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.