As an English Major in another life, I’m not uninterested in poetry, or Keats in particular. Movies about poetry are another matter. It’s difficult to imagine a less natural source material for the eminently visual medium of cinema than poetry. You can mute the sound, drain the color, or take off the 3D spectacles, but the one thing you can’t subtract from movies is the moving picture.
Other filmmakers have tried to visualize essentially invisible things before: scents (Perfume), academic research (The Da Vinci Code), and math (A Beautiful Mind, Pi). The handful of movies about writing (Capote, Factotum, Henry & June, Wonder Boys) are nearly outnumbered by movies about not writing (Shakespeare in Love, Barton Fink, Adaptation, The Shining).
“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”
When it comes to poetry, the most internal and abstract form of writing, it’s slightly disappointing that the most writer/director Jane Campion makes of it is to have her characters read verse aloud. However luscious the cinematography, it doesn’t help that the historical Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw) weren’t all that interesting as dramatic characters. The former is a lovestruck obsessive and the latter a sickly artiste not meant for this mundane world. It’s the standard biopic cliché: the insufferable wunderkind and the suffering woman that loves him anyway. At least, in this case, Keats wasn’t an addict (q.v.: Factotum, Bird, Ray, Walk the Line, Walk Hard, etc.).
Fanny reads Keats’ sonnet about her “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” at the close of the film. She lived to witness his posthumous recognition, and never stopped mourning him.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The opening credits of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s 1972 film Solaris state it is “based on the science fiction by Stanislaw Lem.” It’s perhaps telling that the term “science fiction” is used in place of simply “novel.” This faint hint of apology may hint at a lack of respect for the original Polish novel or the entire science fiction genre as serious literature. A similar ambivalence echoes decades later in the advertising campaign of director Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake, emphasizing the romantic melodrama over the fantastic, futuristic setting.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had arrived only a few years before Solaris, and was by a long shot the most serious stab at intellectual, literary science fiction cinema yet filmed. In his essay for the 2002 Criterion Collection DVD edition of Solaris, Phillip Lopate outlines three ways Tarkovky wished to distance his film from Kubrick’s. He found 2001: A Space Odyssey “cold and sterile,” and set out to infuse his own science fiction with “passionate human drama.” Unlike its predecessor’s gleaming high-technology, Tarkovsky built run-down and filthy sets for the space station, and found futuristic earthbound locations in the contemporary cars and architecture of Japan. Finally, Lopate points out that Solaris shares more themes with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo than 2001, namely, “the inevitability of repeating past mistakes.”
The links between the two films go beyond the thematic into the political; Solaris is frequently cited as the Soviet Union’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it ought to be viewed in the context of the Cold War. 2001: A Space Odyssey preceded actual manned moon landings, the US’ most definitive victory in the space race. Kubrick’s visuals were so effective that they spawned the still-simmering rumor that the moon landings were falsified using footage directed by Kubrick. But before all this, 2001: A Space Odyssey must have seemed like a threat or promise made to the USSR: saying, in effect, that the US is going to be first in space and the first to make first contact with alien intelligence.
So in this context, it’s hard not to interpret Solaris as at least partly a propaganda countershot. It too illustrates how the society of its makers and audience also have the brainpower and resources to extend their empire into space. But most unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky and co-writer Fridrikh Gorenshtein never allude to politics or even mention the names of other countries. Kubrick’s film envisions no end to the Cold War, even at least thirty years into the future. Kubrick’s vision of the future is actually a wicked satire, showing how little he expects humanity to evolve despite significant technological advances. His future humans still engage in petty squabbles and apocalyptic brinksmanship in the face of a potentially paradigm-shifting revelation: the discovery of definitive evidence of alien intelligence in a manufactured monolith buried on Earth’s moon. The US scientists and government officials investigating the monolith seem unmoved by the powerful notion of alien contact, and instead hold boring boardroom meetings and pose for photographs. In stark contrast, Tarkovsky’s Solaris has no sense of humor at all, about anything. Perhaps the most significant trait Solaris shares with Kubrick is a penchant for long takes. As Lopate also notes in his Criterion essay, atypically for a Russian filmmaker, Tarkovsky favored long takes over Eisensteinian montage.
In this vision of the future, the Soviet Union operates a scientific research station in orbit over the ocean planet Solaris. An entire school of study called Solaristics has sprung up around the study of the ocean’s peculiar properties. Astronaut Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) returns to Earth with controversial claims that the Solaris ocean somehow creates physical manifestations of landscapes and monstrous creatures on the planet’s fluid surface. Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), still stationed at Solaris, sends for his old friend, psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis). Berton, haunted and prematurely aged by his experiences, visits Kelvin at his father’s home in an attempt to warn him about what he is surely to experience, but Kelvin rudely dismisses him. We later learn the source of Kelvin’s misanthropy: his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) committed suicide after he left her some years before.
Kelvin arrives at Solaris to discover that Gibarian has already committed suicide. The strange manifestations Berton reported on the Solaris oceans are also occurring on board. Every surviving scientist still aboard the space station is haunted by “guests,” their euphemism for the apparitions that, as best they can determine, are somehow culled from their most emotionally intense memories. In due course, Kelvin’s dead wife reincarnates in a confused, partially-formed state. She is dazed and doesn’t quite understand who she is or why she is there, and doesn’t “remember” that she is dead. When she tries to undress, she discovers her dress is completely sewn shut; Kelvin’s imperfect memories of her apparently don’t include buttons ‘n’ zips. Kelvin also experiences feverish nightmares in which he confuses Hari with his long-dead mother.
In a kind of filmed suicide note, Gibarian tells Kelvin the manifestations have “something to do with conscience,” indicating that the common origin of every guest is that they are each the primary object of guilt in an individual’s mind. Gibarian asks Kelvin “did you see her yet?” suggesting that he sent for him because he correctly predicted Kelvin’s guest would be his dead wife Hari. The presence of Gibarian’s guest (a little girl) was evidently for him an intolerable curse, but perhaps he imagines it would be a gift for Kelvin to have Hari back. But the whole situation begs the question: if the authorities know about the manifestations, why would they agree to send such a psychologically damaged man as Kelvin?
When Kelvin attempts to leave Hari alone in his quarters, the not-quite-human creature manages to smash through the doorway in pursuit. She instinctively doesn’t want to be left alone, but can’t explain why. A suitable science fiction explanation might be that she somehow senses that she may literally dematerialize when Kelvin’s brain is not within proximity. Or her newly-formed mind may be suffering echoes of what the “real” Hari felt when she committed suicide after Kelvin left her. What if Kelvin becomes comfortable living with this reincarnation of Hari, and his guilt for the original woman’s death lessens… will her reincarnation then disappear?
An observation: like Lindsay Anderson’s If…, Solaris uses a mixture of black & white and color film. For most of the first hour, black & white footage initially signifies either film clips or teleconferencing (note that the film correctly predicts widescreen HDTV monitors and webconferencing in the future). But later sequences appear in black and white, without internal justification: first as Berton drives dejectedly back into the city (filmed in the alien landscapes of Japan), and later as Kelvin locks himself in his cabin on Solaris. To confuse the matter still further, Kelvin brings a home movie with him from Earth, which is in color! I don’t have a theory to explain these logical discrepancies; I’m just pointing them out.
I’m surprised to find to find that I did not like the film as much as my first viewing almost a decade ago. Solaris is as talky and overwritten as its ostensible model 2001: A Space Odyssey is elegantly quiet. Totally self-serious and humorless, its three-hour running time is frankly a little trying on the patience. In his 1977 appreciation of the film reprinted in the Criterion edition booklet, Akira Kurosawa reports he was stunned by the expense when he visited the set, equivalent to 600,000,000 yen at the time. But he defends the significant length of the early scenes set on Earth, which he interprets to be intended to instill nostalgia for Kelvin leaving nature behind forever. Indeed, the time spent on Earth in the early parts of the film does prefigure a significant homecoming at the end, when Kelvin seems to return to a dreamlike vision of his father’s house. The formerly lush and moving natural scenery landscape is now wasted and frostbit. It rains inside as well as out, suggesting a kind of baptism or rebirth in the waters of Solaris.