December 2002

THE SOLARIS ENIGMA

As I paid my five dollars to see a matinee of Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, I knew I was destined for an interesting time. The ticket-lady at the counter took the unusual step of warning me that "many people" had complained about the film and asked for their money back. I politely informed her that I knew what I was in for, having seen the Andrei Tarkovsky version, the 1971 original, some years ago.

Once inside the multiplex, my wife and I sat down in the appropriate auditorium and found it to be incredibly hot, probably over 80 degrees. I spoke to the manager and asked him to fix the temperature. I was again thinking of the 165-minute Russian Solariswhen I implored: "Please, turn the heat down, I don't want to go to sleep in this movie...I've heard it's a bit slow." The manager looked like he'd been slapped across the face. "Slow? Who told you that?" He demanded. "It's a GREAT movie!"

It is those twin reactions—one of disappointment, one of admiration—that frame the debate surrounding this 2002 theatrical release, a remake of Tarkovsky's seminal film, and a further adaptation of the 1961 Stanislaw Lem novel. Both responses interested me. How could people have such opposite reactions to the same film?

And then I watched the film and understood. Soderbergh's Solaris defies expectations. It is one of the most fascinating, deeply philosophical, and meaningful science fiction movies ever produced, a fine companion piece to the Soviet original. But by the same token, this Solaris, despite its American origins, does not pander to the 12-year old mentality of many genre fans. There are no laser swords, no space battles, no hideous transformations, and most importantly, no answers. This is not a Lucas or Spielberg film, an episode of Star Trek, or any other movie that aims merely to entertain. Instead, it is a studied and determined look in the mirror, at the enigma that is humanity. Those willing to take the ride with Soderbergh and producer James Cameron will love the film for the questions it raises. Those who want drooling aliens, clone warriors, a roller coaster ride, and everything wrapped up in a tidy little package will be sorely disappointed. Be warned, genre geeks, there are no action scenes in this film; no "scary" monsters or traditional thrills.

On the surface, the Soderbergh remake of Solaris is faithful to the source material. A psychiatrist named Kelvin (George Clooney) visits a space station around a mysterious planet, Solaris. There, the crew of the station has been witnessing strange manifestations, "visitors" created by Solaris that have something to do with their own individual histories. After Kelvin sleeps on the Prometheus Station for the first time, he awakens to learn that his visitor is his dead wife (Natasha McElhone), a woman that committed suicide on Earth. She does not understand who she is, how she got there, or why she exists, but she seems to have some memories of her life with Kelvin, or more accurately, his memories of her.

For Kelvin, this reunion represents a once in a lifetime chance to undo the mistakes of his past. He falls in love with his wife all over again, and will do anything to preserve her, even though another scientist aboard the station, a combative woman named Gordon, believes that the visitors are evil inhuman monsters sent to the station by Solaris to destroy humanity. So, Kelvin must make a choice—a decision on how to view reality and the unusual "gift" from Solaris.

That's it. No explosions or space fireworks. No amazing special effects. And most importantly, no pat solutions. What does Solaris want? Why does the planet create these visitors and send them to the station? The film raises this question, but hints that there are "no answers," only decisions. Accordingly, much of the movie concerns the fragile equation of identity. If Kelvin's wife is merely a reflection of his memories, can she ever be a complete person? And what if Kelvin remembers her incorrectly? The visitor is suicidal, she informs her lover, because Kelvin remembers her that way. In other words, no human can really "know" another; we merely make assumptions based on outward appearances. And, is this true even of the ones we love? Perhaps it is the truest statement about humanity that we are forever alone, prisoners in our individual shells, trapped by our own perceptions. That is one reading of Solaris, no doubt.

And what of Solaris itself? Is the planet a living entity with its spider-web lines of energy meeting and spinning in a hazy magenta and azure atmosphere? Is it merely a mirror? A place where physics operate differently and memories are made flesh? The remake wisely retains a line from the original movie, that man doesn't explore other worlds in order to discover new things, but to gaze in a mirror and see himself. Ironically, that is exactly what happens in orbit around Solaris, and yet mankind is not equipped to really gaze in the mirror. He finds it troubling, confusing, and even frightening. What is worse than facing our own limitations? Our own misperceptions? What would life be like if our guilt, our shame, and sadness were given tangible form? Solaris suggest one possibility.

Any film that raises and explores such questions is, first of all, extremely daring in today's Hollywood. Let's face it, science fiction movies are usually all razzle-dazzle with very little thought or intelligence in the mix. Attack of the Clones was about politics inside a world of action-spectacle. The new Planet of the Apes eschewed philosophy and any larger meaning and focused on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style special effects. Even Minority Report—a brilliant film—couched its meaning inside a film noir format and action context. Solaris will confound so many because it focuses squarely on its themes and ideas, not on a palatable entertainment framework or narrative structure. It is the personal story of a man confronted with a mystery, one that shakes him to his core and forces to him to reevaluate his life and very existence. Science fiction aficionados should be applauding this film for proving that producers don't need monsters and special effects to tell a good story, but instead they seem hell bent on bashing the film for failing to meet their needs. They are faced with Solaris the film, and like the scientist Gordon, can see only that it doesn't meet expectations.

A comparison between Soderbergh's version and Tarkovsky's is, ultimately, not very enlightening. The Russian film is more confounding. It is slow and deliberate, but mind-blowing and profound. It focuses more on the mystery of Solaris, and less on the people who explore that mystery. Soderbergh has streamlined the material and made it more personal, while still fostering the same sense of awe and mystery. They are two different films, separate but in many ways equal. I appreciate Soderbergh's version because it reaches for the heart as much as the head; Tarkovsky's because it is an ambitious, philosophical treatise about metaphysics. Take your pick, but both are great films.

Perhaps Solaris is the ultimate psychological test, the Rorschach for our souls. Audiences will see in this film only what they are willing to bring to it. For those with imaginations limited to fisticuffs, space battles, and superheroes, Solaris may reflect only their personal emptiness. For those with a healthy intellect and curiosity, however, Solaris artfully mirrors the breadth of new human horizons and our longing to understand more about ourselves.