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Solaris, written by Steven Soderbergh from the novel by Stanislaw Lem, directed by Steven Soderbergh, 2002, 100 min.

Solaris is a brave and flawed movie. It works better in retrospect than while actually onscreen, partially because it always has a sense of its own pace and what it wants to do. Looking back on the movie, itís easy to see the overall design of the movie and how each aspect is carefully set up to support the design. But certain of these smaller aspects of the movie donít work that well. In an odd way, the movie is less than the sum of its parts. I hasten to add that Soderbergh creates a worthwhile adaptation of Lemís famous novel; Iíll be talking about the differences between this movie, the novel, and the earlier Russian adaptation in a later section of the review. Suffice to say, Solaris is worth watching for any fan of science fiction, perhaps more so for those fans of written science fiction than the typical representations of science fiction onscreen.

Kelvin is a psychiatrist on Earth. Heís suffering from some psychological problems, some tragedy in his past perhaps, when he receives a message from a space station in orbit around the planet Solaris. The message beseeches him to come to the station; some kind of ongoing difficulty for those onboard seems to be the issue. The situation when he gets there is very strange: a young scientist named Snow seems to have gone off the rails mentally, and only other living crew member wonít come out of her quarters. The man who called him is dead. That night, Kelvin dreams of his dead wife Rheya, and the next morning, wakes up with her beside him in bed. After much mental anguish, Kelvin figures out what the other two crew members didnít want to tell him until he experienced it on his own: the planet Solaris reaches into the minds of those on the space station, creating a simulacra of someone in their lives based on memories. If the new person is destroyed, the planet tries again the next time you go to sleep. The movie becomes the story of Kelvinís relationship with Rheya, by way of flashbacks to their meeting and subsequent relationship, and the ongoing relationship between Kelvin and the Solaris-produced version of Rheya. Itís an interesting, melancholy mix, and the tone of the movie is perfectly suited to the material.

Solaris looks very impressive. Not in the typical explosions-and-spaceships school of special effects. The movie has the polished look of modern cinematography, everything lit perfectly; I found the use here refreshing, because most modern movies with such gorgeous light also happen to be edited by hyperactive monkeys. Solaris, edited by Soderbergh himself, takes a much different approach, and it understands pretty clearly when and why a scene needs to be lingered on. The movie also exhibits Soderberghís patented audio/video cross-cutting, demonstrated to such good use in movies like The Limey, so he can edit manically if it suits the scene. There arenít many special effects per se in Solaris; Kelvinís journey is skipped over almost completely (as happens in the Tarkovsky version), and the only major special effects scene is our view of the planet of Solaris itself. Hard to describe, that planet of Solaris; the team making this movie come pretty close to Lemís original vision, and the most interesting aspect is the way in which we understand the spell the planet can cast psychologically.

Soderberghís version is a pretty drastic surgery on the original. Lemís Kelvin goes away from the encounter with Solaris humiliated as a scientist but not destroyed. The Russian version directed by Tarkovsky captured this feel of the book but changed the ending, stranding Kelvin with no way out. Soderbergh jettisons a good deal of the discussion on the nature of rationality, the inevitability of anthropomorphism, and most of the Swiftian satire. Soderbergh takes the idea of a strange sort of first contact, but only insofar as it illuminates certain ambiguities about human relationships. Kelvin and Rheya... why did they go wrong? Will they use this second chance? What, if anything, will Kelvin learn about himself? All good questions, and all valid extrapolations from Lemís material. The tone of the movie is quite different than Lemís novel, but the work here by Soderbergh feels valid and fresh.

To close, I would like to say that the movie probably flopped for the reason that itís an unusual hybrid, aimed at a certain type of audience not often cultivated by Hollywood movies, particularly Hollywood action science fiction fare. Iím quite happy to recommend the movie to anyone who finds that description intriguing.


See my reviews of the original book by Lem and original movie adaptation directed by Tarkovsky.


Last modified: May 6, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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