Ah, Solaris. What a twisted, tangled relationship we have endured for over ten years now. And yet, I keep returning to this mysterious, melancholy story whether I want to or not. It has some sort of indefinable, unsettling power all of its own, one as sinister as the eponymous planet’s influence on the doomed characters. And like those lonely, frightened astronauts, I too have no idea why or how the story unfolds as it does; I only know that I’m on this ride until the bitter end – and now you’re coming along with me. So, let’s begin.

When I first saw this film, I was totally unprepared for it. A meandering art-house think-piece about the nature of life, love, and lunar insanity was perhaps a little out of my depth. For the next decade, I’d have argued that Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 version of Solaris was not only the worst film I had ever seen, but the worst film ever made. But over the last few years, I bore witness to so many awful films that Solaris seemed like Citizen Kane in comparison. And after the previous adaptations of Stanislaw Lem’s seminal sci-fi novel left me feeling cold and confused, I decided to give Clooney’s clunker another go.

The premis: A widowed psychologist with a penchant for pensive platitudes (George Clooney), is deployed to a creepy space station orbiting the recently-discovered and mysterious planet Solaris, as per the (last) request of his dearly departed scientist BFF (Ulrich Tukur). When he arrives, Clooney discovers that most of the crew have gone insane and died, leaving only two inhabitants: the strong and sorrowful Gordon (Viola Davis) and the twitchy offbeat Snow (Jeremy Davies). They warn Clooney that everyone who comes to the station begins to see phantoms from their lives on earth, phantoms that appear to be human but are anything but. Just like any other cinematic psychologist, he’s sceptical – until he is visited by the phantom of his late wife (Natascha McEllhorne).

On first viewing it all seemed a bit artsy and mopey and complex. But now that I have seen it again, ten years older and more cynical than ever, I have to confess how much I enjoyed it. It’s not a favourite but now I can appreciate a lot about it. I was never a Clooney fan – until 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox – but now I can now look into Clooney’s ‘dreamy’ eyes without rolling my own.

In many ways, Soderbergh’s 2002 film surpasses the original. Is that cinematic sacrilege? I wouldn’t say so: why would anyone bother to craft or watch a remake if not to seek a better film? Here are some personal highlights:

  • Cliff Martinez’s score is incredible, adding a rich texture that is at once familiar and futuristic, calming and unnerving, that tells a story all of its own. Could it be the titular planet communicating with us…?
  • It is much shorter and more compact than its two predecessors, less fuzzy around the edges and better for it. I’m no stranger to long films – we’re talking regular 12-hour Lord of the Rings marathons, here – but I think a film really has to earn its extended running time. But Solaris’ shorter length streamlines a story that can – and has – easily run away with itself. The original comprised three hours of a man wandering around a space station, talking to other men, and then, some time later, talking to a woman. Then it ended.
  • This adaptation is more psychological drama in nature than straight-up sci-fi. The sci-fi elements are merely extra layers that enhance the feeling of loneliness, separation and isolation that the film plays on – a sort of twisted Alien along the lines of ‘in space, no-one can hear you cry’.
  • Another element of Soderbergh’s film which improves upon the original is the love story. You get a real sense that Clooney and McEllhorne care deeply about one another, both from their intergalactic interactions and flashbacks to their life on Earth. I particularly loved the contrast between the warm, golden earth-bound flashbacks and the cold, monochrome space scenes. Here, the romance is used as a vehicle to showcase the novel’s aforementioned themes of isolation/ loss / loneliness. Alright, so the novel’s overarching theme of the hopelessness and inadequacy of contact between humans and extra-terrestrials is soundly ignored, but the romance act as a microcosm for the inadequacy of communication between anyone, whether they be human or extra-terrestrial.
  • The poem ‘And death shall have no dominion’ by Dylan Thomas serves as a recurring motif and metaphor (the plot’s in there somewhere, if you squint):

‘And death shall have no dominion.

Dead man naked they shall be one

With the man in the wind and the west moon;

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.’

  • Overall, this adaptation’s saving grace is the atmosphere it masterfully creates – with its endless grey corridors, clinical lighting, and persistent shots of the titular mystical planet, eerie and ethereal and unnerving to the max. This celestial body looks far more malevolent than the enigmatic orb of the original; this Solaris looks like it’s out to slowly and silently create havoc. It has the kind of disturbing, foreshadowing effectiveness that is evoked by the haunting presence of the glade in Carol Morley’s lyrical 2014 film ‘The Falling’. Solaris as antagonist adds menace that neither early adaptation dreamt of, but does somewhat lose sight of the novel’s plan for its eponymous planet: to speculate on what the form and feel of a truly alien life-form could be like.

This isn’t enough to sand off Solaris’ rough edges, however. The characters are, thankfully, few in number, but they still manage to be frustrating and a little grating at times. Much of their dialogue sounds unrealistic or, forgive the pun, spaced-out. And though Viola Davis embodies the downbeat maudlin character of Dr Sartorius, Jeremy Davies doesn’t fare nearly as well. I get it; it was the early noughties, stoner culture loomed large on the big screen in films like ‘The Big Lewbowski’ and ‘Dude, Where’s Mr Car?’ – Snow embodies the role of these stoner prophets, but that’s dated now. We like our junkies to be more jolly these days (see: almost every film starring Seth Rogen et al.) Snow’s predecessor, Dr Snaut, is dearly missed – in Tarkovsky’s 1972 version, Snaut is the kind of person you’d choose to represent humanity in an extra-terrestrial encounter. Part scientist, part philosopher, Snaut was the voice of reason and his film’s beating heart. ‘We don’t want to conquer space at all’, Snaut said. ‘We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want. Man needs man!’

This is something that Soderbergh’s version desperately lacks: a beautifully worded script. Clooney’s Dr Kelvin has nothing to say that even compares to his Tarkovsky counterpart: ‘You love that which you can lose, yourself, a woman, a country’ and ‘whenever we show pity, we empty our souls’. Even Viola Davis’ Tarkovsky equivalent, Dr Sartorius, gets a moment to shine: ‘Man was created by Nature in order to explore it. As he approaches Truth he is fated to Knowledge. All the rest is BS’. Although there is an unsettling scene in the 2002 version which comes close to these linguistic heights: when Clooney speaks to a phantom of his scientist friend, he calls him a puppet, to which the latter responds: ‘Maybe you’re my puppet. But like all puppets you think you’re actually human. It’s the puppets dream, being human.’

And, most egregiously of all, the 2002 version boasts one of the most conceited and just plain exasperating endings to a film I have ever seen. (Spoilers ahead). The conversation goes thusly: Clooney cuts himself in the kitchen and the wound miraculously heals; he sees his wife and asks her ‘am I alive, or dead?’ She smiles and replies ‘We don’t have to think like that anymore – we’re together now’. The end. I can’t express the anguish this scene has caused me over the years, not to mention the questions it raises. Is he dead? Or dreaming? Or a replica of himself? Did Solaris save him, or doom him to a synthetic, purgatorial existence?

To conclude, therefore, Soderbergh’s Solaris was a film that I should have given more credit to. However, although the claustrophobic, isolated feel of the film clearly influenced subsequent productions, I feel that Solaris has been outstripped and outdone by a number of efforts since it came out, especially Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’ and, my personal favourite, Duncan Jones’ ‘Moon’. Both of these films deal with the impact of humanity even in the vast, lonely swathes of space. Many problems remain: overly artsy moments (it shouldn’t take ten minutes and a voice-over for two people to hold hands in a lift, should it?), the mumblecore line delivery, and the tendency of the film to lose itself in its own melancholy. And yet, despite all these problems, I am intrigued enough by the story to return to it time and again, even when it confuses and frightens and irritates me, I always want to explore the mysteries of this tale as eagerly as the ill-fated astronauts exploring the eponymous Solaris. Perhaps that is the message of the film: the never-ending curiosity of humanity to search for truth and knowledge even when it evades (and enrages) us.

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4 thoughts on “Desperately Seeking Solaris

  1. The Snaut quotation beginning “We don’t want…” is interesting to juxtapose with Descent into Hell and your post on it!

    Thanks for this – I always – what would be a more adequate word than ‘enjoy’? – Tarkovsky, though having looked forward to Solaris (as science fiction as well as Tarkovsky), I don’t remember it (!) – maybe I understood it as little as I did 2001 A Space Odyssey (yet I do remember that, and probably would without having run into an explanation subsequently)… Anyway, ‘loving’ (not much better a word) Tarkovsky films perplexedly, and not expecting much of Messrs. Soderbergh or Clooney, I had no interest in trying this remake. Now, though, hmm…

    Your plural surprised me – I didn’t know this was the third version, or that Lem was involved with the first two. Going to IMDB, I find Steve Shelokonov writing, “Lem spent six months working with Tarkovsky in Moscow, but their collaboration ended in a bitter conflict over the changes and additions to the original story. […] ‘Tarkovsky was a genius, but he was moving in the opposite direction from my book’, also said Lem. Upon his doctor’s advice Lem did not want to see the 2002 remake by director Steven Soderbergh” – !

    Have you read the original novel? Peculiarly, I am attracted to trying Lem,but shy away when it comes to the point. Now, though, again… hmm…

    Something relevantly or not which came to mind reading this post and things at IMDB was comparing Solaris, the planet(ary entity), with a dragon – and particularly Grendal’s encounter with the one in John Gardner’s novel of that name.

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  2. Thanks as always for your insight, David! You’re quite right about that quote, I’m going to have to think about cross-referencing my blog posts…

    Goodness, if Lem didn’t take to Tarkovsky’s version I dread to think how he would have reacted to Soderbergh’s! I still feel there isn’t a single adaptation that has quite done the theme of the book justice, i.e. exploring contact between humans and extraterrestrials etc. though the film ‘Arrival’ may do just that…

    And I have to confess I haven’t read the book, but I would love to do so in future – perhaps a follow-up post is in the works (once I have written my Descent into Hell sequel…!), as well as Grendal, now that you mention it. Perhaps now that we have forgotten our fears of earthbound beasties, the ‘dragons as danger’ has been replaced with the threat of mysterious celestial entities – I know for me, personally, thoughts of space and the great vast unknown have terrified me far more than any corporeal antagonist (and for which, as for so many things, I blame 2001: A Space Odyssey…)

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