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Friday 29 November 2002

"Close Encounters for the Third, and Worst, Time: A Review of Steven Soderberghís Solaris"

by Gary Westfahl


One doesnít need to visit this website in order to learn that Steven Soderberghís Solaris is a bad, bad movie; other reviewers, I am sure, will be offering the same conclusion. However — and this may be the filmís only virtue — the multifarious reasons for its abysmal inadequacy are not immediately apparent. One becomes interested while watching Solaris not by pondering the mystery of its titular planet (which doesnít really seem to interest Soderbergh either), but by trying to figure out why this film is so consistently misfiring in every conceivable fashion, ruthlessly alienating all of its potential audiences.

This film is, first of all, the third installment in the saga of Solaris: there is Stanislaw Lemís soaring 1961 novel, Andrei Tarkovskyís less celestial but solid 1972 film, and now this very mundane film, fittingly the only version of the story that ends with its space station crash-landing.

Lemís Solaris is an inarguable science fiction classic about a world covered by a seemingly sentient ocean and the utter inability of human scientists to achieve any meaningful insights into this beingís nature. For anyone examining how science fiction confronts — or fails to confront — genuinely alien life in the universe, the novel is essential reading. As one aspect of its mystery, Solaris does present the observers with duplicates of their relatives and friends, but the focus of Lemís novel is on the planet, not on these manifestations and how they interact with the characters.

In 1972, Russians Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Tarkovsky wrote the screenplay for the Tarkovsky-directed adaptation, Solaris, which garnered decidedly mixed reviews. Adding a lengthy prologue on Earth, and primarily devoting the rest of its leadenly-paced three hours to the relationship between astronaut Kris Kelvin and his dead wife Khari, the film at first viewing seems to be simplifying and trivializing Lemís vision. Yet the frittering away of its time on personal drama can be regarded as Tarkovskyís way to drive home Lemís point that human beings, rather than merging with the alien to evolve into supermen as in Arthur C. Clarke and Stanleyís Kubrickís 2001: A Space Odyssey, are instead destined to forever avoid and deny the alien and wallow in their own petty concerns — the argument brilliantly summarized by Dr. Snauth: "We donít want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We donít want other worlds; we want a mirror."

Tellingly, only the second part of that comment, as a barely audible throwaway line, makes it into Soderberghís film, where the directorís apparently absence of interest in Solaris is harder to explain away. And make no mistake about it: although the film credits say only that it was "written for the screen" by Soderbergh, "based on the book by Stanislaw Lem," this is actually an adaptation of the Gorenstein/Tarkovsky screenplay; several plot elements unique to the film are replicated here, and aspects of Lemís novel ignored by Tarkovskyís film are similarly ignored here. For example, Lem discusses human efforts to closely examine the surface of the planet in order to observe and classify the many strange shapes that appear and disappear there, a passage that any special-effects artist in Hollywood would love to bring to life; but in Soderberghís film, as in the Tarkovsky version, one observes Solaris only at a distance. Tellingly, again, Tarkovsky views Solaris from a point relatively close to the planet, never showing more than a portion of its surface, whereas Soderbergh prefers longer shots of the entire world. With each version, then, not only is the quality of the work descending, but we are getting farther and farther away from the planet that is supposed to be fascinating and baffling us.

This is not to say that Soderbergh entirely ignores the mystery of Solaris; characters periodically discuss the planetís enigmatic qualities, as in a brief but effective exchange between hero Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), who asks "What does Solaris want?", and the dead Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who replies, "Why do you think it has to want something?" The film also includes more explanations of what is going on, presumably for the benefit of denser members of the audience. Yet Soderbergh is visibly discomfited by the essential inexplicability of Solaris as maintained by Lem and Tarkovsky; in a way one might describe as typically American, he wishes to neatly classify Solaris either as "benign," Kelvinís argument, or as hostile, the view advanced by crewmember Helen Gordon (Viola Davis). These are our classic knee-jerk responses to alien life, first contrasted on film in Howard Hawksís The Thing (from Another World) (1951). And in the end, succumbing to a sloppy sentimentality that represents the antithesis of Lemís message, Soderbergh apparently opts to agree with Kelvin. I should not discuss the filmís conclusion at length, for the benefit of those who read this review and decide to go watch the film (but why?), and there are admittedly several ways to interpret precisely what occurs. However, suffice it to say that I was unhappily reminded of the conclusion to the old Star Trek episode "The Menagerie" in which kindly aliens with vast mental powers welcome back to their planet a paralyzed starship captain they admire and provide him with a healthy, happy life of illusion accompanied by a beautiful female companion. One struggles to interpret this filmís conclusion without ascribing similarly benevolent motives to Solaris. The grim rumors were true; Soderbergh has given Lemís story a happy ending; he has painted a big smiley face on the surface of Solaris.

If a decision had to be made regarding the best way to crudely bastardize Lemís elusive masterpiece, I would have preferred to have Soderbergh side with Gordon, the only worthwhile addition he makes to the story and by far the filmís most lively and appealing character. Soderbergh has borrowed a subplot from the film Alien (1979): NASAís official mission to study Solaris has been sold to a private business called the "DBA," which is at one time referred to as "the company." Further, Gordon specifically states that the mission was undertaken to evaluate the "economic potential of Solaris." Here is a hint of the theme of Alien, a coldhearted conglomerate happy to sacrifice the lives and well-being of its employees in an effort to profit from dangerous new forms of life. And Gordon is the filmís Ripley, an assertive and capable woman, the only crew member to survive the encounter with the alien and return to Earth, and the natural protagonist if anyone decides to make a Solaris II (but why?), where she would be reluctantly recruited to lead a mission back to Solaris to further investigate what happened to the previous crew.

Solaris sputters to life only near its conclusion, when Gordon takes center stage, announcing, "I want humans to win!" It is as if, halfway through the Tarkovsky film, a new character had been suddenly introduced — an in-your-face, commonsensical American astronaut who, after initially being discombobulated by the strange visitors like everyone else, gets her act together and warns her colleagues,

"Look, if we donít do something right now, this is going to be a fucking three-hour movie!"

"Look, if we donít do something right now, this is going to be a fucking three-hour movie!" She then gathers the troops and formulates a plan of attack, saying, "Itís time to kill all these fucking ghosts and get the fuck out of here!" This is certainly what the Heinlein Hero would have done in response to Solaris; and one almost wishes, perversely, that the film had been reconfigured to make Gordon its central figure, concluding by having her not only leave Solaris but drop a few bombs on the planet for good measure and warn Solaris that sheíll be coming back soon with an armada of warships to really kick its ass. Of course, this too would have represented a crude bastardization of Lemís story, but at least it would have been more entertaining.

If Solaris fails both as science fiction and as drama, it surprisingly also fails as a love story, which is apparently what Soderbergh was most eager to fashion out of Lemís story. This is due in part to an error in casting, and in part to an error in screenwriting.

Soderbergh chose George Clooney as his star probably because, after repeated viewings of Tarkovskyís film, he noticed that Clooney was the bankable Hollywood hunk who most closely resembled the previous filmís leading actor, Donatas Banionis; but it was a disastrous decision. Clooney has all too visibly lived a life of wealth and sophistication, instinctively cool and nonchalant in any potentially troubling situation; while an ideal candidate to channel Frank Sinatra in a remake of Oceanís Eleven, he is utterly incapable of conveying the desperate, driving passion that is so often required to carry a science fiction film. Here, as a grief-stricken widower, Clooney keeps striking poses for the camera and attempting facial expressions expressing either deep depression or elated love as the plot demands; but he instead looks like a man who is alternately struggling to hold in a fart and relieved after releasing one. I have never thought of Tom Cruise as one of the great actors of our generation, but one must acknowledge that he did a far better job of portraying a man experiencing a heartfelt sense of loss in Minority Report.

As for his resurrected wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), the problem lies more in the script than in the actressís possible limitations, which are impossible to assess on the basis of one film which demands very little of her talents. Inasmuch as close-ups of her perpetually smiling face seem to occupy about one-half of the filmís total footage, it is essential that audiences develop some interest in and affection for both the real woman who died, and for her identical replacement who poignantly comes to realize that she is a different, and lesser, being. But audiences simply arenít given enough information to care about the real woman, or to detect any difference between the authentic person and the Solaris facsimile. Tiny scraps of her autobiography are scattered throughout the film: she had a crazy mother, a cold, distant father, and an imaginary playmate as a child; she loves Dylan Thomas and has written a novel; she projects a sedate self-confidence that conceals raging insecurities. But she still never seems real, someone audiences can care about; she is only someoneís image of the ideal woman, both on Earth and near Solaris, and the purportedly vast gap between what she once was and what she is now remains virtually imperceptible.

Throughout the film, one keeps noticing references to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey — the spacesuits, the banal dialogue, the vehicle docking with a space station, the small vehicle, actually called a pod, that the first Rheya is sent away in — but one wonders why they are there until the filmís conclusion, when Soderbergh thuddingly explains the connection. Do you remember the scene near the end of 2001 when the aged, frail Bowman lies in a bed, his head slightly elevated, and looks up to see the monolith at the foot of the bed? In Solaris, that scene is perfectly replicated, except that the reclining Kelvin sees only repeated images of the smiling Rheya. And we realize that Rheya is this filmís monolith, the icon that Kelvin is obsessed with, the familiar face that he keeps turning to instead of paying attention to the alien being in his vicinity. The problem is that the monolith, both as an object and as a character in the film, is fascinating; Rheya, both as an object and as a character in the film, is relentlessly boring.

One might argue, in defense of Soderbergh, that all of this was deliberate on his part. He is extending Lemís argument: not only are humans incapable of perceiving what is genuinely alien, but they are even incapable of perceiving each other. Every day, instead of interacting with real people, we interact with simulacra that we create in our minds to correspond to the human bodies that we see and hear, but we never really comprehend what those bodies are actually like. Kelvinís memories cannot bring Rheya back to life because, despite years of being in her company, he doesnít really know her at all; and to make that point, Soderbergh must ensure that Rheya in all her manifestations is never more than an enigmatic cipher, a compilation of gestures and facial expressions instead of a full, rounded character. Perhaps this case can be made; yet it strikes me as suspiciously similar to arguments that a filmmaker was cleverly being deliberately inept or boring in order to convey some profound idea about human existence.

There are other observations that one might make in a lengthier analysis of Solaris. It is a film filled with rain, with windows, and with close-ups of human faces, for all the obvious reasons. To provide an overlay of literary sophistication, there are recurring references to Dylan Thomasís poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion"; indeed, the well-publicized decision to unveil Clooneyís bare behind (not once but twice) may have been influenced by one line of the poem: "Dead men naked they shall be one." There are numerous comments about names and the process of naming, perhaps a faint echo of Lemís point that people can name strange

There are recurring references to Dylan Thomasís poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion"; indeed, the well-publicized decision to unveil Clooneyís bare behind (not once but twice) may have been influenced by one line of the poem: "Dead men naked they shall be one."

phenomena, but cannot really understand them. One can be mildly intrigued by the character of crewmember Snow, who perpetually speaks as if he were stoned, especially when a late plot twist invites the audience to regard his odd, fragmented style of speaking as the voice of Solaris, possibly reflecting the bizarre thinking patterns of the alien Solaris. In Kelvinís anger at his wife over her abortion, and in the figure of Gibarianís resurrected son Michael (who at the end seems more like Kelvinís hoped-for son), one can discern a theme of thwarted parenthood, perhaps another reason lurking behind quixotic pursuits of the unknown. Initially living in an apartment without pictures, Kelvin ultimately returns to an apartment with a picture of Rheya on his refrigerator — because he has now embraced an existence of living with illusions? One can also ponder the filmís references to Greek mythology, like the name of the spaceship (Athena, goddess of wisdom) or Rheya (a version of Rhea, the mother of Zeus and other Olympian gods).

However, in order to explore these and other topics at greater length, scholars will need to watch Solaris again and again and again; and as I can testify, even watching the film twice can be a maddening ordeal. Furthermore, as Lem and other science fiction writers and filmmakers have demonstrated, there are many mysteries to explore in the universe of science fiction that are more interesting and rewarding than Steven Soderberghís Solaris.


Gary Westfahl is the author, editor, or co-editor of twelve books about science fiction and fantasy, most recently Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy and Unearthly Visions: Approaches to Science Fiction and Fantasy Art. He also writes a bimonthly column for the science fiction magazine Interzone.

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