Ed Howard: You selected Steven Soderberghâ€™s Solaris as the film from the last few years you believe to be unfairly overlooked, and itâ€™s not hard to see why you chose it. There are few types of films that are more often overlooked and forgotten, en masse, than the amorphous category of the “remake.” Fairly or unfairly, critics tend to be inherently skeptical of remake projects, even if audiences flock to genre remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the “reboots” of franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween. In Soderberghâ€™s case, his film couldnâ€™t even be called a commercial success; it was more or less a flop whose memory has almost completely faded from the popular imagination in just a few short years. When Soderberghâ€™s film came out in 2002, I skipped over it for the same reason that I suspect a lot of other people did: by all appearances, it was yet another Hollywood “updating” of a classic film from years before, a film that if you ask me didnâ€™t really need to be revisited. Andrei Tarkovskyâ€™s 1972 Solaris is a classic of the science fiction genre, as well-loved and admired among art-cinema fans as Stanley Kubrickâ€™s more popularly known 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which Tarkovsky was directly responding in making his own film. Moreover, the 1961 novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem is also a classic, one of the greatest works of sci-fi literature (and a personal favorite of mine). Soderbergh was stepping into tremendous shoes by attempting to tell this story, and Iâ€™m sure he realized that this film would inevitably be compared to its predecessors, making it difficult to evaluate on its own terms.
The question then becomes: on its own terms, what is Soderberghâ€™s Solaris? What was his rationale for revisiting a classic story? What does he bring to the film to make it his own? Does this new Solaris deserve its current obscurity or should it be remembered simultaneously with its predecessors (or even elevated above them)? I have my own opinions on these questions, but for now Iâ€™m interested to know what you think. Does what Iâ€™ve described gibe with your own reasons for picking this film? And why do you think Soderberghâ€™s Solaris deserves a second look?
Jason Bellamy: If I answered all those questions immediately, it would be a very long and very one-sided conversation. So let me focus on that last question first. Why does Solaris deserve a second look? Because I donâ€™t think it got a fair first look, if it got a look at all. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Solaris, like Undertow, is a difficult movie to sell to the general public because it mashes together some rarely paired themes. Most obviously, Solaris is a love story set in space thatâ€™s equally passionate about both its romance and its sci-fi trappings. (Name five other films that fit that description. Theyâ€™re out there, Iâ€™m sure, but itâ€™s going to take you a while to come up with them.) Soderberghâ€™s Solaris is a square peg in a landscape of round holes. It doesnâ€™t fit well into any niche, which is the recipe for commercial doom. Ironically (or maybe not), Soderberghâ€™s adaptation includes a line about the search for extraterrestrial life that might as well be a forecast for the filmâ€™s eventual (inevitable?) box office failings: “We donâ€™t want other worlds,” Gibarian says. “We want mirrors.” Itâ€™s sad but true: To the general movie-going public, that which feels unfamiliar tends to feel uncomfortable.
Additionally, Fox did the film no favors by marketing Solaris according to what the average consumer hoped a George Clooney romance would be, rather than what this movie really is. Or something like that. Andrew Oâ€™Hehir of Salon best summarized the misleading marketing campaign in his review, writing: “[Fox] has primarily promoted the film as a love story starring Clooney and a beautiful woman, which has the virtue of A) being true and B) sounding like something lots of people might want to see. What the publicity doesnâ€™t make entirely clear is that most of the movie is set on a mostly deserted space station orbiting a planet that has some kind of psychological and/or spiritual powers (never specified or defined) and that the beautiful woman in question may be an alien creature or a fantasy projection but is in either case the not-quite-convincing simulacrum of a dead person.”
Now, donâ€™t get me wrong. I neednâ€™t watch Mad Men to understand how advertising works. I realize that the majority of a filmâ€™s box-office take is made on opening weekend, regardless of whether folks get what they thought they were paying for. I respect that Fox financed the film, and itâ€™s the studioâ€™s product and Fox can market the picture however the hell it wants. And I concede that Solaris isnâ€™t the kind of movie one could easily promote through toy giveaways at McDonaldâ€™s. Nonetheless, when people are walking out of a film after only 15 minutesâ€”15 especially tight and propulsive minutes that weâ€™ll talk about laterâ€”that canâ€™t possibly be a black mark on the filmmaker or the film.
I was a witness to such walkouts. When Solaris was released, I was living in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which you wonâ€™t be surprised to learn isnâ€™t exactly a hotbed for art films, or anything resembling art films. Solaris was the second movie I saw that chilly November day, and I remember that I had to hustle from my previous screening to get seated before the previews. Just before the lights went down, I looked around and noticed that females overwhelmingly outnumbered males in the audience. Stupefied, since that happens exactly never at sci-fi films, I immediately referenced my ticket stub, certain that Iâ€™d walked into the wrong theater. But, nope, I was in the right place. And, sure enough, I saw the kind of movie I hoped to see. In the meantime, at least a dozen people walked out over the course of the first 15 minutes, and one flock of about eight women who stayed (probably because it was a girlsâ€™ night out) started bitching about the film the second the credits appeared.
I mention all of this because it represents the uncertain reception that greeted Solaris that Iâ€™m convinced has been a factor in the film being unfairly maligned or altogether overlooked (which isnâ€™t to suggest it was or is entirely without champions). In the above, I didnâ€™t even touch on the skepticism of Tarkovsky loyalists (one of whom reportedly approached Soderbergh in the street and told the director that he should be “ashamed” for attempting a remake), nor did I go into detail about my hunch that, after a string of successes (Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Oceanâ€™s Eleven) followed by a flop (Full Frontal), some critics were hesitant to re-embrace their filmmaking golden boy, as if suddenly skeptical of Soderberghâ€™s intentions. Heck, I have yet to argue the merits of the film. Iâ€™m eager to get to the latter, but let me shut up for a bit. You watched Soderberghâ€™s adaptation upon my urging, having read Lemâ€™s story and seen Tarkovskyâ€™s original film some time ago. What did you think?
EH: Well, I have to say, if this film was marketed primarily as a love story set in space, then I donâ€™t think its marketing was so dishonest after all. Maybe Iâ€™m just too caught up with comparing Soderberghâ€™s adaptation to my previous exposure to this material, but Iâ€™m far from convinced that the film is “equally passionate about both its romance and its sci-fi trappings.” Quite to the contrary, it seems to me that the romance all but overpowers the sci-fi premise. For too much of the film, Soderbergh doesnâ€™t exploit his setting, doesnâ€™t deal with the nature of the living ocean below the space station. By far the most compelling concept in Solaris is Solaris itself, and it is the least-explored element in the Soderbergh film. I found myself wondering just how much this film would be changed if it was relocated to Earth, if Rheya (Natascha McElhone) was a ghost, or a figment of Kelvinâ€™s (George Clooney) imagination, if it was all a dream or fantasy or earthbound tale of insanity brought on by grief. I tried to imagine if the film would be irrevocably altered by a change of setting, and I think the answer is, damningly, noâ€”for a film titled Solaris, the planet is strikingly irrelevant to most of the action, to the themes that Soderbergh wants to explore. I almost laughed when, at the very end, the title dramatically appears onscreen: it seems like a non sequitur considering how little importance is given to the planet, how little the implications of Solarisâ€™ existence are explored. Itâ€™s not a film about Solaris, itâ€™s a film about a man who misses his dead wife, and who falls in love all over again with her doppelganger. Is it really so important to this filmâ€™s essential point that the doppelganger originated in the living ocean on Solaris?
Whereas Lemâ€™s original novel was concerned with confronting the unknown, with the limits of human knowledge and humanityâ€™s place in the universe and other dense, heady philosophical and scientific concepts, Soderberghâ€™s film is about a relationship, about loss and the desire for second chances. Itâ€™s a matter of focus and emphasis: the themes relating to the alien planet are still there, but largely relegated to the background, often literally. That line about “mirrors” is a crucial one, an important concept in both the novel and in Tarkovskyâ€™s film, and yet Soderbergh just tosses it off, has a character speaking it on a TV set in the background and then never revisits the idea. Again and again, he downplays what should be the central ideas of the film, instead dedicating enormous amounts of time to flashbacks of Kelvin and the original Rheyaâ€™s life back on Earth, before she killed herself. These flashbacks are unique to Soderbergh, they are the primary invention of his screenplay, the most obvious way in which he diverges from his source material. And their effect is to take the emphasis off of Solaris, to move the setting from space to Earth, to replace the scientific acuity of Lemâ€™s prose with a maudlin romantic drama.
Of course, Lem himself had similar complaints about Tarkovskyâ€™s film, and itâ€™s true that even Tarkovsky shifts the emphasis slightly towards the central relationship and away from the conceptual underpinnings of the story. I donâ€™t think any adaptation of the novel could avoid that, considering how dense and technical Lemâ€™s writing often is. But Tarkovsky does a far better job than Soderbergh of balancing the science fiction with the psychology of the characters and the romantic story. Tarkovskyâ€™s film has the texture of conceptual sci-fi; Soderberghâ€™s film has the texture of a romance with incidental sci-fi trappings. Iâ€™m not one of those people who think Soderbergh should be “ashamed” for attempting to remake some sacred textâ€”Iâ€™m not a “Tarkovsky loyalist” and in any event I donâ€™t think Solaris is one of Tarkovskyâ€™s best filmsâ€”but Iâ€™m also not sure that Soderbergh has anything unique or interesting to say through this story.
Itâ€™s true that movie audiences generally donâ€™t want “other worlds” but “mirrors,” and to satisfy that urge Soderbergh really tries to make this story as reflective as possible, to play down the essential strangeness and inaccessibility of Solaris and dwell on a love story that anyone could relate to. Itâ€™s ironic that, even after watering down Lemâ€™s themes so much, the film still wasnâ€™t simple enough or accessible enough for mainstream audiences, who apparently donâ€™t want even the barest hint of challenging material getting in the way of their sappy romance. But ultimately, all Soderberghâ€™s film offers is that hint, the suggestion of deeper themes that he borrowed from Lem or Tarkovsky, and which were much more thoroughly explored in both previous takes on this story.
JB: “Maudlin”? “Dwell”? Thems fightinâ€™ words! But Iâ€™ll respond to those jabs later. For the moment, letâ€™s focus on the general thrust of Soderberghâ€™s adaptation. Is it a romance above all else? Absolutely! But letâ€™s be realistic about those sci-fi trappings. “Incidental” or not to the romanceâ€™s evolution, they have a significant impact on the mood. This is, after all, a love story that unfolds in the surgical chill of a space station, with the hum of the shipâ€™s operating systems routinely filling our ears. This environment hardly offers the typical ambience for a romance. I presume youâ€™d agree with that.
Furthermore, Solaris is by no means “irrelevant.” Does the planet consume the attention of each scene? No. But itâ€™s the key to everything that happens. And since Solaris itself cannot emote, we learn about it through what happens to Kelvin. I can see how the unveiling of the title at the end of the film might feel overly dramatic, particularly if itâ€™s a reminder of all that Soderberghâ€™s adaptation isnâ€™t. But, dude, we just finished debating Undertow. Letâ€™s not get picky on titles. Besides, Solaris is to Soderberghâ€™s film what the titular wardrobe is to the first episode of the Narnia series. It doesnâ€™t speak and it isnâ€™t the center of attention, but we never forget it. I wouldnâ€™t go so far as to call it a character in the film, but I think you underestimate its influence over everything that happens.
In response to your earlier pondering on the topic, yes, Solaris would be irrevocably altered if Rheya were just a figure of Kelvinâ€™s imagination on Earth. Under that design, this would be a story of Kelvinâ€™s sanity (or lack thereof), because even if Rheya seemed to be “really there” by virtue of some inexplicable magic, like Patrick Swayzeâ€™s character in Ghost, she still wouldnâ€™t be “really there,” and weâ€™d know that. (Fuck. Did I just refer to Ghost?) The Solaris construct changes the recipe in a subtle but significant way. Here Rheya is a wholly “real” creation of Solaris, even if she isnâ€™t actually Rheya. Still, undoubtedly, sheâ€™s there. Kelvin can see her, and so can the other members of the crew. Thus, Soderberghâ€™s film stops being a question of if this is really happening and, through its romance, the film quickly becomes an ethical examination of what to do about it. If the same events unfolded on Earth, insanity would be the root of Rheyaâ€™s appearance to Kelvin in the first place. Here, Kelvin is fully sane when Rheya arrives, and the debate becomes whether or not he should willingly and knowingly give himself over to the insanity of pretending that this faux Rheya is the real thing.
Is this what Lemâ€™s Solaris is about? I donâ€™t have a clue. I havenâ€™t read it. But, as I suggested in our Undertow discussion, a good filmmaker “borrows what works and then adds to it, enhances it, reinvents it.” If as a fan of the original material youâ€™re upset that neither Tarkovsky nor Soderbergh fully captures the complexity or the spirit of Lemâ€™s work, fair enough. To look at it another way, Batman wouldnâ€™t be Batman if you failed to include Gotham, the Batmobile and arch villains and instead told the story of a guy in a funny black suit who lived in Malibu, drove a Mustang and played poker all day. On that note, maybe Soderbergh did drift too far away from Lem. I wouldnâ€™t know. Then again, if Tarkovsky was justified in calling his film an adaptation of Lem, then Soderbergh is, too.
These two films are different, without question. They even have different aims. But theyâ€™re in a similar orbit. Iâ€™d argue that the reason Tarkovskyâ€™s film seems more dedicated to the scientific concepts of Lem is because his picture is less successful at conjuring human emotion. Iâ€™d argue that Tarkovskyâ€™s film doesnâ€™t go into greater depth, just into greater length (169 could-hardly-be-slower minutes vs. a lean 99). Iâ€™d argue that Soderberghâ€™s film is indeed “heady” and “philosophical,” it just might not seem that way, because Soderbergh weaves these elements into the tragic love story of Kelvin and Rheya, rather than resorting to overt references of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. But Iâ€™m prepared for you to tell me Iâ€™m wrong.
EH: Iâ€™m willing to admit that I may have overstated the irrelevance of Solaris and the space station setting to the filmâ€™s love story. And itâ€™s certainly possible that to some extent Iâ€™m just disappointed that Soderbergh doesnâ€™t do more justice to Lemâ€™s ideasâ€”though despite my similar issues with Tarkovskyâ€™s film, I think it is unquestionably better and more complex than Soderberghâ€™s. Tarkovsky has substantially different concerns from Lem but the film is interesting in its own right. Soderberghâ€™s take on this story is distinct from both Tarkovskyâ€™s and Lemâ€™s, and thatâ€™s fine, as long as heâ€™s purposefully going somewhere different. I can only assume he is, that thereâ€™s something motivating this film, but Iâ€™m not quite sure what ideas are actually being expressed.
Yes, there are tangential references to the encounter with the unknown, the mystery of Solaris, but theyâ€™re throwaways, relegated to the background like Lemâ€™s great “mirrors” line: traces of the original story poking through here and there, thatâ€™s all. So if Soderbergh isnâ€™t dealing with the ideas of Lemâ€™s novel in any rigorous fashion, then what ideas is he exploring? Itâ€™s a perfectly valid choice to bring oneâ€™s own concerns and themes to the process of adapting anotherâ€™s workâ€”Tarkovsky injected a level of spiritual and theological inquiry into his Solaris that was hardly as pertinent for Lemâ€”but this film doesnâ€™t leave me with any profound sense of what Soderbergh saw in this story, why he thought it was so important to put his own stamp on it.
In the Salon review you quoted above, Andrew Oâ€™Hehir says that Soderberghâ€™s concerns are primarily formal, that heâ€™s not deeply invested in the plot or ideas, and I think thatâ€™s about right. The film is visually striking and impeccably designed, but its beauty seems somehow empty: slick and sterile. You called the film an “ethical examination,” but of what exactly? The ethical dilemmas in both Lem and Tarkovsky had weight and substance; Soderbergh reduces everything to Gordonâ€™s (Viola Davis) line, “Whatever it is, itâ€™s not human and Iâ€™m threatened by that. And I want humans to win.” That kind of silly, overwritten line basically sums up my problems with Soderberghâ€™s film, independently of my disappointment with it as an adaptation: its themes are blunt and obvious, trafficking in the kind of “us vs. them” human/alien dichotomies that have driven countless science fiction films before it. So many of the supposed “heady” moments in this film consist simply of shouting matches between Gordon and Kelvin about whether the visitors are “real” or not. A lot of it reminded me of the debates that often take place in stories about artificial intelligenceâ€”like the Terminator films. The love story is conventional beneath its unusual exterior, but ultimately the science fiction elements in the film are even more conventional.
Indeed, the choices Soderbergh makes consistently seem designed to drain the premise of its inherent mystery and uniqueness. It starts as soon as Kelvin arrives on the spaceship, when Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon are far more forthcoming than they were in either previous version, giving the opening this weird, anticlimactic atmosphere as the two of them simply pour out exposition, deflating the sense of mystery and tension. Davies is a great actor within his particular nicheâ€”currently proving on Lost that heâ€™s the go-to guy for twitchy, nutty scientistsâ€”and heâ€™s fun to watch as always, but his character is just another example of Soderbergh seemingly changing things just for the sake of changing them. He sheds all the abstracted and mysterious things that character says about his visitor in both previous versions of the storyâ€”intriguing hints that the ocean is not necessarily drawing only memories from the humansâ€™ mindsâ€”for the sake of a pointless twist that I guess is meant to add shock to the climax.
I know I keep coming back to the differences between Soderberghâ€™s film and its predecessors, and it probably seems like Iâ€™m just the usual bitter fan upset about a remake. Iâ€™m not, really; I wouldâ€™ve been very happy had Soderbergh done something different with this story and done it well. But I think the choices he made in adapting Solaris reveal the limits of his vision. There are just too many places where his changes add nothing and elide a great deal, where he seems to be aiming only at expediency, at streamlining the storyâ€™s themes, at jazzing up (and sexing up) its narrative.
JB: OK, well, letâ€™s start with the expediency. You suggested that the cut-to-the-chase conversation between Kelvin and Snow creates an “anticlimactic atmosphere,” but I donâ€™t see it that way at all. For me, one of the refreshing elements of Soderberghâ€™s version is the way that Kelvin asks all the questions that we would ask, and in about the same order that we would ask them. Yes, the early exposition resolves without difficulty many of the riddles that go unconfronted to the point of absurdity in Tarkovskyâ€™s film. Yet it creates riddles at the same time. As if marching to the commands of Syd Field, the first 15-minute segment of Soderberghâ€™s screenplay introduces Kelvin and the space station, lays the foundation for the effect of Solaris and then dangles a mystery: “I could tell you whatâ€™s happening. But I donâ€™t know if that would really tell you whatâ€™s happening.”
This isnâ€™t anticlimactic. Itâ€™s enticing. Soon after, Kelvin, who clearly has an inkling of what he might encounter at the space station, finds himself struggling to reconcile the difference between what he knows to be untrue and what he desperately wants to be real. As I said earlier, Kelvinâ€™s ethical dilemma is whether to give in to the illusion. One might compare his struggle with that of an addict who knows that the right thing to do is to stay clean but that greater pleasure might be found in a drug-fueled haze. Human nature attracts us not to whatâ€™s “right” but to what feels best. In this case, human nature draws Kelvin to something that isnâ€™t human. Thereâ€™s some irony there.
Now, before I go further let me compare this to Tarkovskyâ€™s version, where it takes until the 2-hour mark for the words “copy” and “matrix” to be uttered. In that film, Kelvin comes across as hardly human. Upon arriving at the space station, he sees a woman he knows shouldnâ€™t be there and a boy he knows shouldnâ€™t be there… and he has no reaction to this whatsoever. The most mysterious element of Tarkovskyâ€™s version isnâ€™t Solaris, itâ€™s that Kelvin goes out of his way to avoid asking questions that might result in advancing the plot or addressing the elephant in the room. (If Tarkovskyâ€™s Kelvin found a woman lying on the sidewalk, hemorrhaging from her eyes, heâ€™d stop to ask her about her earrings. Itâ€™s maddening.)
In contrast, by not wasting time, Soderberghâ€™s Solaris is able to provide a depth to Rheya that isnâ€™t found in Tarkovskyâ€™s film. It provides what could be considered an early commentary on the ethics of human cloning. It explores some of the same mind vs. soul ponderings that power Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It reveals long before Michael Clayton how fascinating it can be to watch a George Clooney character think. And all the while Soderberghâ€™s Solaris demonstrates the challenge of facing unpleasant reality. The planet Solaris is preying on the crewâ€™s vulnerabilities, weaving together visitors from the fibers of the hostsâ€™ memories and emotions. This isnâ€™t a battle of “us vs. them.” Itâ€™s a battle of us vs. ourselves. In that respect, I agree with you that much of the conflict might hinge on a line from Gordon. I just disagree about the line. For me, itâ€™s about Gordonâ€™s need to regain control. “I want to stop it,” she says.
EH: See, I think pretty much any Gordon line is problematic, because the character is such an amalgam of sci-fi action movie “tough guy” clichés, which needless to say is really jarring in a film thatâ€™s otherwise so low-key. Sheâ€™s the character who Soderbergh changed the most, and as with most of his choices, Iâ€™m not sure why: Tarkovskyâ€™s Sartorious is less an erstwhile action hero and more an ornery man of science who, though unsympathetic, is genuinely thinking through these problems. Thatâ€™s what gives the conversations between him and Kelvin such an intellectual charge in Tarkovskyâ€™s film, something thatâ€™s sorely missing here. Tarkovsky makes the conflict between Sartorious and Kelvin an argument between rationality and spirituality, with neither obviously having the upper hand. The tension between Gordon and Kelvin is much more prosaic. Clooneyâ€™s Kelvin may ask more questions than Donatis Banionisâ€™ Kelvin, but thatâ€™s because Clooney gets such improbably lucid and coherent answers from the people he asks, whereas in the earlier film Snaut and Sartorious seem genuinely frazzled and distant, as though in a sleepwalking daze. Itâ€™s not that Kelvin doesnâ€™t react in the earlier film, but that he quickly realizes heâ€™s not going to get any worthwhile answers from the people on the station. And when the characters finally begin talking later in the film, what they have to say is so much more interesting than the routine exposition of Soderberghâ€™s script. At one point, Tarkovskyâ€™s Snaut tells Kelvin, “Donâ€™t turn a scientific problem into a love story,” a piece of advice that Soderbergh might have taken more seriously in making this film.
That said, I like the way you unpack the themes of Soderberghâ€™s Solaris; I just wish I could agree that the film is as deep and complex as you insist it is. I wish Iâ€™d seen the film that you apparently did. I did enjoy Clooney and the unconventionally beautiful McElhone, and in fact the performances are worthwhile in general, with the exception of Davis, whoâ€™s hamstrung by some really blunt writing. I also think itâ€™s intriguing that Soderbergh shifts some of the emphasis of the story onto Rheya herself, trying to get inside of her head, tracing her thought process as she tries to understand who or what she is. Thatâ€™s interesting, but ultimately all Soderbergh does with the idea is use it as an excuse to tell the love story through multiple, lengthy flashbacks to Kelvin and Rheyaâ€™s life on Earth. Also interesting is an idea that Soderbergh introduces late in the film but, typically, doesnâ€™t explore: the suggestion that this incarnation of Rheya is somehow different from the real woman because Kelvin has remembered her “wrong,” that her personality is crafted from his mind and thus subject to the distortions and nostalgic tendencies and selectivity of memory. Like so many of the filmâ€™s best ideas, though, itâ€™s brought up in passing and then allowed to slip away without delving into it further.
In contrast, Tarkovskyâ€™s film centers the drama around the question of what it means to be human. Is it our capacity for love? Our independence? Our intellect? Our thirst for knowledge? Our sympathy for fellow beings? Our spiritual longings? And though Tarkovsky spends far less time than Soderbergh considering things from the visitorâ€™s perspective, I think the earlier film is actually just as effective in exploring her internal conflicts and questions. Tarkovskyâ€™s Hari slowly becomes more human as she spends more time with Kelvin, and her dawning awareness of her unique situation is, to me, just as poignant and affecting in the earlier film as in the later one, despite the fact that Soderbergh spends so much more time with Rheya. Itâ€™s a kind of Pinocchio tale: am I a real girl now? Soderbergh is ostensibly dealing with similar issues but keeps getting bogged down in the details of the tragic romance instead.
JB: Right. Soderberghâ€™s film is “bogged down” in the romanceâ€”because Kelvin is bogged down in the romance. Clooneyâ€™s character is making the very mistake that Snaut warns against in the first film. Heâ€™s confusing a scientific problem with a love story. Appropriately, Soderberghâ€™s adaptation reflects Kelvinâ€™s internal struggle. The flashbacks to life on Earth arenâ€™t just background. More significantly, they reveal the foreground of Kelvinâ€™s thoughts and feelings. And thatâ€™s what I love about this film. I positively ache for Kelvin and his conundrum. Hereâ€™s a man who has spent years yearning to be with this person while disbelieving in an afterlife that would make that possible. Then, by virtue of some unexplained phenomenon, Rheya arrives. Yet as soon as she does, Kelvin canâ€™t help thinking about how he lost her in the first place. (As you just indicated, this new Rheya can never be her own self, because her DNA is made up of Kelvinâ€™s memories. She is doomed.)
One of the things Iâ€™m finding intriguing about this discussion is that I cherish the element of Solaris that you seem to most despise: the filmâ€™s unwillingness to complete its numerous thematic and philosophical explorations. For me, this format engages the audience, forcing us to fill in the blanks. These are open-ended questions that Soderberghâ€™s film is asking. And whereas Tarkovsky allows ample time for rumination, Soderbergh never lets us get settled, which is part of the reason why the film lingers in my imagination while managing to feel new each time I watch it (and Iâ€™d say Iâ€™ve seen it at least once a year since it was released in 2002). There are many elements of this film worth exploring in depth that, no, Soderbergh doesnâ€™t resolve and that, no, I havenâ€™t resolved yet eitherâ€”part of the reason being that Soderbergh doesnâ€™t give me enough time. In that respect, Solaris is the philosophical equivalent of another sci-fi film from the past 10 years that I adore, Danny Boyleâ€™s suspense-crazed Sunshine, which spends 107 minutes following one near-disaster with another so as to keep us in the moment. Does that make Soderberghâ€™s picture Philosophy Lite, compared to Tarkovskyâ€™s adaptation and Lemâ€™s original story? Iâ€™m sure it does. But so what? I think Soderberghâ€™s motive with Solaris is similar to that of Charlie Kaufman with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which came along more than a year later. Solaris utilizes an atypical premise to knock us out of our comfort zone and give us a fresh perspective on otherwise weary themes.
EH: Yeah, we seem to have run up against one of those situations where we essentially agree on what the film is doing, but canâ€™t agree on whether itâ€™s a good thing or not. I find the open-endedness of Soderberghâ€™s film frustrating rather than enticing. It hasnâ€™t lingered in my imagination or made me want to fill in the blanks; Iâ€™ve just found myself wishing there had been more there in the film itself, more substance, more time to think about the issues raised by Kelvinâ€™s predicament. Itâ€™s why I still believe, for all its flaws, Tarkovskyâ€™s Solaris is the superior film. Itâ€™s got nothing on the Lem novel, and Tarkovsky himself made better, richer films (The Mirror, Stalker), but it is a serious consideration of the issues that Tarkovsky finds in this premise.
Of course, neither adaptation quite captures the essence of Lemâ€™s novel, but that is an entirely different issue. Indeed, it may be impossible to “faithfully” adapt that book to the screen; the only way into it is probably the route that Soderbergh and Tarkovsky took, bringing their own perspectives to bear on the basic plot. The novel is very dense, very textual and abstract. Kelvin spends a lot of time in the stationâ€™s library, reading through stacks of Solaris literature in order to review the various theories and observations about the planet by other researchers. The book is as much about Solaris as it is about Kelvin; the planet is a true character in a way it isnâ€™t in either film. The history of humanityâ€™s interaction with Solaris is discussed in great depth and detail. There are long passages that are strikingly impersonal and objective, using scientific jargon and meticulous cataloguing to convey the exact nature and extent of the alien oceanâ€™s strangenessâ€”and the exact boundaries of humanityâ€™s understanding of it.
One source of my disappointment with Soderberghâ€™s adaptation is certainly the sense of missed opportunities. He presumably had access to sophisticated CGI and couldâ€™ve really explored the oceanic phenomena described so wonderfully by Lem, but instead the images of the planet in Soderberghâ€™s film arenâ€™t substantially any different than what Tarkovsky achieved by crudely processing images of Earthâ€™s oceans. Theyâ€™re pictorial inserts, whereas Lemâ€™s precise descriptions of the ocean directly engage with the special problems provoked by the oceanâ€™s unique nature.
The book communicates a sense of wonder at the unknown, but a sense of terror as well, in that humanity is constantly seeking answers without really wanting to hear them unless they conform to whatâ€™s already known. In Lemâ€™s book, the ocean represents a terrifying unknown so alien to human understanding that the only possible way to respond is to observe, to catalogue, to maintain an objective pose, obsessively arranging details with no hope of arriving at any deeper truths.
Given his particular obsessions, Tarkovsky naturally translated this idea into spiritual terms, using the ocean as a metaphorical God to slip by the Soviet censors, but for Lem the oceanâ€™s unknowability is explicitly not religious or God-like. Kelvin himself rejects the idea late in the novel. Lem is more interested in the metaphysical implications of it all, the idea that the pursuit of “progress” is actually just manâ€™s search for himself. The ocean represents a challenge to humanity, something so un-human as to be beyond our ability to comprehend, beyond any question of divining its intentions or reasons or “intellect.” Iâ€™m not sure Tarkovsky gets this idea across, and I know Soderbergh doesnâ€™t; both directors are way more interested in exploring Kelvinâ€™s reactions to his visitor and the feelings of loss and guilt awakened in him by her presence.
Thereâ€™s a reason that even most of the aliens in our fantasies and sci-fi tend to be humanoid or at least demonstrate recognizable human behaviors and motivations. Itâ€™s rare that our science fiction features a truly unfathomable creation like Solaris; instead, our imaginations keep devising endless variations on ourselves, disguised and reworked. Even in books and movies, we travel halfway across the universe to encounter a mirror. Itâ€™s thus ironic but not especially surprising that both directors who have adapted Solaris, in very different cultural and commercial contexts, have responded by psychologizing the central problem, making it about human emotions and reactions rather than the humbling encounter with an impenetrable alien intelligence. This only proves Lemâ€™s point: we humans are extraordinarily skittish in confronting that which is truly outside us.
JB: We agree on that. Indeed, whether itâ€™s due to fear, ego, lack of imagination or something else, we seem to be seeking mirrors. At least, thatâ€™s what much of our art suggests. I think itâ€™s funny, with all that we know about space and science today, that we still tend to imagine that the discovery of alien lifeâ€”or alien lifeâ€™s discovery of usâ€”will unfold in the same manner as Columbus reaching the New World. This seems increasingly unlikely.
If youâ€™d kindly indulge me for a moment: The sci-fi movie Iâ€™m waiting for wouldnâ€™t involve space expeditions or high tech machinery. Instead, one day people across the East Coast would notice in the night sky a strange light that would look like a distant planet except that it would flicker, almost like Morse code. The point of light would narrow until it was almost unnoticeable and then it would widen again. It would do this repeatedly all night, and humans would be transfixed by it. By morning, there would be no doubt that this light was something else. People on the West Coast and all around the world would see the light, too. Two days later scientists would admit that they didnâ€™t know anything, couldnâ€™t explain anything. But, with studies ongoing, everyone would agree that this was a signal from some other world. Some would say that this light forecasted immanent doom, and others would suggest that it was the first message in a hopefully peaceful relationship that, due to the enormity of space, might evolve for generations before it led to any kind of face-to-face encounter. But everyone would agree that man wasnâ€™t alone in the universe. With no way to decode the message, the light would communicate only that something smarter than us, something more advanced than us and something more aware than us was reaching out to us. This would be heavy. Imagine yourself in that scenario. Imagine if tomorrow you encountered undeniable evidence that some life form more advanced than man was out there watching us. Every other element in your life would be exactly the same as it is right now except for this one monumental and yet presently innocuous change. How would you react? How would I? How would anyone? What would it mean? I think that would make for an interesting film. But I digress.
I mention all of that because I think that germ of a story, within the context of our larger conversation, indicates how staunchly we believe ourselves to be the most advanced species in existence and how truly stunned weâ€™d be if we were proven incorrect. Lemâ€™s story, as you describe it, has unique qualities, I give you that. But in the end itâ€™s just like any other sci-fi yarn in that it asks us to buy into something greater than man. Deep down, Iâ€™m not sure most of us are capable of believing such a thingâ€”God-fearers excluded. And so while I respect all the ways that Soderbergh seems to have abandoned Lemâ€™s intent as youâ€™ve outlined it, in the end doesnâ€™t he get it right? If the unfathomable Solaris is the device that reveals the fraudulence of manâ€™s search for progress, then isnâ€™t Solaris the ultimate mirror within which man is reflected back at himself? Isnâ€™t Lemâ€™s Solaris a story about man after all?
EH: Of course it is. As weâ€™ve both suggested, we humans are probably not capable, psychologically or cognitively or whatever, of telling stories that arenâ€™t about ourselves. Itâ€™s hard to even imagine what other kinds of stories we would tell. I suppose Lemâ€™s as trapped by that as any of the rest of us, and so are you in the very interesting story you outlined above, which is, yet again, all about humanityâ€™s reaction to aliens. I think the interesting thing about Lemâ€™s Solaris is that it acknowledges being trapped by this limitation, it is in fact all about this limitation, about humanityâ€™s oft-ignored limits and boundaries. Itâ€™s about our belief in our thought processes, our certainty in the scientific method, and about what happens when we encounter something that cannot be understood, something that simply ties our brains in knots trying to decode it or communicate with it. In a very literal way in Lemâ€™s novel, Solaris is the blinking light in the sky that you describe above; it inspires decades of research and theorizing and just sits there, doing its own strange thing, through it all. What makes Lemâ€™s novel unique is not that it gets beyond a human perspective, which is impossible for us, but that it directly engages with the limits of the human perspective.
Compare it, for example, to 2001: A Space Odyssey, that old sci-fi warhorse, in which we travel across the universe, through a wormhole to who knows where, only to encounter, ultimately, a giant human baby. Talk about mirrors. The implication of the film is that the entire history of the universe is driving towards creating some kind of refined form of humanity. Even HAL has a human personality with very human motivations and instincts; thatâ€™s precisely what makes him so dangerous. Itâ€™s ironic then that Tarkovskyâ€™s film was a response to Kubrickâ€™s 2001, which Tarkovsky deemed too inhuman, too cold and clinical. He wanted to make a film about space travel that focused more on human emotions and psychology as affected by space and the prospect of alien life. But the film also contains a very interesting scene that echoes Kubrickâ€™s space baby, when Kelvin watches a video in which a frazzled space pilot describes seeing the giant form of a human baby being constructed on the surface of Solaris. In Tarkovskyâ€™s film, itâ€™s just a way of exciting interest about the alien planet, a shorthand method of communicating just how weird the place is. In Lemâ€™s novel, itâ€™s more explicit that this incident is the planetâ€™s first trial run of sorts for extracting memories from human minds; the baby is the result of a very creepy “psychic dissection” process. Thus, though both 2001 and Solaris involve traveling across space to encounter an image of a human child, the implications of the two scenes are very different: one assumes human superiority while the other is rather conclusive evidence of something greater than us.
Another figure to think about in relation to all this is Dr. Manhattan, the most fascinating conceptual character from Alan Mooreâ€™s Watchmen. Heâ€™s an ordinary guy who, after a lab accident that seemingly disintegrates him, reconstitutes himself as this glowing blue inhuman being with tremendous powers. Heâ€™s different from other superheroes in that whatâ€™s interesting about him is not actually his power, but the way his experience alters his outlook on life and the universe. He becomes distanced from humanity, from emotions, and comes to believe that subatomic particles only he can see are as valuable and beautiful as the entirety of human life, that inanimate rock formations on Mars dwarf all the achievements of man. Maybe thatâ€™s the key to getting beyond a human perspective. Itâ€™s hard for us to imagine valuing an infinitesimal quark as highly as even a single human life, let alone all life, but that perspective is certainly one step towards the incommunicative distance of the ocean on Solaris.
JB: I havenâ€™t had time yet to see Watchmen, and I didnâ€™t read the graphic novel, but Iâ€™m glad youâ€™ve brought up 2001. I wonder if Kubrickâ€™s space baby a) reveals an uninspired storyteller (Pauline Kael called 2001 “monumentally unimaginative”), b) acquiesces to the limited adaptability of audiences in a way David Lynch rarely does, or c) intentionally comments on manâ€™s repeated insistence to figure human life as we know it into any rendering of progress (fuck Darwin, I guess).
As we float farther away from Solaris itself, Iâ€™m reminded of a concept that has been raised before in books ranging from Colin McGinnâ€™s The Power of Movies to Chuck Klostermanâ€™s Killing Yourself to Live. In a nutshell, does the way we dream enable our ability to understand movies, or have movies (and television) shaped the way we dream? Watching films, are we able to follow immediate (one-cut) leaps in time and space because our dreams include similar leaps? Or do our dreams include such leaps because of the impact of cinema and television? Put another way: Did primordial man dream about anything other than what he knew firsthandâ€”the search for food, the fight for survivalâ€”in linear episodes? If so, when did that change?
For the moment, these are rhetorical questions. Iâ€™m not looking to send us down a rabbâ€”, er, wormhole. But this transformation of human understanding is what Kubrick is getting at in the moment when the obelisk first appears in 2001. At some point, this scene suggests, human (or pre-human) awareness went beyond what we actually knew firsthand. Then again, as the conclusion of 2001 proves, thereâ€™s a limit to what we can imagine. More often than not, we build our otherworldly visions out of familiar materials that we have stockpiled on “islands of memory,” to borrow a phrase from Tarkovskyâ€™s film that should keep this conversation from drifting endlessly into space.
Before I miss the opportunity, I want to be sure to say that I admire Tarkovskyâ€™s film, especially in light of the obstacles he faced in the form of government censors. His film is indeed less inhuman, less cold and less clinical than 2001. (Of course, so is a morgue.) There are many elements of Tarkovskyâ€™s Solaris that succeed in revealing the human spiritâ€”the evolution of Hari (Tarkovskyâ€™s Rheya) being my favorite. Yet while I acknowledge that Tarkovskyâ€™s Solaris is of a different era and a different culture, thereâ€™s a hollowness to many of its scenes that makes it hard to get close to. Additionally, I question the decision to spend almost 45 minutes on Earth at the start of the story, because I donâ€™t believe it achieves Tarkovskyâ€™s stated intent, which was to make us long for home once the story reached space. In the Earth scenes, Kelvin is seen at a pleasant cottage that sits next to a tranquil pond, around which he likes to take walks, with a horse roaming free on the grounds. Removed from the film, itâ€™s a rather idyllic setting. But something about the way Tarkovsky films these scenes makes it seem like Kelvin is confined there under house arrest. In any case, when Kelvin leaves Earth for the space station it feels to me like liberationâ€”though perhaps that reveals my own impatience.
Is Soderberghâ€™s film better than Tarkovskyâ€™s, or the other way around? To me itâ€™s apples and oranges. The scenarios in which the films were made are too different. It would be like comparing a baseball sluggerâ€™s stats in the recent (current?) steroids era to those of a hitter in the “dead-ball era” of the early 1900s. In terms of reflecting Lemâ€™s original story, it sounds as if Tarkovsky has the edge, though perhaps only slightly. If I understand you correctly, Lemâ€™s Solaris is about the process as much as anything, the same way that All the Presidentâ€™s Men is about what Woodward and Bernstein do to uncover Watergate more so than itâ€™s about what they uncover; I donâ€™t think either Solaris film gets at that. Still, on its own terms, I find Soderberghâ€™s Solaris to be nearly flawless. Itâ€™s on the short list of films from the past decade that remain as engrossing to me today as it was on my initial viewing. Iâ€™d be remiss if I didnâ€™t mention the score by Cliff Martinez, which is nearly as significant to the effectiveness of this picture as Clint Mansellâ€™s Kronos Quartet-powered score is to The Fountain (for my money, the best score of this young century), but mostly I think the film succeeds because Soderbergh takes so many compelling dramatic elements and philosophical teasers and forces them through a tiny aperture. I see how coming to Soderberghâ€™s picture having already been exposed to Lem and Tarkovsky has a way of revealing what his Solaris isnâ€™t. But coming from the other direction, I canâ€™t help loving what it is.
EH: Well said. Youâ€™re right that Lemâ€™s Solaris is about the (thought) process as much as anything, with the emphasis on concepts rather than characters. Neither film captures that, and really why should they? Neither Tarkovsky nor Soderbergh were setting out to make a Zack Snyder-style “faithful” adaptation of Lemâ€™s work, but to create original aesthetic statements of their own using the novel as source material. Youâ€™re also right that even the two films, though similar in some ways, are fairly distinct in terms of their intentions and aesthetics. Tarkovskyâ€™s film certainly has its problems, and Iâ€™d agree that the long opening section on Earth doesnâ€™t really achieve what the director wanted it to: Kelvin is just so obviously miserable, sleepwalking through life, that the beautiful surroundings hardly create an idyllic portrait of life on Earth. One gets the sense that it doesnâ€™t matter to Kelvin where he is. Still, thereâ€™s a sensual quality to these early scenesâ€”like the one where Kelvin stands outside in a rainstorm and Tarkovsky lingers on the impacts of raindrops in a teacupâ€”that does provide a meaningful contrast to the coldness of the Solaris station and the isolation of space. I think the early scenes are crucially important for letting us slowly acclimate to the texture of Kelvinâ€™s life, getting a feel for his loneliness and depression and, simultaneously, his appreciation of simple sensual pleasures. It doesnâ€™t make us long for home, thatâ€™s true, but it does align us with the filmâ€™s sad sack protagonist, and it adds poignancy to the later scenes of Kelvinâ€™s dreamlike nostalgia for his mother, and his conflation of her with Hariâ€”scenes that, like the lengthy opening, werenâ€™t in the book at all.
As for Soderberghâ€™s Solaris, maybe I just canâ€™t escape approaching it through the lens of the two other versions of this story, but this, not the Tarkovsky film, is the one that feels “hollow” to me. There are plenty of things to like here, of course. Martinezâ€™s propulsive Philip Glass-like score is one of them, though few scores could match the ethereal beauty of Eduard Artemyevâ€™s ANS synthesizer score to the first film, one of the greatest electronic scores of all time. Soderbergh for the most part gets richer and more complex performances than the flatter acting of Tarkovskyâ€™s cast. The imagery is often stunning. I just canâ€™t get past the impression that the film is lovingly crafted but ultimately empty, presenting a beautiful surface thatâ€™s as slick and impenetrable as the oscillations of Solarisâ€™ ocean.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Let Your Sanity Go on Vacation with a Trip to the Moons of Madness
If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.
The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation thatâ€™s been established on Mars. The camera lingers over well-lit but equally abandoned corridors, drifting over a picture of a family left millions of kilometers behind on Earth before finally settling on the first-person perspective of Shane Newehart, an engineer working for the Orochi Group. Fans of a different Funcom series, The Secret World, will instantly know that somethingâ€™s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he â€śseems to have a situation hereâ€ťâ€”you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.
As with Dead Space, itâ€™s not long before the station is running on emergency power, with eerie whispers echoing through the station and bloody, cryptic symbols being scrawled on the walls. Did we mention tentacles? Though the gameplay hasnâ€™t officially been revealed, this brief teaser suggests that players will have to find ways both to survive the physical pressures of this lifeless planet and all sorts of sanity-challenging supernatural occurrences, with at least a soupĂ§on of H.P. Lovecraftâ€™s cosmicism thrown in for good measure.
If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.
Rock Pocket Games will release Moons of Madness later this year.
Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peeleâ€™s The Twilight Zone Reboot
Ahead of next weekâ€™s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.
Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the worldâ€”or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serlingâ€™s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next weekâ€™s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, â€śThe Comedianâ€ť and â€śNightmare at 30,000 Feet.â€ť In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic â€śNightmare at 20,0000 Feetâ€ť episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:
The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.
Scott Walker Dead at 76
Walkerâ€™s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.
American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having â€śenriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.â€ť
Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”
The reclusive Walkerâ€™s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006â€™s Drift and 2012â€™s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014â€™s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Caraxâ€™s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbetâ€™s first two films as a director, 2016â€™s The Childhood of a Leader and last yearâ€™s Vox Lux.
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