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Entry updated 18 September 2023. Tagged: Film.

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1. Russian film (1971). Mosfilm. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Written by Tarkovsky, Friedrich Gorenstein, based on Solaris (1961; trans 1970; new trans 2011 ebook) by Stanisław Lem. Cast includes Donatas Banionis, Natalia Bondarchuk, Youri Jarvet and Anatoli Solinitsin. 165 minutes; first US version 132 minutes. Colour.

This long, ambitious rendering of Lem's metaphysical novel is regarded by some as one of the finest sf films made; a minority sees it as tediously slow-moving. Solaris changes the emphasis of the story from the intellectual to the emotional, partly by restructuring the narrative, which in the film is framed by elegiac and nostalgic sequences at the country house of the young space-Scientist hero's parents, focusing on the scientist's relationship with his father; the opening passage is on Earth, the closing passage on Solaris's recreation of Earth. The main action is set on a Space Station hovering above the planet Solaris, whose ever-changing ocean is thought to be organic and sentient. The protagonist finds the station in disrepair and his colleagues demoralized by the materialization of "phantoms" (quite real and solid) of their innermost obsessions; soon he is himself haunted by a reincarnation of his suicided wife. These phantoms may be an attempt by Solaris to communicate. Horrified, he kills the phantom wife, but a replica arrives that night. Ultimately he recognizes that, no matter what her source, she is both living and lovable; but while he sleeps she connives at her own exorcism. Solaris remains an enigma. The philosophical questions about the limits of human understanding are not put so sharply as in the book, but the visual images, despite occasionally mediocre special effects, are potent – haunting leitmotifs of water, sundering screens, Technology and snow. The film received a Japanese Seiun Award in 1978. [PN]

2. US film (2002). A Twentieth Century Fox presentation, a Lightstorm Entertainment production. Produced by James Cameron, Rae Sanchini and Jon Landau. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Soderbergh, based on Solaris (1961; trans 1970; new trans 2011 ebook) by Stanisław Lem. Photographed by Peter Andrews (a Soderbergh pseudonym), and edited by Mary Ann Bernard (a Soderbergh pseudonym). Cast includes George Clooney, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Natasha McElhone and Ulrich Tukur. 98 minutes. Colour.

Although Tarkovsky's 1971 film had been released in the USA, it was restricted to the arthouse circuit, and seen by comparatively few. It must have seemed to Soderbergh that there was a good case (both commercial and artistic) for a remake aimed at the general-release audience, especially viable perhaps with the attraction of the very popular star George Clooney in the leading role, as Chris Kelvin. However, though Soderbergh occasionally refers visually to the much-praised earlier film, it is Lem's original novel (as the credits state) that is the source of the screenplay.

Seldom in the history of film can two auteurs of such striking (and instantly identifiable) styles as Tarkovsky and Soderbergh have made film versions of a novel itself the work of a notably original author. There is a downside, of course: the original author's work can become subsumed into the director's very different vision. (Lem, for example, in an interview that appears on a DVD of Solaris published by Criterion, complained bitterly about Tarkovsky framing his story with Earth sequences, the first being around 40 minutes long).

All three texts have in common a philosophical coolness, in the way both thoughts and events are manifested (which some readers and viewers have found chilling and off-putting). And both films touch base with most of Lem's central plot developments – Rheya's arrival, Kelvin's attempt to dispose of her in space, her second arrival the next day, her Suicide by drinking liquid oxygen, her miraculous restoration to life, her doubts about her own authenticity as a human, her decision to have other crew members cause her disappearance by creating a field in which the fundamental particles of her being cannot exist. All three works, however, differ substantially in their length (Lem's novel is quite short; Soderbergh's film is not much more than half as long as Tarkovsky's) and also differ in their emphases: the Soderbergh version is somewhat more rigorous and conceptually tidy than Tarkovsky's (who interpolated a new theme about the protagonist's estrangement and possible reconciliation with his father, thus skewing the end of the film away from the dead-wife plot), and even than Lem's itself. (Lem's insistence on the impossibility of ever knowing the "other", a playful but darkly nihilistic take on solipsism, leads to an absolute riot of mutually inconsistent theories about just what the planet Solaris is or does, a wholly basic point downplayed by both film-makers, and the source of some irritation among Lem's readers.)

Soderbergh concentrates his film almost entirely on the relationship between Rheya and Kelvin, both in the past, through flashback, and in the present, on the Space Station Prometheus. Even the other "visitors" are conscripted to add symbolic weight to this relationship, as with the enigmatic young boy who seems to stand in for the child Rheya had refused to have back on Earth, but is also presented as godlike, in a cheeky visual allusion to Michelangelo's fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The mysterious boy in this way ushers in the finale, which on a first viewing seems to be a commercial cop-out to audiences who like love affairs to be presented with feelgood endings: Rheya miraculously reappears and lives with Kelvin in the once bleak but now warm apartment where they had lived before on Earth.

It is easy enough to read this apartment as a "construct" by Solaris, down to the surface of which we had seen Prometheus tumbling. It is less obvious, but probably true, that not only is Rheya a construct but so too, now, is Kelvin: his cut finger heals just as Rheya's liquid-oxygen scars did. It is surely an irony, if this reading is correct, that the triumphant "feelgood" climax, has within it only two creatures, inhuman counterfeits, possibly created through Solaris's sentient but Alien inability to understand the "other", the mirror of the Prometheus's crew inability to understand Solaris, doomed to love eternally, in some sort of parodic, domestic-seeming dance of death. Thus the "Hollywood Ending" can be justified as a ghastly deconstruction of a Hollywood ending. That is, it deconstructs itself.

Soderbergh's obsessive need to enfold the entire creative process (he directed, wrote, photographed and edited the film) shows that he really cared. Not everyone, however, will go along with all his artistic decisions, notably the colour coding within a limited spectrum of mainly blues and purples, but with a warmer gold sometimes intruding (as in our last look at Solaris from above). The most memorable performance is probably Natascha McElhone's, as Rheya, both enchantingly seductive and tormented, unable to force Kelvin really to listen to her, indeed unable to put in words what needs to be said. Viola Davis is excellent as pragmatic, humanocentric, bullying crew member Gordon. George Clooney's slightly uneasy performance is better than adequate, but subdued. (He generally appears to have a wider range and to be more responsive to his roles in comedy than in serious drama.) And there is certainly not much that is comic here, though it should be said that the overall feeling is more morose than tragic.

This is nonetheless an interesting, even distinguished film. However – while there is no need to make this a competition – some critics maintain that there is nothing in the Soderbergh version as compelling as the hypnotic beauty of Tarkovsky's masterly visual inventiveness, nor with his occasional visceral shocks. [PN]

see also: SF Music; Space Habitats.


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