Death Has No Dominion in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002)

Solaris

As a huge title card reads immediately at the end of the film, Solaris was “written for the screen and directed by Steven Soderbergh.” This Dork Reporter is a huge admirer, but that seemed a bit egotistical even to me. Perhaps an overenthusiastic end-credits designer is to blame? Or maybe the studio wanted to capture some more of that lucrative Ocean’s Eleven magic by playing up the Soderbergh/Clooney brand?

But writing and directing credits, however many feet tall, barely begin to describe Soderbergh’s role. For this and many of his other films, he serves as his own Director of Photography (and even physical camera operator) under the pseudonym Peter Andrews and also as editor under the name Mary Ann Bernard. So, obviously, Soderbergh is one of the few mainstream filmmakers with the luxury of near-total control over his films. Like Kubrick, he produces, writes, directs, operates the camera, and edits. But while Kubrick was a control freak (in the best sense), the modest Soderbergh is lauded as being more collaborative and especially as a sensitive director of actors.

George Clooney in Solaris
Paging Dr. Ross, to the O.R., stat!

The DVD edition includes an excellent commentary track of Soderbergh in conversation with co-producer James Cameron, the original director attached to the project. Soderbergh asks Cameron what he thought of how he approached the material. Cameron points out that Soderbergh took a more “internal” approach than he would have, and both agree in good humor that Cameron would have included more car chases. More than Soderbergh’s grand total of zero, anyway.

Depending on how you count, Soderbergh has only directed two remakes: Ocean’s Eleven and Solaris (The Limey was a kind of homage or mash-up remix of the English crime classics Point Blank and Get Carter). The source material of the Polish novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem has proven a rich mine for cinema. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky directed the original adaptation in 1972 as the Eurasian answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The basic concept also drove films as diverse as Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (which is horrible but has uncommonly spectacular special effects and art direction) and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Soderbergh’s version of Solaris is credited as being based more on the original novel the 1972 film, with barely a mention of Tarkovsky even in the DVD commentary track. In his essay for the 2002 Criterion Collection edition of the original Solaris, Phillip Lopate states that Lem was unhappy with Tarkovsky’s interpretation, and was looking forward to what he expected to be a more faithful translation by Soderbergh.

Natascha McElhone in Solaris
Natascha McElhone doesn’t like the looks of this tanning booth

Solaris is set at an unspecified point in the future, distant enough for humanity to have perfected the technology to leave the solar system. Kelvin (George Clooney) is a shrink who is himself deeply emotionally damaged. Indeed, the theme of both this and the original film could be summed up as “physician heal thyself.” We first see him hosting a group therapy session for survivors of an unspecified tragedy. Since the movie was released in 2002, it’s possible this was intended as an analogy to a 9/11-like event. But judging by how every scene set on Earth is drenched in darkness and persistent rain, perhaps there was some kind of ecological catastrophe.

Single and with no family, Kelvin is an ideal candidate for a solo trip to investigate mysterious goings-on in a space station orbiting the distant gas giant Solaris (pay attention for the brief cameo by John Cho as a governmental emissary). Unlike Tarkovski’s extremely leisurely pace, this version wastes no time; Kelvin’s boots are on the space station less than 10 minutes into the film. This is the point where any readers wary of spoilers ought to stop reading.

Kelvin encounters Snow (Jeremy Davies, supremely well-cast), a man understandably gone stir-crazy from being cooped up on a haunted space station. But it becomes clear that he himself may be one of the forces doing the haunting. Evidently, the planet Solaris somehow draws upon the strongest emotional resonances in visitors’ brains and manifests them as living beings. These incarnations are most decidedly not a blessing for anyone. For Clooney, it’s an echo of his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone); for the captain Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), it’s a copy of the son he left behind on earth; for Snow, it’s… another version of himself. The “Snow” that Clooney meets is, in effect, his own ghost; he killed his own creator within seconds of his birth. The faux Snow’s weird behavior is not that of a man gone mad but of a not totally fully-formed human bluffing his way through unfamiliar human interaction. One has to wonder what kind of man is so alone or self-obsessed that the most important person encoded in his emotional memories is himself.

Solaris
The Solaris crew rehearses its big technobabble scene

Kelvin and Rheya originally bonded over the Dylan Thomas verse “and death shall have no dominion,” but the emotionally fragile woman committed suicide after he left her. Tortured by the renewed presence of her in his life, and the perplexing puzzle of Snow’s doppelgänger, he begins to question his own existence: is he someone else’s ghost? But he doesn’t take the question to the next logical step: is there anyone in the world with enough emotional investment in him to cause him to haunt them?

Solaris is both Soderbergh and Clooney’s first and only science fiction. It was marketed with a misleading poster suggesting a romance while obscuring any hint of science fiction. It is admittedly kind of funny to see Clooney in a spacesuit, especially when he was relatively early in his career as a movie actor (after years in television sitcoms and dramas). One can’t imagine Clooney’s Hollywood ancestor Cary Grant appearing in a space opera. But Solaris tries to have it both ways: to be somehow above science fiction but still be overloaded with enough pseudo-scientific technobabble to fill several Star Trek epics. The sensitive, emotional tone of the film is shattered as soon as scientist Gordon (Viola Davis) starts lecturing the audience about proton beams breaking up fields of Higgs Particles (or something along those lines). Such technobabble cheapens the premise. Indeed, the talky screenplay makes everything too explicit and concrete, especially compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which says so much more with so many fewer words.

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