(Steven Soderbergh, USA , 2002)


In Steven Soderbergh’s version of Stanislaw Lem’s classic science fiction novel Solaris, space travel scarcely figures. Virtually in the blink of an eye, Chris (George Clooney) has been transported from the melancholy world of his psychiatric practice to the even more troubled station of Prometheus, where the few remaining scientists struggle with inexplicable demons.


Solaris is better known to many, of course, as a 1972 film by the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky. But it is a tribute to Soderbergh’s achievement that, while watching his rendition of the story, I never once made the mental comparison with Tarkovsky. This Solaris, fundamentally different in so many respects to Tarkovsky’s, stands up on its own.


Soderbergh is interested neither in the epic sweep of most screen science fiction nor Tarkovsky’s preferred mystical themes. His film is about subtle disturbances of reality which lead to a confrontation with the absolute strangeness of both Self and Other. In its intensity and focus, it is by far the best movie Soderbergh has signed since King of the Hill (1993).


Dropping Lem’s and Tarkovsky’s investigation of the hero’s past family life, Soderbergh reworks the bare plot material of the story into a spooky and enthralling investigation of the nature of romantic love, at times reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Once Chris has fallen under the psychic spell emanating from the planet Solaris, he finds his wife, Rheya (Nastascha McElhone), resurrected before him.


On earth some years before, Rheya had committed suicide after a severe bout of depression. Soderbergh takes the risk of evoking, in concentrated flashbacks, the dramatic arc of their relationship, from early bliss to late malaise. What the film lacks in conventional, psychological depth it makes up for in mood and suggestiveness.


On Prometheus, Soderbergh takes a boldly minimal approach to the story. There are only two other characters, the spaced-out Snow (Jeremy Davies) – who begins virtually every mumbled comment with either “the thing is … “ or “uh, about that …” and the rather more paranoid Gordon (Viola Davis). We never see the beings-from-the-psyche with which they have struggled. There is a Gothic, behind-closed-doors aspect to this tale which is used very effectively.


In fact, the story of Solaris is something of a throwback to the snake-pit movies of the Hollywood ‘40s, where mentally ill people wandered the corridors of institutions, hallucinating. As in the most remarkable film in this genre, Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), Soderbergh explores the state of madness sympathetically, as the very definition of love, and as a giddy dispossession of the self.


Solaris systematically and stealthily blurs the dividing lines between past and present, rationality and irrationality, flesh-and-blood reality and psychic fantasy. Although Gordon briefly conjures the fear at the heart of much science fiction – will They take over the human race? – Chris, and through him Soderbergh, is much more interested in being immersed in this borderless realm of experience.


No one in this film is especially real. The character of Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who sets off the narrative, is present only as a figure on a computer screen. In an especially brilliant touch, Soderbergh and his sound team record and mix Clooney’s deep, quiet voice in such a way that it never seems to belong to his body, but floats instead in and between scenes. Clooney finds a way to invest this highly immaterial character with an enormous range of feeling.


The craft that has gone into this movie is astonishing, and mercifully a universe away from the hit-it-and-run experimentation of Soderbergh’s previous Full Frontal (2002). The finesse of Solaris is evident in its pared-down set design, its carefully controlled colour palette, and in the selective use of Cliff Martinez’s mesmerising score: about twenty minutes of the story go by before we hear its first note.


There are a few moments in Solaris when Soderbergh seems to be indulging in flashy, Mulholland Drive-style games of alternate universes and the like. But for the most part, the film protects its deepest mysteries. On a second viewing it grows richer, and details that may irk the first time through (such as Snow’s behaviour) become a meaningful part of the whole.


For all the sadness and occasional terror it generates, this Solaris ultimately offers a contemplative beauty, and even a kind of euphoria. In its fix on the intimate saga of a couple, and in its oscillation between dark fatalism and dreams of redemption, it reminded me of that unsung masterpiece of contemporary science fiction, Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983).


It is to Trumbull’s film, rather than Tarkovsky or Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), that we should turn to understand Solaris since both are, in inspired ways, dramas of remarriage and second chances.

MORE Soderbergh: Erin Brockovich, The Limey, Ocean's Eleven, Fallen Angels, The Underneath, Traffic, The Knick

© Adrian Martin February 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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