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Underrated: Solaris – Steven Soderbergh (2002)

September 2, 2011
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With Steven Soderbergh’s imminent retirement (to be a painter) apparently back on, I thought it was time to go back and take a look at the only film of his I genuinely loved, the George Clooney-starring remake, Solaris.

Yeah, yeah. A remake. Sacrilege, I know.

But spare me, Salman Rushdie. Solaris is not the typical Hollywood-out-of-ideas remake that we’ve become so used to in the last few years. It’s a genuine attempt to carve something new out of an old, beloved film while not disturbing the primary work. Tarkovsky’s 1972 original was a bold and brilliant reply to Kubrick’s 2001, putting a deep Eastern European thought process into the science fiction films that had always existed in science fiction writing. But it is a film that is not without its flaws, whether they were on purpose or not.

On its face, it’s a simple film: recently widowed psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is summoned to a ship orbiting the planet Solaris when the crew members begin experiencing something unexplainable and unbearable. “I could tell you what’s happening,” explains Snow (Jeremy Davies), “but I don’t think that would tell you what’s really happening.”

So what is happening? As the scientists orbiting Solaris try to study it, it is reacting to their thoughts. Indeed, the planet is a shit-stirrer, and begins messing with the crews minds, conjuring up physical replicas of the people on Earth they apparently miss the most. For the crew leader Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who eventually sends the panicked message for Kelvin to join them, it is his son.  And he cannot bear it any longer. By the time Kelvin arrives, Gibarian is dead, suicide, leaving his replica son to wander the ship alone.

Gibarian’s son is not the only visitor, of course. Shortly after arriving, Kelvin gets his visitor: his dead wife, Rhea (Natascha McElhone).

It’s a brilliant concept, one that makes you stop dead in your stride and instantly makes you think 1, who would Solaris conjure for you? and 2, what the hell would you do if it really happened?

Kelvin proceeds to freak out, breaking his otherwise-logical persona, and sticks the Rhea replica into a escape pod to get rid of her. To his immense surprise, he is soon greeted by a second Rhea replica, who has the same innocent, vacant child stare as the first replica. This one, though, he keeps. Getting rid of a second one is an unbearable thought now that he has had time to regret the possibility of it being the real Rhea.

One can’t help but accept his decision. It’s the same I would have made, and probably you too.

It’s all in the eyes, I think. Natascha McElhone’s ghostly perfect eyes, like piercing globes in and of themselves. Some eyes are the window to the soul, some are enough to keep you busy on their own. Hers are the latter. You can swim in her eyes and get lost along the way. These eyes reel Kelvin in the first time they met, and they’ve done it all over again as they are reunited.

Solaris must be beside itself, giggling. Poor humans. Poor stupid humans.

Clooney was probably miscast here as Chris Kelvin, but both the star and the director were hot off of their last collaboration, Ocean’s 11, when they began pitching this. It’s the kind of picture that goes into turnaround or doesn’t even get bought without a major star attached. Everything about is extravant, even though the film itself is understated and darkly lit. Soderbergh’s — I mean Peter Andrew’s photography is sumptuously understated, artful, wonderful, giving us just enough of a glimpse of Steve Arnold and Keith P. Cunningham’s lavishly beautiful — and as expensive — sets without setting us into a whole new world, like Kubrick and Tarkovsky did before, or Lucas, or Danny Boyle before. It’s slick, angled and polished. Wood doesn’t seem to exist, with stainless steel and synthetic fabrics and fibers taking over every corner of the architecture and interior design of both the buildings on Earth and in space. It’s everything we always assumed the future is going to be, but probably will not. But it’s also not the point of the story. The point of the story is humanity. The biggest, greatest human flaw, even: emotion.

The film’s concept of a sentient planet as a most dreadful wish fulfiller is greater in our heads, though, where we can control what Solaris sees, not Soderbergh, where we can tailor the exploration to our own experiences.  but still, the driving paranoia Kelvin comes to experience because of — that he may have actually remembered Rhea wrong — is what gives this film its emotional bite.

It’s a superior play on the concept that anything we would have come up with in our own heads, I think, because we simply would have wallowed in the good times and never wondered if they were being remembered wrong. Or I would have. But Kelvin gets physical hints that he was remembering things wrong, hints that haunt him. Hints that would haunt us, should we have gotten them instead of the bliss of reunification. They hit Kelvin deeply enough in the end that the residual force hits us squarely enough to actually make us wonder what we have remembered wrong in our daily lives. Was Rebecca Solowitz really that great in fifth grade that I should still think about with regret 20 years later? Was I actually that good a baseball player or were there just no one better in the travelling team try outs? Was Nirvana really a good band?

Damn you Soderbergh. Damn you Tarkovsky. Damn you Lem.

You brilliant bastards.

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