Solaris- Steven Soderbergh
Andrei Tarkovsky’s acclaimed 1972 version of Stanisław Lem’s science-fiction novel Solaris was a film I liked to pretend I enjoyed and understood as a wanabee film-buff adolescent. With hindsight the film remained largely obscure to me then, bar some strikingly illusory imagery, particularly those in the memorable final sequence. I haven’t had the opportunity to re-view the film since my old Connoisseur Video copy – remember them, art-house film nerds? – went mouldy in my mother’s garage, having befallen whatever fate is meant to befall the VHS cassette, that most fallible and obsolete of recordable media.
I missed Steven Soderbergh’s take on Lem’s novel, and was horrified to realise that it was released in 2002. Naturally, I was interested to see it when it came out and the fact that seven years have passed since then had me pondering the kinds of unanswerable questions about the perplexing nature of time and adulthood that might make a fitting theme for some interminably long Tarkovsky film. Some brief forays into the internet tell me that the Soderberg film followed in the footsteps of Andrei Tarkovsky’s acclaimed 1972 film epic by focusing largely on the human element of the original story, even if it consumes almost an hour less viewing time. Marketing problems (George Clooney! In space! Pondering the nature of self with an alien replica of his dead wife?! It’s gonna be a hit!) contributed to the film’s grossing well under budget. I might never have seen it had it not been for my old friend Dan Morelle, who sent a copy of the movie – like a true gent – along with a package including presents for my newborn daughter. Thanks again Dan!
It is not surprising that Soderbergh’s ‘Solaris’ wasn’t a blockbuster, being both a film about loss and the fallibility of memory. As in the Tarkovsky version, Soderbergh focuses on the mind-expanding philoshophical implication in Lev’s novel, that the memories which nourish us are often deceptive or even erroneous. Clooney’s dead wife is cloned, by an alien presence, from memories that have warped and deteriorated like old VHS. This 2002 version also retains something of the mood of unnerving isolation and menace that pervaded the original, which was fittingly dubbed the Russian 2001: A Space Odyssey, if not for its running time then for its depiction of humanity out of its element in a universe of rules and presences far beyond its comprehension. “We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors”, says one character; and it is mirrors they receive, but otherworldly mirrors with mind-altering reflections.
Despite George Clooney and the slick visuals, Soderbergh’s Solaris is finally a low-key, if thought-provoking meditation on love, memory and mortality. If the ending lacks the stunning illusory sequence of the Tarkovsky version, the Soderbergh treatment is somehow simultaneously reassuring and profoundly unsettling: a love that will never die, but also a love that is a faded facsimile of the real thing. “I was haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong. That somehow I was wrong about everything”, says Clooney’s character, hinting at the absolute loneliness of living with one’s memories. The existential theme running through the film makes it a very human drama, like all the best science-fiction, and recalls comparable threads in Blade Runner. If in the Ridley Scott film we are left to contemplate our own mortality, Solaris deals with an equally dispiriting finitude: the finitude of memory. Both films, of course, also question what constitutes being human.
The mood of isolation and alien menace from both Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Kubrick’s opus is recalled here in no small part by the György Ligeti-esque score, while the rain-lashed metropolis of the sequences on Earth reminded me again of Blade Runner. In fact, the general slickness of the imagery brings Ridley Scott to mind, though the CGI-generated, gracefully orbiting space stations evoke little of the more tangible awe of Blade Runner’s model work (or indeed 2001′s rather suggestive spaceship embarkation to the Blue Danube Waltz, or even Star Wars’ awesome Imperial Star Destroyer). Incidentally a new film, ‘Moon’ starring Sam Rockwell, looks set to kick-start the model work revival, despite having a premise that sounds like the scripts of Solaris and 2001 accidentally mixed up and stitched back together. I’m excited to see it in any case, check out the trailer here.