Steven Soderbergh, 2002
Some called it cold and empty, others said it was pretentious or boring. It was unfavourably compared to the novel (Stanislaw Lem, 1961) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s revered film (1972), and many who liked it weren’t entirely convinced. People stayed away in droves, and even the box office pull of George Clooney wasn’t enough. And yet, Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris might just be 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, particularly with James “Titanic” Cameron as producer, but Soderbergh's film is intelligent and artful, and unexpectedly moving.
In terms of filmmaking alone, Solaris is impressive. The images are hallucinatory, and the layering of realities and time frames (memory and dream; past and present; the real and the imagined) is skillfully handled. The acting is mostly restrained, and even Jeremy Davies's penchant for psychotic mannerisms are put to great ambiguous effect. Only the character of Gordon could be said to typify a Hollywood stereotype, but even that has a valid function in the scheme of things, perfectly nailed by Viola Davis. I sympathise with viewers who were irritated by the acting of Goerge Clooney and Natascha McElhone, as both indulge in gestures typical of Hollywood vanity., but Hollywood is nothing if not an effective mechanism for seduction, mesmerising the world (but mostly itself) with the propaganda of boundless exceptionalism.
The film explores themes similar to those in Tarkovsky's film, ideas about sacrifice, redemption, truth, and reality, and while the influence of Tarkovsky is apparent (along with Kubrick, Resnais, Marker), Soderbergh has his own philosophical and aesthetic points to make, revisiting the temporal displacement and fragmentation evident in his earlier work, but on another level entirely. From the first frame it's apparent that Solaris is going to be… well, not a typical Hollywood product. 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 art-film intentions: contemplative and elliptical.
The central protagonist, psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) is emotionally dead. Living with the suicide of his wife Rheya ( McElhone), he merely exists, so he accepts a mission to go to the planet Solaris in a final bid to retrieve the crew stranded there. 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 score, which perfectly compliments the rhythm, feeling, and tone of the film.
Soon after arriving at the Solaris station, Chris soon experiences the strangely captivating presence of the planet, when he wakes to find his wife alive and beside him. Each crew member has their own “visitor” like Rheya. The planet Solaris appears to be a mysterious consciousness that “creates” life-like manifestations from an individual's subconscious, presumably as a form of defense by "disarming" the crew by offering them opportunities to reconcile long-buried memories, a God-like invitation to seek forgiveness, or (as some seem to choose) to wallow in guilt.
Although primarily about loss and grief, the film could be read as the suicide fantasy of its emotionally disturbed central character. The opening scene shows Chris sitting alone and depressed in his apartment. This scene is returned to near the end of the film, suggesting a circle in which everything between might have been a sort of suicide fantasy, in which the space station crashing into Solaris could be Chris's death framed within that fantasy. While such a reading is speculative, the film nevertheless succeeds as a study of a broken individual finding love and forgiveness.
Whether Soderbergh’s Solaris compares with Tarkovsky's richly poetic existential epic is a matter of personal taste, but frankly, it’s irrelevant. Like its predecessor, Soderbergh’s film 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 aesthetics. Setting a film in space automatically evokes chilly emptiness, which perfectly befits a meditation on spiritual despair, the incertitude of memory, and the transformative power of acceptance and forgiveness.
There are many religious overtones in this elegant examination of spiritual isolation within godless technology, 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? 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 (especially the last one, an act of love that frees Chris and enables him to return home) suggest endless sacrifice – 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 is evoked when Chris takes the outstretched hand of a young boy (another ‘visitor’), grasping at life, reaching out to God, or maybe embracing death. At the very end there is a repetition of a scene from the beginning, where Chris cuts his finger, but this time the cut 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 of this quality one thing is certain – there are no answers, only choices.
Further reading: Solaris reconsidered