Steven Soderbergh: Solaris (2002) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Steven Soderbergh: Solaris (2002)

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We had so much fun watching Andrei Tarkovsky's take on Stanislaw Lem's Solaris last week that we're revisiting the story through Steven Soderbergh's lens.  The normal Tarkovsky feature will return next week.

Clooney entrancedAndrewCommentaryBannerShortI've rarely had the opportunity to watch a remake so soon after the original, but the very idea is going to be a bit tied up with Steven Soderbergh's take on Solaris.  After all, Tarkovsky's version first came to theaters four years after another adaptation directed for television by Boris Nirenburg and Lidiya Ishimbayeva.  Soderbergh said that he was not remaking Tarkovsky's film, but instead giving a new spin on the novel.  But there are long passages of Soderbergh's version, especially in the first act, that feel as though they are in the same spirit of Tarkovsky's.

One clear distinction made as the film progresses is that Tarkovsky treated Solaris like a prayer for forgiveness finally answered, and Soderbergh's is like hearing a lover's sigh again long after you thought they were gone.  The most striking difference, and the one that establishes the more romantic sensibilities of Soderbergh's version, is in the color palette.  The space station is not the organic fusion it once was, and is now hovering over a planet whose ocean is a constantly fluctuating mass of light purples and blues.  This makes the frequent transition to Dr. Kelvin and Rheya's courtship smoother, and hints at the romantic connection Dr. Kelvin is forming with the apparition.

Which brings me to the part of Soderbergh's Solaris that I respect, but I still feel pales in comparison to Tarkovsky's, and even to Soderbergh's own career.  This version spends a significant chunk of its run-time on how Dr. Kelvin and Rheya met, courted, and how Rheya is driven to suicide by Dr. Kelvin's precisely calculated coldness delivered at the wrong moment.  Their relationship is never presented as a meeting of the minds, but as more of a physical bond between the two of them that is so powerful that he mistakes it as destiny.  Had Soderbergh explored this a bit more, then those final moments could have been more than two lovers reunited at last.  Instead we're treated to the same kind of cinematic seduction that worked so well in Out of Sight, with its slightly disconnected timeline of flirtation and narration at different moments culminating in a melding of the bodies.

But this is Soderbergh, so the seductive technique, even if you've previously been exposed to it, is mighty powerful.  This is not a film concerned with philosophy, for all the talk that it gets, and instead just another tale of love rediscovered.  It's still well worth watching, especially for Jeremy Davies' clicking, confused, and altogether brilliant performance that improves upon repeated viewings.  Viola Davis, who I absolutely adore, is similarly excellent here as the sole voice of reason on the craft.

I know you're a big fan of Davies, and we're both huge fans of Soderbergh, so how did this version sit with you?PainedKyle Commentary BannerI was surprised at how different I felt the two versions were despite noticing, as you mentioned, passages that seemed almost slavishly tied to Tarkovsky's film. The main thing that stands out about Soderbergh's version is that the entire film feels caught mid-dream. As it opens, the Clooney character is walking through his life in a trance, and this subdued, almost drugged feeling continues even after he makes it to Solaris, with subtle shifts in mood. Tarkovsky's film was similarly slowly paced, but still always seemed rooted firmly in reality — for all its philosophy and spirituality, we experience the story on a literal level.

Soderbergh decisively strays from this, creating a film that moves almost by free association between memories (which you mentioned, and I want to get to in a minute), dreams (possibly?), and the present. The ending even relies to an extent on our inability, based on the formal technique and structure, to differentiate between time and place. The dreamlike approach makes every confrontation a little suspicious—we're never sure if what we're seeing is real, or everyone is as (and who) they say they are. Tarkovsky presented the “guests” (called “visitors” here) as irrefutably real from the start—something that had no other option but than to be contended with. But with this version we're not so sure at first. Thanks to the hypnotic tone, what we're seeing could always just as easily be a hallucination or a dream. Even the dialogue is a calculated type of surreal, with characters speaking more directly to vague philosophical ideas or feelings than seems natural.

Then there are the flashbacks. This is perhaps the most important difference for me, as they place the emphasis firmly on Kelvin's obsession with the past. Tarkovsky gave us enough to know what had happened between him and his wife so that we could focus on their interactions in the present, but Soderbergh turns the character into a man crippled with grief and held hostage by his own memories—and this turns his reaction to the Rhea “visitor” into one not of self-conscious forgiveness, but of desperation. He knows that his visitor is not real, but if it will allow him to embrace the illusion that he can get a “second chance,” he doesn't care.

One last difference is how Soderbergh lends a bit stronger point of view to the visitors themselves. In a scene that almost violates the logic of the film, Rhea “remembers” the events leading up to her suicide. This pushes the audience to empathize with her more as a human character and makes her situation substantially more tragic than in Tarkovsky's version, where the she garners empathy but is still held at a distance as a foreign being. Davies' performance fits perfectly into this careful balancing act of Soderbergh's to question whether and why it matters if a person is “human” or vice-versa. When a crucial fact about his character is revealed it makes perfect sense—he's like a computer program that just became self-aware.

Ultimately this version is more mournful and heavy than Tarkovsky's. The final scene, while its implications are the same, is sadder in how it implies one's preference for a comforting illusion over an objective fact of reality. Tarkovsky embraces the visitors' appearances as a method for the characters to deal with feelings in what is almost an advanced instance of role-playing. Soderbergh sees them as a merciful option to surrender to. Both make poignant and lasting impressions.

*As a note, filmmakers should stop using voiceovers. Almost always. Please.Reason

Question time!

Tiny Andrew CommentaryI'm tired of people talking about how remakes are somehow the sign that the creative apocalypse is upon us.  Remakes and new adaptations of popular books have been around as long as there have been movies to film, and yet it's this set of adaptations that's finally going to do us in.  Now, I admit that redoing a whole franchise when it's barely cold in the ground is pushing it, but not exactly what I'm talking about when it comes to remakes, which for our purposes I'll define as a movie that explicitly states it is redoing an older film.  So what is it that makes a good remake work instead of feeling tired?

I'd like to offer up one of my favorite remakes for this question, Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, which is so good that I prefer it to the original, Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur.  A great remake is still very much a product of its time instead of trying to pay too much lip service to the original.  That's why Nick Nolte's casting is so brilliant, because the way he portrays this gruff American failure immediately makes him a somewhat unwanted, but cutely wounded, expatriate of sorts in France, which isn't too far off to how foreign relations were at the time of The Good Thief's release.  A great remake doesn't entirely forget the original either, which is actually brilliantly engrained into the plotting of The Good Thief as it has a lot to do with the value of an original work of art if you can get a perfect copy of it.

So, to make things simple, a good remake is a film that is still a product of its time and creators that is not too in debt to the original, but keeps the spirit of the first in some way.  A remake that fails in this regard, and is also by the original director, is George Sluzier's The Vanishing.  The American remake loses that touch of nihilism that punctuated the end of the original Spoorloos so deliciously.  So it's very much a products of American culture at the time, but loses its courage when it comes to keeping the spirit.  There are remakes that don't quite follow that general outline, but they all seem to have an exception.  For this I think of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, which started off as a sort of intellectual exercise in torture for the audience, and becomes a meta-sadism when the entire thing is repeated shot for shot in English.SearchingTiny Kyle CommentaryWhen it comes to a good remake vs. a lazy cash-in on someone else's idea, it has to come down to whether there's anything new to say with the same story. Something I hate, and which I know we're both curious about when it comes to an upcoming remake, is when a successful foreign film is remade, often within only a few years, for U.S. audiences simply because it will be easier to reach a wider audience. If you can't bring yourself to read subtitles for 2 whole hours, you don't deserve to see good movies. I know we're both interested to see what Spike Lee does with his Oldboy remake, and hopefully it will take something minor or unexplored in the original and expand on that and not simply reshooting the same basic scenes with Josh Brolin and an Olsen offspring.

There are also cases like The Departed, which in many parts is identical to Infernal Affairs, but transposes the story into a totally different world with a very different set of values, and in doing so creates an almost totally new experience. Another tremendous remake that's better than the original is John Carpenter's The Thing. Horror movies are possibly the worst offenders when it comes to recycling the same story and concepts for no reason other than to wring more money out of something, but Carpenter took a basic idea and used it to represent (horrifyingly) contemporary political tensions.

Even a movie like Scarface, which I deeply, truly, whole-heartedly hate on a total and holistic level, can't be charged with lack of vision or originality despite technically being a “remake.” Often the term seems bandied around when the marketers think that positioning a movie as an “updating” or “modern retelling” will help elicit more curiosity from moviegoers. In the case of the best ones, the existence of an “original” becomes only relevant on an academic level.

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Next week, we return to Tarkovsky with The Mirror.

Tarkovsky with text

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Haven’t seen this one in quite some time, but I remember it very distinctly being good. I saw it in the middle of the day though, so I don’t know how much of it I actually was able to “take in”, but I think a re-watch will be done soon. Good stuff!

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