Steven Soderbergh, 2002
Some called it cold and empty, others said it was pretentious, while many were either annoyed or bored by it. It was unfavourably compared to Stanislaw Lem’s novel (1961) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s highly revered film (1972), and even those who liked it weren’t sure what it meant. People stayed away in droves. Even the box office pull of George Clooney wasn’t enough. But for me, Steven Soderbergh’s SOLARIS is a masterwork.
Well, ‘masterwork’ may be an exaggeration, but Solaris is better than critical consensus suggests. Soderbergh set the bar high by tackling this film. There were many—myself included—who balked at the idea of a Hollywood remake of the Tarkovsky classic, particularly with James “Titanic” Cameron as producer, but Soderbergh's film is more closely aligned to the Lem novel. It's intelligent and artful, and for those who manage to engage with it it's unexpectedly moving.
From the first frame it was apparent that Solaris was going to be… well, not typical of Hollywood, that’s for sure. The film opens with a shot of rain on a windowpane, the first of a number of subtle nods to Tarkovsky, and an indication of the film's European tone: restrained, contemplative, elliptical. The film also explores similar themes to those in the Tarkovsky version, ideas about Sacrifice, Redemption, Truth, and Reality. But this is no reverent or slavish homage to the Russian master. The influence might be there (along with Kubrick, Resnais, and Marker), but Soderbergh follows his own path, revisiting the temporal displacement and fragmentation evident in some of his earlier work, but on another level entirely.
The central protagonist, psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is emotionally dead. Living with the suicide of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), he merely exists. Asked to go on a mission to the planet Solaris in a final bid to retrieve the crew from the Prometheus space station—who appear to be held captive by mysterious forces—he agrees despite—or because of—the danger. As Chris’s pod docks with the space station, we hear for the first time (a good seven minutes in) a segment of Cliff Martinez’s beautiful music. I’m not a fan of music in films as it’s too often overstated and manipulative, but Martinez delivered a score that perfectly compliments the rhythm. feeling, and tone of the film.
It doesn’t take long before Chris experiences the strangely captivating presence of the planet Solaris, when he awakes in shock to find his wife beside him – and very much alive. This is followed by a cinematic flashback that outlines their relationship and the circumstances of Rheya's death. Light on dialogue and dreamlike, it's a very strong piece of filmmaking.
Rheya (the name of the Greek Goddess known as the 'mother of Gods') embodies themes of mental instability and suicide, which may provide a key to reading the film. Although it’s primarily about loss and grief, it’s possible that the film could be the suicide fantasy of its emotionally disturbed central character. The opening scene shows Chris sitting in his apartment, obviously depressed. This scene is returned to near the end of the film, suggesting a circle in which everything between might have been a suicidal projection. The crash of the space station into the surface of Solaris could be Chris's suicide shown within the framework of his fantasy. While such a reading may be speculative, the film nevertheless succeeds as an evocative study of a pragmatic but emotionally broken man rediscovering Love, if not Faith.
Each member of the crew has their own “visitor” like Rheya. Solaris, a mysterious alien Consciousness, “creates” life-like manifestations from each of the crewmember’s subconscious, perhaps as a form of defence, or as some kind of experiment, or maybe as a simple kindness where each crewmember is given their heart's-desire. By physically externalising repressed guilt and shame, Solaris offers them an opportunity to confront and be release from long buried memories, a God-like entity offering Forgiveness of Sin perhaps, or… well, whatever you like. Soderbergh leaves it open.
Whether Soderbergh’s Solaris compares with Tarkovsky's richly poetic existential epic is a matter of personal conjecture, but frankly, it’s irrelevant. Like its predecessor, Soderbergh’s version has enough respect for the viewer not to tell them what to think or how to respond, which might account for why it bombed. The criticism that the film is cold and empty is curious given that ‘emptiness’ is central to what the film is about, so it's only natural that it would be reflected within the film’s formal structure. Setting a film in space automatically evokes an aura of coldness, which perfectly befits a meditation on spiritual despair, the incertitude of memory, and the transformative power of acceptance and forgiveness.
Beyond the metaphysics, simply in terms of filmmaking, Solaris is very impressive. The images are beautifully hallucinatory, and the layering of realities and timeframes (memory and dream; past and present; the real and the imagined) is superb. The acting is mostly restrained, and even the psychotic mannerisms of Jeremy Davies (who plays Snow, an interesting variation on the character of Snout) are used to great ambiguous effect. Only the character of Gordon sails close to a Hollywood stereotype, but even that has a valid function in the scheme of things, and Viola Davis nails it perfectly. I empathise with viewers who found the performances of Clooney and McElhone irritating, and admit that there are moments when both indulge in gestures typical of Hollywood vanity, but one must ignore such ticks in order to tap into the real substance of the film … and there is plenty of it.
There are many religious overtones in this elegant examination of spiritual isolation in a godless technological age, but as one character says, “There are no answers, only choices.” When confronted by the Unknowable, all we can do is choose. Is it a coincidence that the space station resembles a Russian Crucifix? This might be another nod to Tarkovsky, or it could be an indication of the thematic intentions of the filmmaker. If the planet can be read as a God-like entity, the cross-like shape of the space station mirrors the Christian idea that access to God is via the Sacrifice of the Cross. In this sense, Rheya’s repetitive suicides can be read as endlessly Sacrificial, especially the last one, an act of love that frees Chris and enables him to return home – classic religious symbolism.
Near the end of the film, as the space station plummets towards the surface of Solaris, Michelangelo’s famous Cisteen Chapel fresco comes to mind when Chris reaches out to grasp the hand of a young boy (another ‘visitor’), suggesting a desire to hold on to the past, or to life itself, or maybe, without realising it, he’s embracing death. At the very end there is a repetition of a scene from the beginning of the film where Chris cuts his finger, but this time it heals instantly. He asks Rheya if he is dead, and she replies, “such questions are irrelevant, everything is forgiven”. Whether the seemingly overt Christian overtones are intentional or not is unclear, but the film suggests that when it comes to cinema one thing is certain – there are no answers, only choices.
Further reading: Solaris: A Speculative Overview