Steven Soderbergh's hubris in remaking Solaris - an adaptation of both the original novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem and the screenplay for Andrei Tarkovsky's 1971 film version - was, perhaps inevitably, rewarded with little more than audience apathy and critical uninterest. To some extent this response was deserved, but it's also unfortunate since, on its own terms, Solaris is an intelligent, ambitious and intellectually rewarding personal work from one of America's most interesting filmmakers. My own disappointment with the film stems more from the ways in which it doesn't go far enough than with the more common complaints about pacing and opacity. Yet, despite its failings, there isn't a single moment when you feel that Soderbergh isn't in complete control of the material and, in these days of sloppy, identikit filmmaking, that's something to applaud.
Set vaguely in the near-future, the film deals with an attempt by psychotherapist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) to understand what has happened on a space station orbiting the newly discovered planet of Solaris. The station, manned by a small crew headed by his friend Gibrarian (Tukur), has been the sight of a number of mysterious events and when Kelvin arrives, he finds that Gibrarian is dead - apparently having committed suicide. The only remaining members of the crew are Snow (Davies), a jittery scientist, and the suspicious and nervous Gordon (Davis) who tells him about the strange 'visitors' who have been plaguing them ever since they began investigating the planet. Kelvin is confused but his reaction changes to shock when he discovers, lying in bed next to him, his wife Rheya (McElhone) - seemingly alive and intact despite his knowledge that she killed herself some years before. Gradually, he comes to realise that his wife is a construct created from his own memories by some intelligence inhabiting Solaris. The problem is what Kelvin should do. An attempt to get rid of her by firing her off in a shuttle simply leads to her appearing again and he begins to wonder whether he can perhaps redeem the pain of her suicide by getting another chance to do things better.
In terms of basic plotting, the film is reasonably close to the original novel and the broad outline of Tarkovsky's film. But it's also very much a reflection of Soderbergh's own obsessions and, ultimately, has little in common with the earlier film. Some things do remind one of Tarkovsky - the almost painfully slow pace, for example, and the overwhelming aura of hopeless sadness which throws a shadow over the whole story. It's also interesting that both directors choose to begin with water; although in this new film it is not the rich, lustrous water of the European countryside but the harsh, persistent rain on the windows of an impersonal city. But many of the big scenes from the earlier film have been either muted or omitted and the ending is totally changed; whether this renders it more optimistic than Tarkovsky's final image - horribly bleak metaphor for the impossibility of communication between people - is a moot point.
Two issues resonate throughout the film. The first is the issue of identity - who we are and how we define ourselves in relation to other people. Rheya, an illusion built from someone else's memories, states that she remembers things but does not remember being involved in them. Her whole identity has been stolen and rebuilt without her input and consequently she is a walking expression of the pain and bitterness that Kelvin feels about her suicide and, as we discover, her abortion. Essentially, she isn't real anymore than his dreams of the past (or maybe future) are real, she is only as corporeal as the memories from which she was built. Kelvin, whose own identity is shifting and elusive in a life where he can't connect with anything, not even the patients who he gives his time to, is simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the idea that a higher intelligence could give life to illusions.
The second and more significant concept, one which relates to Tarkovsky, is the idea of communication. Snow is so self-conscious and mannered that he can barely string a sentence together, let alone make any rational attempt to communicate with Kelvin. Gordon isn't interested in communicating, she just wants the visitors to go away and "the humans to win". As for Kelvin and Rheya, they can't really get through to each other in the flashbacks set when she was alive. This is nicely alluded to in a discussion about God where Kelvin's smug assurance that there is no higher power is deaf to any other point of view. It's even clearer in the following scene where Rheya tells him of her abortion, screaming at him that she was sure he wouldn't have cared that she was pregnant even if he had known. This isn't some blandly happy marriage we're being presented with here; it's a believably fucked-up relationship which makes Kelvin's confusion and guilt at seeing his wife again all the more convincing and touching. As for the ultimate expression of the difficulty of communication in the film, it's in the attempts made by Solaris to make contact with the people who are trying to understand it. Solaris seems to be some kind of huge intelligence, a higher power in its own right, and the 'visitors' are its emissaries; perhaps a malign force or perhaps merely one which is so alien to human experience that it is impossible to understand. All sorts of fascinating issues are being skirted here - would we ever be able to make genuine, valuable and constructive contact with alien life if its simply outside, or beyond, our comprehension - and it's hard not to feel that Soderbergh could have taken them further. But Tarkovsky didn't quite manage this either and if other directors as talented as Kubrick (in 2001) and Spielberg (in CE3K) couldn't do it then you can't be too harsh on Soderbergh. At least he's raising these issues and that's enough to make the film praiseworthy, if not entirely satisfying. A lot of science fiction in films in recent years has been intellectually undernourished, reliant entirely on memories of old films and stale concepts that weren't exactly fresh when they were first mooted. Solaris has ideas and explores them, which is a breath of fresh air. This idea of communication has been a constant interest of Soderbergh's right from his first film Sex Lies And Videotape - which dealt largely with the inability of men and women to make emotional contact - to his more mature works such as The Limey, in which the failure of a father to communicate with his daughter leads to an inevitable tragedy.
Visually, the film is a conflation of psychadelia and grungy realism. The depiction of Solaris - very purple - is oddly effective, especially since it has the over-saturated appearance of a bad trip and Soderbergh has wisely decided not to give us too many views of it. The space sequences are superb examples of unfussy CGI work and a nice antidote to the poor CGI which was one of the many things which wrecked another recent SF movie, De Palma's Mission To Mars. The interiors of the space station are obviously inspired, like virtually all such scenes since the early eighties, by Alien and the lesser known but equally influential Outland. The film is very subtly lit by Soderbergh (acting as his own DP) and the production design by Philip Messina is very different from the Gothic vaults of Tarkovsky's film.
George Clooney, in his most restrained performance to date, is very good indeed as Kelvin and his expression of inarticulate pain when his wife begins to break down is beautifully observed. Natasha McElhone looks the part as Rheya but doesn't have enough skill to chart the various stages in the breakdown to be totally convincing. Viola Davis is excellent in the small role of Gordon and Ulrich Tukur has some very sinister moments, especially in a bizarre dream sequence. The most controversial performance is that of Jeremy Davies. I have to say that he's not an actor I like but I thought he was very interesting here, having obviously made a decision to be as mannered and annoying as possible and following through with a performance which is grating but is a logical approach to a character who isn't as simple as he first appears. You could certainly argue that it's simply a bad performance but I think that's an over-simplistic reaction to what is obviously a carefully thought-through set of choices, supported by the director.
Soderbergh's Solaris is often very impressive, both visually and intellectually, but it has a curious failure at its heart. There is an emotional connection lacking somewhere and the film is consequently never as wrenchingly sad as it's setting out to be. Tarkovsky's film is still one of the most painfully moving films I've ever seen, especially in its closing stages (which say more about fathers and sons in a series of images than some entire films manage) but Soderbergh's is rarely more than touching. In one key scene - and I won't reveal the content - what should be a harrowing moment of inevitable tragedy is muffed by the decision not to show the act but only the consequence. As for the ending of the new film, it's poignant and logical but it doesn't stay with you or disturb you. In a sense, it's a Hollywood choice - although that really would be a simplistic reaction - and it doesn't sit well with the tragic tone of the story. It rounds off the film beautifully and is a perfectly satisfactory resolution but it's too neat and it's not nearly as effective as the kind of emotional messiness which can be so overwhelming. However, on its own terms, Solaris is certainly worth seeing and an extremely well made addition to Soderbergh's hugely impressive filmography. If only he'd managed to get some of the genuinely tragic undertones of his masterpiece, The Limey, into the film then it might have ranked as one of his best.
Fox have pulled together an impressive DVD release for Solaris that contains a fine transfer and one of the most enjoyable commentary tracks I've heard for some time. The other extra features don't add much but it remains a very pleasing disc.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It's an exceptional transfer which shows off the film to its very best advantage. The first thing that impresses is the amount of detail present, even in the opening scene where the raindrops streaming down the pane are almost tangible. The second thing that knocks you out is the colour which is beautifully rendered, whether in the subtle shades of blue and grey in the station or in the hallucinogenic colours of Solaris itself. The blacks are deep and true and there are no problems with grain or artifacting. I found this to be reference quality material and I can find no criticisms of it.
The soundtrack is English Dolby Digital 5.1 and is impressive without being particularly outstanding. This reflects the film which contains surprisingly muted sound for an SF piece and relies largely on relatively quiet ambient effects and Cliff Martinez's pleasingly strange, Ligeti-inspired scoring. The subwoofer is only occasionally employed and the surround channels are used sparingly. Dialogue is largely centralised but sometimes directional and there is an enveloping sense of sound which is atmospheric without being overwhelming.
The extras are limited but dominated by a splendid commentary from Soderbergh and his producer, James Cameron. It's a very lively, entertaining discussion of the film from two men who really do, for once, have something valuable and interesting to say. There's quite a lot of mutual admiration, as you'd expect from friends, but Soderbergh is surprisingly harsh on himself. Cameron displays a hitherto unsuspected talent for self-deprecation, acknowledging that he wouldn't have been able to achieve the internalised nature of this film and would have felt the need to open it up. Both men come across very well and there are no dead spots at all. This is easily the best commentary track I've heard this year and the one I'm most looking forward to - Cronenberg on Spider - will have to go some to beat it. This commentary is subtitled in English.
The three other extras are less exciting. The best is the option to read the screenplay as a series of still frames. It's a good read actually, and worth a look if you liked the film. The two featurettes - an HBO special and a making-of piece called "Solaris: Behind The Planet" - are basically the usual PR guff and don't offer much of interest, although the latter does contain some good material on the impressive CGI effects. Neither of these featurettes has been subtitled.
There are 25 chapter stops and English subtitles for the feature.
Although I found Solaris a slightly frustrating and unsatisfying experience, it's certainly a very ambitious and interesting example of pure SF. It's packed with ideas, even if it doesn't always explore them as thoroughly as it might have done. The disc looks and sounds very nice indeed and is certainly recommended for anyone interested in the film.