Solaris (2002)

2009 #13
Steven Soderbergh | 94 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

SolarisWhen Andrei Tarkovsky adapted Stanislaw Lem’s thoughtful science fiction novel in 1972, it took 165 minutes. When Steven Soderbergh did it 30 years later, it took just over 90. Lem hated them both, stating that he didn’t write about people’s “erotic problems in space”, but for those concerned with what the film is about rather than what it (perhaps) should have been about, it seems that an abbreviated running time is no barrier to loading any adaptation of Solaris with a weighty thoughtfulness.

Everyone knows Solaris is a sci-fi film — the title sounds that way, for one thing, and George Clooney in a space helmet on the cover certainly does the rest. It’s a shame that’s so well known, because if one came to this version cold it would take a good few minutes before there was any inkling it wasn’t just a drama. The underplaying of the scientific elements may have angered Lem, but Soderbergh uses them to create a backdrop to the emotional story he wants to tell — Solaris the sentient planet was the point of the novel, as far as Lem was concerned, whereas to Soderbergh it’s a device to explore relationships and grief.

In doing this the film merrily mixes genres: it looks very much like it’s Science Fiction, all futuristic TVs and space station settings, and there are a few scientific concepts touched on; but it’s also a Romance, occasionally; and a Drama about coping with death, amongst other things; and an ‘arthouse’ film about notions of God and memory and reality and humanity; and there’s a huge chunk of Mystery in what the hell is going on; and there are a couple of moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a Horror film… About the only conventions Soderbergh doesn’t bother with belong to Action-Adventure, which as the normal stomping ground of big-name sci-fi certainly makes for a change.

It’s likely this that explains its low rating on IMDb and the like. A slow pace and obtuse storytelling that leaves plenty of gaps for the audience to fill is not the experience implied by an advertising campaign showing a Space Movie starring Movie Star Heartthrob George Clooney. Obviously it doesn’t fulfill these expectations, and will likely have still been too slow and difficult for even more viewers. (As it makes for a slow hour-and-a-half, I wonder how they would feel if told there’s a version over an hour longer.) The question is, does it also deserve such a low rating from those ‘clever’ or accepting enough to ‘get’ it? That depends on your perspective. It’s either Deep and Meaningful, or a bit Pretentious and Pointless. In this respect it’s highly reminiscent of The Fountain (or, rather, The Fountain is reminiscent of Solaris) — an unusual sci-fi/romance angle, slow pace, and ambiguous to the last. As one character says, “there are no answers, only choices.”

Soderbergh’s direction, plus the performances of Clooney and Natasha McElhone on which the film relies, do have the power to hold you, but only if you’re prepared for — and, more importantly, open to — the sort of experience Solaris offers. Undoubtedly not for everyone.

4 out of 5

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