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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part Two—Solaris

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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part Two—Solaris

The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.

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?



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