Cirque du Solaris

Slow, heady, picturesque and almost universally revered, the 1972 "Solaris" is hardly a film that cries out for a do-over. In adapting a science-fiction novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky probed the limits of his creative imagination to produce a quasi- futuristic character drama. Nominally a moralistic critique of space exploration (then a going concern), the picture had wider metaphysical ramifications that make it just as challenging and rewarding to watch three decades later.

The version arriving in theaters for Christmas 2002 -- co-produced by James Cameron, directed and written by Steven Soderbergh, and budgeted at a cost many times that of the original -- is being pushed not as a remake, but as the second filmed version of Lem's book. That's a tough argument to swallow, depending as it does on the curious idea that studios have Lem translations at the top of their holiday to-do lists. Better to believe the gun-shy PR assurances that the movie is first and foremost a love story, which it surely and regretfully is. But Tarkovsky's take on the material was so much more.

In the third of his seven features, the late Russian master -- hailed by no less a peer than Ingmar Bergman as "the greatest of them all" -- takes his spiritual predilections to the cosmos. The film views infinity through the eyes of psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a brooding widower who is dispatched to a space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris. It's Kelvin's task to determine why the station's program of planetary study has all but collapsed, with its crew winnowed down to three and its findings so bizarre as to be worthless. Upon arrival, Kelvin finds one of the scientists dead and the others in a state of high anxiety. He begins to understand why when the station welcomes a new visitor: an alien presence that looks and sounds exactly like Kelvin's dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk, still a teen-ager at the time of filming). Solaris, it appears, is a sentient entity that's able to pluck key figures from within its guests' consciences -- a phenomenon that becomes the springboard for an extended discourse on mortality, morality and the true nature of man.

Tarkovsky had seen "2001: A Space Odyssey," and he was determined to avoid what he considered its sacrifice of human concerns to technological wonder. Soderbergh's new "Solaris" makes winking reference to this history via a close-up of astronaut Kelvin (George Clooney), whose helmet reflects light into the camera like Keir Dullea's in the final reel of Kubrick's film. Far from inviting comparison to "2001," Soderbergh's "Solaris" instead comes perilously close to being this year's Vanilla Sky: a marginal romance with a forced sense of the fantastical.

The analogy would be airtight were Soderbergh to have preserved the 169-minute running time of Tarkovsky's original. Instead, his version clocks in at a meager 90 minutes, far too little time to foster the dreamy surreality that so effectively circumvented the occasional illogic of Tarkovsky's narrative. Though Clooney's character (now known as "Chris" Kelvin) is initially and understandably afraid of his re-created spouse (Natascha McElhone), he comes to accept and even love her in what seems like minutes. This roller coaster of a character arc short-circuits our empathy and stymies Clooney's efforts to assemble a credible performance. (As a consolation prize, Soderbergh gifts us with a full two shots of his star's butt.)

The action (if one can call it that) of the new "Solaris" alternates between the happenings on the space station -- where Kelvin and the surviving scientists are trying to come to terms with the regenerative abilities of the planet -- and flashbacks to the earthbound, ill-fated relationship between Kelvin and his ex (referred to in this incarnation as "Rheya"; guess no one was thrilled with the prospect of having Clooney go wild about Hari). This on-again, off-again structure decimates the movie's dramatic flow. Imagine trying to watch a better-than-average movie on the Sci-Fi Channel while being interrupted at regular intervals by transmissions from Planet Michelle Pfeiffer.

The movie's real strengths can be counted on one hand. McElhone is positively radiant, rescued from her recent Z-picture hell (remember fear dot com?) by the loving cinematography of Peter Andrews. Her every look and gesture make it undeniably clear why a man like Kelvin would obsess over her, though there's also ironic fun in realizing that the camera is fetishizing Rheya as completely as is Kelvin's memory. Jeremy Davies is a hoot as Snow, a scientist with a distinctly laid-back approach toward extraterrestrial calamity. And in rare instances, Soderbergh (who also wrote this adaptation) hits on satirical possibilities even Tarkovsky left untouched. The mission to Solaris, we learn, has overtones of economic development, which suggests that the "true nature of man" is exploitation.

Rather than follow through on such conceits, though, Soderbergh merely pays them lip service. A few philosophical monologues are clumsily appropriated from the source material while the flashback story sinks further into the kind of overheated, neo-Californian cinematic couples' counseling that customarily clogs up the multiplexes at year's end. By the time the frankly uninteresting story of Kelvin and Rheya has reached its woefully tidy conclusion, we find ourselves wishing that the remake had been put in even lesser hands. Seeing "Solaris" gutted by an action hack like the latter-day John Carpenter would be strangely preferable to the indignities done to it by middleweight Soderbergh, who shows that he knows exactly which issues he should be addressing, then plows right ahead with his own hopelessly shallow focus anyway.

There's nothing shallow about The Criterion Collection's new two-DVD edition of the real "Solaris," which teams a predictably lovely digital transfer with some extra features that offer invaluable insight into Tarkovsky's life and work. In a videotaped interview, star Bondarchuk waxes nostalgic about the making of "Solaris" (she modeled her portrayal of the innocent Hari, she says, on the character of the Little Mermaid), and sit-downs with Tarkovsky's technical collaborators reveal how he realized his vision on a shoestring budget and despite the interference of Soviet censors. There are also deleted and/or alternate scenes, as well as a terrific commentary track by scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie -- one of those rare voice-overs that actually concerns itself with what a movie has to say. Johnson offers this salient quote from Tarkovsky himself:

"An artist who doesn't try to seek out absolute truth, who ignores universal goals for the sake of accidentals, can only be a time-server."

Devote a day to the absolute truths of the DVD, and you'll have no need to serve time in space with Soderbergh.

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