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Non-Review Review: Solaris

Can you tell me what’s happening here?

I could tell you what’s happening, but I don’t know if it would really tell you what’s happening.

– Chris Kelvin and Snow

Soderbergh’s Solaris is bold, challenging, brilliant, chaotic, unstructured, clever, obtuse, dense, frustrating, unsatisfying and fascinating. Frequently at the same time. The director’s adaptation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s incredibly dense science-fiction feature might not necessarily be for everybody, but there’s enough substance here for eager audience members to chew on. A film subscribing to the idea that less is more, it seems to take more joy in posing questions than in answering them. This will obviously frustrate those viewers who dislike that sort of ambiguity.

Well suited to this drama...

Don’t get me wrong. I can understand the school of thought that suggests that Soderbergh’s film is a beautiful but empty and completely unnecessary ode to a far stronger movie. I can see how people would be incredibly frustrated with all the ambiguities populating the movie. Hell, personally, I’m not sure I can make sense of the film myself. It’s the kind of movie that people aren’t going to like if they prefer clear-cut cinematic narratives – and that’s okay.

Just as it’s okay that even those fond of more open-ended narratives might be a bit unsatisfied as well – because Soderbergh’s adaptation feels so minimalist that there seems to be little substance underlining it. Those fans of Andrei Tarkovsky’s original film will balk at the shiny production design and suggest that the heart of what made the original film so fascinating has been lost beneath the attempts to translate it into a slightly more conventional Hollywood science-fiction film.

Understanding as a child...

Still, I can’t help but admire Soderbergh’s Solaris, as much as I concede its flaws. I think that if the viewer approaches it with that in mind, it can make for an intriguing night’s viewing. Tackling fairly grand themes, such as how humanity relates to the universe around it, I can’t help but find it boldly compelling science-fiction, as well as compelling meta-commentary on a genre that has often struggled to find its own relevance. The idea at the heart of Solaris is an intriguing one, daring to ask what the idea of “alien” might truly mean. After all, given our inability to comprehend or understand human nature, what chance do we have of understanding something outside ourselves.

“We don’t want other worlds,” Gibarian states, “we want mirrors.” And perhaps that’s a telling commentary on science-fiction as a genre. After all, by definition, our imagination is confined. There is a rational limit to what we can comprehend – whether due to biological or logical or rational factors. Even the largest and most unimaginably vast idea that humankind can fathom, is still defined by our ideas and by or language. Making polite conversation at a dinner party, Chris remarks, “The whole idea of God was dreamed up by man. Even the limits we put on it are human limits.”

Out of the world...

It’s inevitable that humankind will eventually encounter something so impossibly beyond our frame of reference – and what happens them. The movie sees a team of astronauts investigating a mysterious planet, which may or may not be sentient. In an attempt to comprehend its guests, it sends “visitors”, constructs from itself, to the station. The results go about as well as can be expected, as the human inhabitants begin to project themselves on to the “visitors.” The astronauts talk in terms of what the planet “wants” from them and what it “plans.”

One character asks, “Why do you think it has to want something?” He sees the problem inherent with the conflict between mankind’s urge to understand the cosmos and its unwillingness to accept that there are things outside its comprehension. “If you think that there is a solution, you’ll die here.”There’s undoubtedly a religious element to Soderbergh’s treatment of the source material, but there’s something else underneath it all as well. Solaris seems like the work of a writer and director who is deeply unsatisfied with the conventions and the limitations of mainstream science-fiction.

Truly alien?

There’s something disappointing, Soderbergh seems to suggest, about the way that science-fiction “mirrors” our world, rather than daring to do something bolder. More than that, it seems like the character of Gordon exists purely to criticise the mainstream sci-fi film. Her first response on meeting a new life form is to react with paranoia and suspicion. Confronted by the wonder and majesty and sheer impossibility of the “visitors”, her first reaction is to literally kill them with techno-babble. She wonders about their sub-atomic particles and plots to destroy them with a “Higgs antiboson.”

“How can you be so definitive about a construct that you do not understand?” Chris asks her, seemingly open-minded enough to accept that there might be something new out there. Later on Gordon frames her own point of view in terms of empty and racist rhetoric. Instead of opening her mind to the cosmos, she provides her own narrative to events, and it reflects the sum total of human history – it’s about conflict and violence and conquest. “I want to win!” she insists. “I want humans to win! Whose side are you on?”

Holding on to memories...

After all, the constructs in the films are themselves perfect stand-ins for movies. They’re objects that simply exist, without any personality or characteristics until the subject invests in them. Like a movie, it all depends on interpretation – it’s the extrapolation from the 2D screen that allows the viewer to truly make sense and to breathe life into the film that they’re watching. “I’m not a human being,” the “visitor” wearing the face of Chris’ wife explains. “I’m an instrument. I came from your memory and your imagination and I will torture you no matter what. Even if I remain passive.”

Isn’t that exactly what we do with film? Doesn’t it remain passive while we use it to provoke and torture ourselves? As Chris points out, we never discover who Gordon’s visitor was, but it is heavily implied that she was disturbed by it and that she killed it (or tried to). “I never get used to their resurrections,” she muses as Chris’ wife comes back to life, implying she’s witnessed it before. Chances are that whatever ugliness Gordon saw in her visitor was merely projected from herself on to it. I think Soderbergh raises an interesting point about how we approach art and culture. “You’re being manipulated,”Gordon warns Chris, which is of course what the movie are all about. It’s interesting that one of the creations is able to accomplish a fracture but independent existence by murdering its creator. Death of the author, writ large.

Strange bedfellows...

Even with all this going on, Soderbergh finds time to briefly touch on other, grander philosophical points, like the way that human behaviour tends to repeat. Through flashback, we’re shown Chris’ failure as a husband to Rheya. “I didn’t understand,” he insists, as if to imply that he has learned his lesson from those experiences. After all, wouldn’t we react differently if we were granted a second chance? “I don’t think that we’re predetermined to relive our past,” he insists. “I believe that we can choose to do it differently.” However, the movie seems more cynical than Chris, suggesting that history would play out the same way if only because of human nature. Do we actually learn from our mistakes, or are we afraid to do so?

The production design on Soderbergh’s film is absolutely top-notch. Even the outside shots of the space station look absolutely beautiful, as well as the sparse Earth-base flashbacks the expand upon Chris and Rheya’s romance and later marriage. Cliff Martinez provides a power and affecting score, giving the whole film a stately beauty. It might move a bit slow, but the film looks and sounds very impressive.

We need our space...

Clooney is solid as the leading man, providing a measure of depth to Soderbergh’s film, a surface charm that helps translate the philosophy to screen. He is ably supported by Voila Davis and Jeremy Davies as the two surviving astronauts on the side. However, the movie belongs to Natascha McElhone, playing Rheya and her projection. She needs to seem both worldly and otherworldly, ethereal and somehow real. I was alway amazed that McElhone never made it as a leading actress, if only because she has a string of strong roles to build upon.

Solaris won’t be for everybody, but I still think it’s a fascinating piece of cinema – which seems to be a word I use increasingly to refer to the work of Soderbergh. It’s something to be savoured and digested, rather than to be wolfed down. It has more than a few moments of brilliance, even if it seems to wallow its own ambiguity just a little bit too much to become a true science-fiction classic. Still, it’s a clever and thoughtful film, and well worth a look for fans of science-fiction.

6 Responses

  1. The vibe and atmosphere works and Clooney is great in this role but for some reason, there was just a bit of a detachment for me when it came to its character development. Still though, I thought it was a great sci-fi flick that definitely has this eerie vibe to it. Good review Darren.

    • Cheers. I think the detachment was somewhat intentional and enhanced the atmosphere. If it is a metaphor for film (and it’s a big “if”), then the detachment is a fairly organic approach to these people and their interactions with one another – they might look and sound familiar, but they are more ethereal and fleeting rather than “real.”

  2. I adore the original and Soderbergh’s version. They are the same story, yet so different. Great review! There is room in my heart for both of these movies.

  3. “Instead of opening her mind to the cosmos, she provides her own narrative to events, and it reflects the sum total of human history – it’s about conflict and violence and conquest. “I want to win!” she insists. “I want humans to win! Whose side are you on?””

    Your review made me think. Thank you.

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