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‘…I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled “Solaris” and not “Love in Outer Space“.’ – Stanislaw Lem

As someone growing up interested in SF and SF cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, released in 1972, was one of the films I inevitably became aware of at a relatively young age. It is a film with a somewhat forbidding reputation – lengthy, subtitled, oblique, cerebral. It is a cliche to say that Solaris is the Soviet equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but there is some truth to that – but while 2001 is distinguished enough to have earned itself at least one prime-time showing on a major BBC network, the same was never going to happen with a nearly-three-hour-long Russian philosophical SF film. While I was growing up, Solaris was always banished to the outer darkness of small-hours screening on the minority channels – middle of the night stuff.

If you’d asked me if I’d ever seen Solaris, until recently I would have said no, definitely not. And yet, having finally watched it, I’m not sure that’s the case. I certainly hadn’t watched the whole thing, but there were definitely moments I recalled. Could it be that this is one of those movies I recorded but never got around to actually watching all the way through? (This certainly happened to Frequency and Dark City, to name but two.) You need to have a certain intellectual fortitude to launch yourself into Solaris for the first time, to say nothing of three hours’ uninterrupted access to the household TV.

Anyway – finally, Solaris. As is fairly common with allegorical SF movies, Solaris is set in a world which in some ways closely resembles our own even though it is clearly meant to be decades in the future. For many years a manned space station has orbited the alien world of Solaris. Solaris is covered by an immense ocean, which scientists have concluded may in fact be a single alien life-form, possibly a sentient one. However, reports from the station have become disturbingly nonsensical , and the future of the mission is in doubt. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is to be dispatched to Solaris to make a determination as to how to proceed – carry on as before, withdraw the mission, or attempt to get a response from the planet by bombarding it with heavy radiation.

But something strange seems to happen to people who visit Solaris – Kelvin encounters a former member of the mission, who seems a haunted man, speaking of seeing grotesque figures on the surface of the planet, representing people still on Earth. Nevertheless, Kelvin leaves his terrestrial existence behind and makes the journey to the station orbiting the alien world.

Only a handful of scientists remain there, and Kelvin is a little shocked to learn that one of them, a former acquaintance, has recently committed suicide. The others are acting weirdly, too. And there are others present, too, half-glimpsed individuals whose being on the station is inexplicable. And then Kelvin has a visitation of his own – a woman who seems to be his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), appearing just as he remembers her. Appalled, he ejects her from the station, only for her to reappear, just as before.

The truth becomes clear. The ‘guests’, as the mission personnel refer to them, emanate from Solaris in some unfathomable manner. The sentient ocean has the power to read the memories of the human observers and create replicas of the people therein – hence some of the oddities of their existence, and their near-immortality. But are they genuinely conscious entities or just shades created by the planet? Do they offer a hope of real communication with Solaris, or are they just a distraction? For Kelvin, consumed with guilt over the real Hari’s death, it definitely seems to be the latter…

Well, I hadn’t seen the Russian version of Solaris until quite recently, but I did have the pleasure of going to see the American version of the story, where I was the only person who hung in there until the end of the screening. Looking back at my review of Soderbergh’s Solaris, I am slightly embarrassed by my attempts to sound knowledgeable about Tarkovsky’s film, which of course I’d never seen at that point, not least because – well, despite my suggestion otherwise, one thing both versions of Solaris do have in common is their focus on the central relationship between Kelvin and Hari: both films are on some level love stories, but are they love stories between a man and a woman or a man and something completely alien?

This was what impelled Stanislaw Lem, author of the original novel, to make his somewhat astringent comments on the film versions – though apparently he hadn’t seen Soderbergh’s film at that point. Lem’s complaint was that the movies focused on the relationships at the expense of the novel’s philosophical and scientific ideas. Lem is one of the great, perhaps somewhat underrated SF writers, whose work I regret not being introduced to earlier in my life, but in this instance I’m not sure his objection is a reasonable one. The issue of contact with a truly alien form of life, and the question of how we might communicate with it, is a profound one, and some very fine films have been attempted on the subject – Arrival is an example, and arguably also 2001. But how do you put this on the screen in an intelligible form? Cinema is in a sense a superficial art form in a way that a book is not. Lem complained that the films reduce Solaris to little more than a mirror, reflecting the human characters, rather than it being something utterly beyond the realm of prior human existence. But how would you represent that cinematically, except by an almost totally abstract series of images? (I’m suddenly reminded of the original ending to Phase IV, a film not totally unlike Solaris in some ways.) When faced with something totally new and unknown, we inevitably project our own ideas onto it – I think the film-makers’ approach is certainly justified.

And it’s not as if the theme of the movie is particularly glib or simplistic – Solaris deals with topics such as memory, guilt, and the nature of what it means to be an individual human being – and if this is not the absolute essence of all real science fiction, then no such essence exists. This is still a challenging, thought-provoking movie, both in its themes and in its execution. There are clearly things going on here that are not immediately apparent – I don’t doubt that this is a film which gives up more and more layers of meaning with repeated viewing – there must surely be some significance to the shots of vegetation on the surface of a lake which virtually book-end the film, and some connection between them and the mesmerising images of the world-ocean of Solaris which punctuate the story. What, also, is the significance of a long sequence depicting a car ride through a futuristic city (in reality Tokyo), which concludes with a jump cut from a crowded urban landscape to a peaceful countryside scene? Is there some oblique meaning to this, or is it just the director drifting off on a tangent?

It’s difficult to be sure, but then perhaps this is part of what makes Solaris such a considerable film in every way. It is not an easy watch, I suspect, even if your Russian is much better than mine, but it is clearly a highly intelligent, highly influential film, with its own distinct identity. One to mull over and come back to again and again, I suspect.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 6th 2003:

‘According to… the British Board of Film Classification… the latest Clooney release contains “a moderate sex scene”. Can we expect them to tell us when there is a really good one?’ – Letter to The Guardian, last week

The inappropriate sequel or remake has long been a staple of the film industry’s attempts at self-parody – think of Good Will Hunting 2 from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, for example – and one that’s occasionally made all the more ironic by the sequels and remakes that they genuinely seem to think are a good idea. Most Hollywood attempts in this department make a bad film out of a good one, but there are a small but significant number of instances where they’ve taken a bad film and improved it no end. The number of good remakes of good movies is even smaller. So it was with rather mixed feelings that I learned of the news that James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney had joined forces to remake Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic SF movie Solaris.

The day will eventually come when it will not be obligatory for descriptions of Tarkovsky’s Solaris to contain the phrase ‘the Russian 2001: A Space Odyssey‘. But obviously not yet. Cerebral, glacial, thoughtful, all these words apply to the Russian Solaris in exactly the same way that they don’t to anything James Cameron has worked on in the past. But to be honest he appears to have taken a definite back seat on this production, which seems much more typical of Soderbergh’s filmography.

George Clooney plays psychologist Chris Kelvin, who leads what looks like a fairly miserable existence on a near-future Earth. But a message from his old friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) leads him to the space station Prometheus in orbit over the mysterious planet Solaris. The surviving crew are suffering from a wide range of psychological complaints, all due to one thing: by night, ‘visitors’ from Solaris materialise out of nowhere on the station, taking the form of the crew’s loved ones – as Kelvin learns for himself when he awakens next to his wife, who back on Earth had been dead for years…

Conventional advertising for Solaris hasn’t really caught the essence of the film. This is mainly because all the trailers and so forth either show one important scene or lots of significant and/or striking moments in quick succession. What they don’t, and can’t express to the viewer is the fact that these important and striking bits are invariably separated by long passages where not much of anything at all seems to be happening. I’m not saying I agree with the German critic who asked Soderbergh at a press conference why he made such a boring film, but I can certainly see where he’s coming from. Cerebral, glacial, thoughtful – yup, the new Solaris is all these things too, but at least it’s only an hour and a half (-ish) long and not three hours like its predecessor (even if this does mean it achieves the startling feat of somehow managing to seem slow yet rushed simultaneously).

I was going to say the new Solaris isn’t a conventional SF film, but I may as well just broaden that out and say it’s not a conventional film, full stop. It’s wilfully oblique and impenetrable in places, it offers no easy explanations for the events of the story, it has very little in the way of ‘plot’ – a major revelation about one of the characters, which would be a crucial moment in a different film, here is passed over almost without comment. This is in no way a dumbed-down version either of Tarkovsky’s film or Stanislaw Lem’s original novel.

Where new Solaris differs from old is in its emphasis. Old Solaris was much more about the nature of the visitations from the planet and what they truly represented – new Solaris concerns itself much more with the relationship between Kelvin and his wife (Natascha McElhone) – their past relationship is depicted in flashback, as Kelvin comes to terms with the simulacra Solaris has created for him. (And, yes, you do get to see George’s bum, albeit dimly lit and in medium-shot.) For all that it’s about a romance, it’s not actually that romantic, nor does it really want to be – it’s more interested in question such as the subjectivity of memory, the division between the self and the world, how well one can truly know another person, and so on. At the time McElhone’s rather mannered performance irritated the life out of me but on reflection she does a remarkable job, modulating effectively between the ‘real’ Rheya and the replica of her. (Jeremy Davies, on the other hand, is just plain annoying as surviving crewmember Snow.)

And as for Clooney himself… well, I think we’re in danger of underappreciating one of the most ambitious and charismatic leading men in current cinema. Sure, he made a few mistakes early in his career, but since then – and more often than not with Soderbergh as his accomplice – he’s made some of the most interesting and classy films of recent years – Out of Sight, Three Kings, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Spy Kids (well, maybe not the last one). His performance here is dedicated and serious and largely successful.

This being a Soderbergh movie, it naturally looks gorgeous throughout, mixing earthy tones for the Earthbound sequences with metallic blues and greys for those set on the station. Soderbergh chooses to shoot much of the film in very long, static takes, which contributes to the continental-drift-like pace. Admittedly, though, the effect is rather hypnotic and the film has a dream-like quality. But at the same time it’s cool and uncompromising: a demanding film to watch, and not a very cheerful or immediately rewarding one. This is probably reflected in the film’s poor box office in the States (where, according to a cheerful Clooney, ‘it bombed’) and by the fact that, at the end of the showing I attended, I was the only one left in the theatre.

But just because something is utterly uncommercial doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad and Solaris is probably a very good film, just one pitching to an extremely limited target audience. I would probably go and see it again if the opportunity arose and nothing else was on. As it is, Soderbergh has made the perfect date movie for depressed philosophy PhD laureates.

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