events as they happen. Their budding relationship is handled nicely, and as I said it is refreshing to see a mature, adult relationship, but because we never find out what Rheya’s problem is later—she’s just apparently sullen and emotionally unstable because she is—her suicide doesn’t do enough to make us feel Chris’ devastation at her loss. We also see that she remained distant from him while alive, and never really find out why, and he just kept after her despite her not wanting to marry, and again, we never really feel why. And all this seriously undermines the emotional gut-punch the movie hopes to hit us with. Not to mention that, in all seriousness, Clooney’s looks offer a big distraction to getting into the story, as one finds oneself simply gazing at his eyes or chin while we’re supposed to be contemplating the big ideas.

Additionally, there are crucial ideas that need to be clearly communicated in order for one to follow the story, and they aren’t entirely clear here. As I said, I suspect that Soderbergh pulled back on them because he thought that was being subtle, but when you have a movie like this, with so many crucial ideas that must be made clear, I don’t think it’s so wrong to spell things out. Some things I think should have been said outright include: “The planet is a sentient being!” “But your wife is dead!” “My wife killed herself!” and “The space station is sinking INTO the planet!” Yes, one doesn’t want to clobber the audience on the head, but if they miss one of these things, they spend the rest of the film trying to catch up, and eventually just disengage.

The Tarkovsky film adds a lot of material to the beginning, not in the novel, about Kris’ [there it’s Kris, not Chris] mother and father, and his troubled relationship with the latter. None of this was in the book, but it becomes almost entirely what is so great about the film. At the end [SPOILER OF THE TARKOVSKY VERSION:] another crew member tells Kris to return to Earth, and the next thing we see, he’s back outside his father’s house. He and his father have an emotionally-devastating reunion, and the camera pulls back to reveal that all this is on an island on the surface of Solaris. [END TARKOVSKY VERSION SPOILERS] So, Soderbergh has a killer ending of his film handed to him on a platter—and the original ending is so famous I can understanding him wanting to change his—but what he ends up with is just a big mush. He and Gordon are heading for the shuttle to return to Earth, then we see Chris on Earth. Then we’re back on the station, seeing that Chris did not return. Then there’s the moment with the kid, which, rather than inspiring deep thoughts, will cause most people to think “Okay, WHO is this kid? And where has he been for the majority of the movie?” Then all of a sudden we’re back in Chris’ apartment, and Rheya is there. Then we cut to the planet, the end. There’s a number of barely-comprehensible statements, then suddenly it just ends. And I needn’t tell you how a bummer of an ending can cast a retroactive pall over an entire movie.

The original novel did not have the family matters, but their inclusion in the Tarkovsky film really gives it a scope and emotional heft. By limiting the scope of this film to Chris’ romantic life, the entire thing can’t help but come off as quite a bit shallower. Apparently Stanislaw Lem, author of the novel, did not appreciate either film, saying he wrote about an encounter with a life form that “cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled "Solaris" and not 'Love in Outer Space.'” Nevertheless, this film comes off as significantly more slight than the original.

Incredibly, this film was hyped as a fairly large blockbuster and released right before Christmas. It’s interesting to watch the trailers and see how they try to get around the fact that this is a very cerebral, talky film that most people will find incredibly boring. The teaser just shows a freaky digital effect with the space station drifting by and says “There are some places in the universe man was not meant to go,” implying that we’re in for some Alien-like thriller. The second trailer is all about mystery and romance, about Chris’ dead wife showing up again, and you could watch it without having a clue that this is a science-fiction film taking place on another planet. The third trailer [not included on the DVD] carefully selects footage and lines [“She’s not human!”] to imply that we’re in for a seriously scary space thriller. Obviously none of these bear any relation to the actual film that was released, and only set up the audience for disappointment. The film massively flopped upon release, as you can imagine [Budget: $47M, Gross: $15M], and I read afterward a Fox executive saying “I guess it wasn’t the holiday fare we thought it was.” This is one of those statements that supports the supposition that everyone in Hollywood are idiots, as if ANYONE had watched even five minutes of the original, read five pages of the book, or watched five minutes of THIS version, they would have realized that there is nothing blockbustery about it. I saw it on opening night and there were only 30 people in the theater, and half of them had walked out midway.

So there you go—it’s a lame imitation of the first film that still has its virtues, and will be of interest to fans of the original. I would actually say in this case that the original film is much better than the novel, and you should start with that, then maybe watch this if you’re still interested. But unfortunately the best purpose this film serves is merely as a contrast and expansion of the ideas and presentation of the Tarkovsky film.

Should you watch it: 

Watch the Tarkovsky film first, then watch this if you’re still interested.

SOLARIS [1972] is the Russian version, is three hours long and stupefyingly boring, but if you can make it through, you will be rewarded with an incredibly moving and emotional story.