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Solaris (2003)
Director: Steven Soderbergh

review by Steven Hampton
Spoiler alert!
Stanislaw Lem's highly praised SF novel Solaris was first published in the author's native Poland in 1961 - and translated into English in 1970, shortly before Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky filmed it in 1972. The story concerns a scientific quest to understand the nature of a fantastic alien planet, and make contact with the strange world's living - and possibly sentient - ocean. Both the book and the European cinema adaptation are relatively highbrow texts, leavened by elements of grisly horror and satirical humour in a thought-provoking examination of dreams, memory and reality. It's no surprise that most of the complex intellectual pursuits and didactic philosophical musing are rejected outright by this stylish but shallow Hollywood version, which casts former TV heartthrob George Clooney as scientist Kelvin, and concentrates resolutely on the space-fantasy romance angle.
   Steven Soderbergh, the director of leisurely heist caper Ocean's Eleven (2001) - which also starred Clooney, acclaimed drugs drama Traffic (2000), revenge thriller The Limey (1999), and entertaining romantic comedy Out Of Sight (1998), has always struck me as a filmmaker with artistic pretensions who is lacking the intellectual rigour necessary to support his often-fragmentary and allusive approach to film narrative. With such a track record he seems a most unlikely choice to rewrite Solaris, and yet the attention to minor details so evident from his previous works ensure that this is a quality SF drama, despite the streamlined plot. Here, the ambitions of Tarkovsky's script (co-written by Friedrich Gorenstein) are reduced to the confused ramblings and deadpan hand waving of Solaris researcher Snow (Jeremy Davies).
   In the film, a trio of scientists are haunted by simulacra copied from their lost relatives or past loves as the 'brain' of Solaris loots their strongest emotional memories of desire and fear. As Kelvin's dead wife Rheya, striking beauty Natascha McElhone plays up the tragedy of her 'resurrection' on Prometheus - the space station that orbits Solaris, and the British actress (perhaps best known for her role as IRA girl Deirdre in the late John Frankenheimer's Ronin, 1998) is more than simply decorative here. Her quite agonising 'revival', after committing suicide by drinking liquid oxygen, is certainly more disturbing to watch here than the similar scene in Tarkovsky's version.
   One particular set piece from Tarkovsky's film is notably absent; the incarnation of Hari that rips through a metal door because she cannot bear to be apart from her lover. Perhaps it was dropped from Rheya's scenes because it had been used before as a startling visual effect demonstrating android girl power in Robert Wise's Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)? It's interesting to note that Kathryn Bigelow's The Weight Of Water (2000) also quotes from the same Dylan Thomas poem as Soderbergh's Solaris, to add resonance to its character relationships - in another confrontation with issues of nagging conscience and guilt. Yet whereas the lines of poetry in Bigelow's drama (as spoken by Sean Penn's poet character Thomas) lend a satisfying psychological depth to the mystery and drama, Soderbergh's injection of such a literary element in this major genre film is pretentious.
   Where Soderbergh's Solaris triumphs is the determinedly understated display of space hardware and futuristic urban environments. With renowned techno-fetishist James Cameron as the film's producer, this is quite an achievement. One can almost picture a typical discussion between Cameron and Soderbergh, with Cameron urging greater deployment of formidable array of hip CG images, while Soderbergh asserts that such a potentially wondrous human story would be better served by focusing on the actors. The main problem with this, and it is a distinct flaw throughout Solaris, is that the film is so bland in terms of its science fiction content that it's impossible to figure out who won those tech versus people arguments.

Related item:
tZ  Solaris reviews of the 1972 film - by Ceri Jordan, Gary Couzens
Solaris

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