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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part Two—Solaris

You selected Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris as the film from the last few years you believe to be unfairly overlooked, and it’s not hard to see why you chose it.

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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part Two—Solaris

Ed Howard: You selected Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris as the film from the last few years you believe to be unfairly overlooked, and it’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 Soderbergh’s case, his film couldn’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 Soderbergh’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 didn’t really need to be revisited. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris is a classic of the science fiction genre, as well-loved and admired among art-cinema fans as Stanley Kubrick’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 I’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 Soderbergh’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 I’m interested to know what you think. Does what I’ve described gibe with your own reasons for picking this film? And why do you think Soderbergh’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 don’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 that’s equally passionate about both its romance and its sci-fi trappings. (Name five other films that fit that description. They’re out there, I’m sure, but it’s going to take you a while to come up with them.) Soderbergh’s Solaris is a square peg in a landscape of round holes. It doesn’t fit well into any niche, which is the recipe for commercial doom. Ironically (or maybe not), Soderbergh’s adaptation includes a line about the search for extraterrestrial life that might as well be a forecast for the film’s eventual (inevitable?) box office failings: “We don’t want other worlds,” Gibarian says. “We want mirrors.” It’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 O’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 doesn’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, don’t get me wrong. I needn’t watch Mad Men to understand how advertising works. I realize that the majority of a film’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 it’s the studio’s product and Fox can market the picture however the hell it wants. And I concede that Solaris isn’t the kind of movie one could easily promote through toy giveaways at McDonald’s. Nonetheless, when people are walking out of a film after only 15 minutes—15 especially tight and propulsive minutes that we’ll talk about later—that can’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 won’t be surprised to learn isn’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 I’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 girls’ 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 I’m convinced has been a factor in the film being unfairly maligned or altogether overlooked (which isn’t to suggest it was or is entirely without champions). In the above, I didn’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 Ocean’s Eleven) followed by a flop (Full Frontal), some critics were hesitant to re-embrace their filmmaking golden boy, as if suddenly skeptical of Soderbergh’s intentions. Heck, I have yet to argue the merits of the film. I’m eager to get to the latter, but let me shut up for a bit. You watched Soderbergh’s adaptation upon my urging, having read Lem’s story and seen Tarkovsky’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 don’t think its marketing was so dishonest after all. Maybe I’m just too caught up with comparing Soderbergh’s adaptation to my previous exposure to this material, but I’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 doesn’t exploit his setting, doesn’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 Kelvin’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, no—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 Solaris’ existence are explored. It’s not a film about Solaris, it’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 film’s essential point that the doppelganger originated in the living ocean on Solaris?

Whereas Lem’s original novel was concerned with confronting the unknown, with the limits of human knowledge and humanity’s place in the universe and other dense, heady philosophical and scientific concepts, Soderbergh’s film is about a relationship, about loss and the desire for second chances. It’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 Tarkovsky’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 Rheya’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 Lem’s prose with a maudlin romantic drama.

Of course, Lem himself had similar complaints about Tarkovsky’s film, and it’s true that even Tarkovsky shifts the emphasis slightly towards the central relationship and away from the conceptual underpinnings of the story. I don’t think any adaptation of the novel could avoid that, considering how dense and technical Lem’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. Tarkovsky’s film has the texture of conceptual sci-fi; Soderbergh’s film has the texture of a romance with incidental sci-fi trappings. I’m not one of those people who think Soderbergh should be “ashamed” for attempting to remake some sacred text—I’m not a “Tarkovsky loyalist” and in any event I don’t think Solaris is one of Tarkovsky’s best films—but I’m also not sure that Soderbergh has anything unique or interesting to say through this story.

It’s true that movie audiences generally don’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. It’s ironic that, even after watering down Lem’s themes so much, the film still wasn’t simple enough or accessible enough for mainstream audiences, who apparently don’t want even the barest hint of challenging material getting in the way of their sappy romance. But ultimately, all Soderbergh’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 fightin’ words! But I’ll respond to those jabs later. For the moment, let’s focus on the general thrust of Soderbergh’s adaptation. Is it a romance above all else? Absolutely! But let’s be realistic about those sci-fi trappings. “Incidental” or not to the romance’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 ship’s operating systems routinely filling our ears. This environment hardly offers the typical ambience for a romance. I presume you’d agree with that.

Furthermore, Solaris is by no means “irrelevant.” Does the planet consume the attention of each scene? No. But it’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 it’s a reminder of all that Soderbergh’s adaptation isn’t. But, dude, we just finished debating Undertow. Let’s not get picky on titles. Besides, Solaris is to Soderbergh’s film what the titular wardrobe is to the first episode of the Narnia series. It doesn’t speak and it isn’t the center of attention, but we never forget it. I wouldn’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 Kelvin’s imagination on Earth. Under that design, this would be a story of Kelvin’s sanity (or lack thereof), because even if Rheya seemed to be “really there” by virtue of some inexplicable magic, like Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost, she still wouldn’t be “really there,” and we’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 isn’t actually Rheya. Still, undoubtedly, she’s there. Kelvin can see her, and so can the other members of the crew. Thus, Soderbergh’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 Rheya’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 Lem’s Solaris is about? I don’t have a clue. I haven’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 you’re upset that neither Tarkovsky nor Soderbergh fully captures the complexity or the spirit of Lem’s work, fair enough. To look at it another way, Batman wouldn’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 wouldn’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 they’re in a similar orbit. I’d argue that the reason Tarkovsky’s film seems more dedicated to the scientific concepts of Lem is because his picture is less successful at conjuring human emotion. I’d argue that Tarkovsky’s film doesn’t go into greater depth, just into greater length (169 could-hardly-be-slower minutes vs. a lean 99). I’d argue that Soderbergh’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 I’m prepared for you to tell me I’m wrong.

EH: I’m willing to admit that I may have overstated the irrelevance of Solaris and the space station setting to the film’s love story. And it’s certainly possible that to some extent I’m just disappointed that Soderbergh doesn’t do more justice to Lem’s ideas—though despite my similar issues with Tarkovsky’s film, I think it is unquestionably better and more complex than Soderbergh’s. Tarkovsky has substantially different concerns from Lem but the film is interesting in its own right. Soderbergh’s take on this story is distinct from both Tarkovsky’s and Lem’s, and that’s fine, as long as he’s purposefully going somewhere different. I can only assume he is, that there’s something motivating this film, but I’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 they’re throwaways, relegated to the background like Lem’s great “mirrors” line: traces of the original story poking through here and there, that’s all. So if Soderbergh isn’t dealing with the ideas of Lem’s novel in any rigorous fashion, then what ideas is he exploring? It’s a perfectly valid choice to bring one’s own concerns and themes to the process of adapting another’s work—Tarkovsky injected a level of spiritual and theological inquiry into his Solaris that was hardly as pertinent for Lem—but this film doesn’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 O’Hehir says that Soderbergh’s concerns are primarily formal, that he’s not deeply invested in the plot or ideas, and I think that’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 Gordon’s (Viola Davis) line, “Whatever it is, it’s not human and I’m threatened by that. And I want humans to win.” That kind of silly, overwritten line basically sums up my problems with Soderbergh’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 intelligence—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 niche—currently proving on Lost that he’s the go-to guy for twitchy, nutty scientists—and he’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 story—intriguing hints that the ocean is not necessarily drawing only memories from the humans’ minds—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 Soderbergh’s film and its predecessors, and it probably seems like I’m just the usual bitter fan upset about a remake. I’m not, really; I would’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 story’s themes, at jazzing up (and sexing up) its narrative.

JB: OK, well, let’s start with the expediency. You suggested that the cut-to-the-chase conversation between Kelvin and Snow creates an “anticlimactic atmosphere,” but I don’t see it that way at all. For me, one of the refreshing elements of Soderbergh’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 Tarkovsky’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 Soderbergh’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 what’s happening. But I don’t know if that would really tell you what’s happening.”

This isn’t anticlimactic. It’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, Kelvin’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 what’s “right” but to what feels best. In this case, human nature draws Kelvin to something that isn’t human. There’s some irony there.

Now, before I go further let me compare this to Tarkovsky’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 shouldn’t be there and a boy he knows shouldn’t be there… and he has no reaction to this whatsoever. The most mysterious element of Tarkovsky’s version isn’t Solaris, it’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 Tarkovsky’s Kelvin found a woman lying on the sidewalk, hemorrhaging from her eyes, he’d stop to ask her about her earrings. It’s maddening.)

In contrast, by not wasting time, Soderbergh’s Solaris is able to provide a depth to Rheya that isn’t found in Tarkovsky’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 Soderbergh’s Solaris demonstrates the challenge of facing unpleasant reality. The planet Solaris is preying on the crew’s vulnerabilities, weaving together visitors from the fibers of the hosts’ memories and emotions. This isn’t a battle of “us vs. them.” It’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, it’s about Gordon’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 that’s otherwise so low-key. She’s the character who Soderbergh changed the most, and as with most of his choices, I’m not sure why: Tarkovsky’s Sartorious is less an erstwhile action hero and more an ornery man of science who, though unsympathetic, is genuinely thinking through these problems. That’s what gives the conversations between him and Kelvin such an intellectual charge in Tarkovsky’s film, something that’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. Clooney’s Kelvin may ask more questions than Donatis Banionis’ Kelvin, but that’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. It’s not that Kelvin doesn’t react in the earlier film, but that he quickly realizes he’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 Soderbergh’s script. At one point, Tarkovsky’s Snaut tells Kelvin, “Don’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 Soderbergh’s Solaris; I just wish I could agree that the film is as deep and complex as you insist it is. I wish I’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, who’s hamstrung by some really blunt writing. I also think it’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. That’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 Rheya’s life on Earth. Also interesting is an idea that Soderbergh introduces late in the film but, typically, doesn’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 film’s best ideas, though, it’s brought up in passing and then allowed to slip away without delving into it further.

In contrast, Tarkovsky’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 visitor’s perspective, I think the earlier film is actually just as effective in exploring her internal conflicts and questions. Tarkovsky’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. It’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. Soderbergh’s film is “bogged down” in the romance—because Kelvin is bogged down in the romance. Clooney’s character is making the very mistake that Snaut warns against in the first film. He’s confusing a scientific problem with a love story. Appropriately, Soderbergh’s adaptation reflects Kelvin’s internal struggle. The flashbacks to life on Earth aren’t just background. More significantly, they reveal the foreground of Kelvin’s thoughts and feelings. And that’s what I love about this film. I positively ache for Kelvin and his conundrum. Here’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 can’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 Kelvin’s memories. She is doomed.)

One of the things I’m finding intriguing about this discussion is that I cherish the element of Solaris that you seem to most despise: the film’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 Soderbergh’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 I’d say I’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 doesn’t resolve and that, no, I haven’t resolved yet either—part of the reason being that Soderbergh doesn’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 Boyle’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 Soderbergh’s picture Philosophy Lite, compared to Tarkovsky’s adaptation and Lem’s original story? I’m sure it does. But so what? I think Soderbergh’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 can’t agree on whether it’s a good thing or not. I find the open-endedness of Soderbergh’s film frustrating rather than enticing. It hasn’t lingered in my imagination or made me want to fill in the blanks; I’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 Kelvin’s predicament. It’s why I still believe, for all its flaws, Tarkovsky’s Solaris is the superior film. It’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 Lem’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 station’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 isn’t in either film. The history of humanity’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 ocean’s strangeness—and the exact boundaries of humanity’s understanding of it.

One source of my disappointment with Soderbergh’s adaptation is certainly the sense of missed opportunities. He presumably had access to sophisticated CGI and could’ve really explored the oceanic phenomena described so wonderfully by Lem, but instead the images of the planet in Soderbergh’s film aren’t substantially any different than what Tarkovsky achieved by crudely processing images of Earth’s oceans. They’re pictorial inserts, whereas Lem’s precise descriptions of the ocean directly engage with the special problems provoked by the ocean’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 what’s already known. In Lem’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 ocean’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 man’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.” I’m not sure Tarkovsky gets this idea across, and I know Soderbergh doesn’t; both directors are way more interested in exploring Kelvin’s reactions to his visitor and the feelings of loss and guilt awakened in him by her presence.

There’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. It’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. It’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 Lem’s point: we humans are extraordinarily skittish in confronting that which is truly outside us.

JB: We agree on that. Indeed, whether it’s due to fear, ego, lack of imagination or something else, we seem to be seeking mirrors. At least, that’s what much of our art suggests. I think it’s funny, with all that we know about space and science today, that we still tend to imagine that the discovery of alien life—or alien life’s discovery of us—will unfold in the same manner as Columbus reaching the New World. This seems increasingly unlikely.

If you’d kindly indulge me for a moment: The sci-fi movie I’m waiting for wouldn’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 didn’t know anything, couldn’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 wasn’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 we’d be if we were proven incorrect. Lem’s story, as you describe it, has unique qualities, I give you that. But in the end it’s just like any other sci-fi yarn in that it asks us to buy into something greater than man. Deep down, I’m not sure most of us are capable of believing such a thing—God-fearers excluded. And so while I respect all the ways that Soderbergh seems to have abandoned Lem’s intent as you’ve outlined it, in the end doesn’t he get it right? If the unfathomable Solaris is the device that reveals the fraudulence of man’s search for progress, then isn’t Solaris the ultimate mirror within which man is reflected back at himself? Isn’t Lem’s Solaris a story about man after all?

EH: Of course it is. As we’ve both suggested, we humans are probably not capable, psychologically or cognitively or whatever, of telling stories that aren’t about ourselves. It’s hard to even imagine what other kinds of stories we would tell. I suppose Lem’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 humanity’s reaction to aliens. I think the interesting thing about Lem’s Solaris is that it acknowledges being trapped by this limitation, it is in fact all about this limitation, about humanity’s oft-ignored limits and boundaries. It’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 Lem’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 Lem’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; that’s precisely what makes him so dangerous. It’s ironic then that Tarkovsky’s film was a response to Kubrick’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 Kubrick’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 Tarkovsky’s film, it’s just a way of exciting interest about the alien planet, a shorthand method of communicating just how weird the place is. In Lem’s novel, it’s more explicit that this incident is the planet’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 Moore’s Watchmen. He’s an ordinary guy who, after a lab accident that seemingly disintegrates him, reconstitutes himself as this glowing blue inhuman being with tremendous powers. He’s different from other superheroes in that what’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 that’s the key to getting beyond a human perspective. It’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 haven’t had time yet to see Watchmen, and I didn’t read the graphic novel, but I’m glad you’ve brought up 2001. I wonder if Kubrick’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 man’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, I’m reminded of a concept that has been raised before in books ranging from Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies to Chuck Klosterman’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 firsthand—the search for food, the fight for survival—in linear episodes? If so, when did that change?

For the moment, these are rhetorical questions. I’m not looking to send us down a rabb—, 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, there’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 Tarkovsky’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 Tarkovsky’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 Tarkovsky’s Solaris that succeed in revealing the human spirit—the evolution of Hari (Tarkovsky’s Rheya) being my favorite. Yet while I acknowledge that Tarkovsky’s Solaris is of a different era and a different culture, there’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 don’t believe it achieves Tarkovsky’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, it’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 liberation—though perhaps that reveals my own impatience.

Is Soderbergh’s film better than Tarkovsky’s, or the other way around? To me it’s apples and oranges. The scenarios in which the films were made are too different. It would be like comparing a baseball slugger’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 Lem’s original story, it sounds as if Tarkovsky has the edge, though perhaps only slightly. If I understand you correctly, Lem’s Solaris is about the process as much as anything, the same way that All the President’s Men is about what Woodward and Bernstein do to uncover Watergate more so than it’s about what they uncover; I don’t think either Solaris film gets at that. Still, on its own terms, I find Soderbergh’s Solaris to be nearly flawless. It’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. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the score by Cliff Martinez, which is nearly as significant to the effectiveness of this picture as Clint Mansell’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 Soderbergh’s picture having already been exposed to Lem and Tarkovsky has a way of revealing what his Solaris isn’t. But coming from the other direction, I can’t help loving what it is.

EH: Well said. You’re right that Lem’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 Lem’s work, but to create original aesthetic statements of their own using the novel as source material. You’re also right that even the two films, though similar in some ways, are fairly distinct in terms of their intentions and aesthetics. Tarkovsky’s film certainly has its problems, and I’d agree that the long opening section on Earth doesn’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 doesn’t matter to Kelvin where he is. Still, there’s a sensual quality to these early scenes—like the one where Kelvin stands outside in a rainstorm and Tarkovsky lingers on the impacts of raindrops in a teacup—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 Kelvin’s life, getting a feel for his loneliness and depression and, simultaneously, his appreciation of simple sensual pleasures. It doesn’t make us long for home, that’s true, but it does align us with the film’s sad sack protagonist, and it adds poignancy to the later scenes of Kelvin’s dreamlike nostalgia for his mother, and his conflation of her with Hari—scenes that, like the lengthy opening, weren’t in the book at all.

As for Soderbergh’s Solaris, maybe I just can’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. Martinez’s propulsive Philip Glass-like score is one of them, though few scores could match the ethereal beauty of Eduard Artemyev’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 Tarkovsky’s cast. The imagery is often stunning. I just can’t get past the impression that the film is lovingly crafted but ultimately empty, presenting a beautiful surface that’s as slick and impenetrable as the oscillations of Solaris’ ocean.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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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.

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Moons of Madness
Photo: Rock Pocket Games

The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation that’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 something’s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he “seems to have a situation here”—you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.

As with Dead Space, it’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 hasn’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 soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft’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.

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—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 Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” 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 “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” 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.

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

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 “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

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 Walker’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 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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