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.