December 3, 2002

Solaris returns, Hollywood suits rework the metaphysics


Directed by Steven Soderbergh

20th Century Fox, 99 minutes

Stanislaw Lem's Solaris raises metaphysical problems that may not, on reflection, actually be problems. To be sure, there are instances of consciousness and existence that fall outside our traditional conceptions, but whether a reader of the book-or a viewer of one of the two movie adaptations-needs to be concerned that we don't adequately understand the basis of our own existence or the nature of consciousness because of those instances, is not, I think, a conclusion that the story demands. We're given, in essence, a thought experiment without a goal, and so pondering whether it even merits discussion is half of the fun, leaving aside whatever discussion might ensue if we decide that Solaris does indeed raise serious issues.

Steven Soderbergh's screenplay must have been aware of the story's limitations; hence the cries that by resolving some of the central riddles left tantalizingly unexplored by Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 adaptation of Lem's science-fiction novel, he has ruined large parts of the story. We learn, in the new version of Solaris, that the physical structure of the people who are resurrected by the planet Solaris from the memories of an observing space station crew is molecularly very different from that of actual human beings. Nor do the resurrected visitors possess fully formed personalities, but rather the projection of someone else's selective memories. Finally, when presented with the information about their own origins, they recognize that their existence is something of a sham. The old doppelganger conundrum is eliminated before it can germinate in the minds of the audience; what we're left with instead are vague questions about forgiveness. We're dealing here with a story that's been done before, and done well--however, that may not be such a bad thing.

The story of Solaris should be familiar to viewers of its Russian adaptation, or to readers of the Lem novel: the chief of a space station orbiting the planet Solaris sends a video message to Earth which cryptically alludes to the psychological breakdown of the crew. A psychiatrist (George Clooney) is sent to the space station. Nominally, he is there to protect the mental health of the remaining crew; his real task is to decide upon the future of the mission. He arrives to find that the chief of the station has committed suicide, that one of the scientists on board (Viola Davis) refuses to leave her room, and that another scientist (Jeremy Davies) seems to have gone insane from a lack of social interaction. What's most surprising, however, is that the psychiatrist awakens after his first night on the station to find that his wife (Natascha McElhone), who had committed suicide some years before, has somehow come back to life.

Of course, as the movie makes abundantly clear, his wife hasn't really come back to life. His visitor, in fact, is only a representation of certain memories that he has about his wife. She is depressed and suicidal because, as she reminds him at one point, that is how he remembers her. The screenplay doesn't seem to endorse the notion that the wife's quasi-human consciousness, extremely limited though it may be, creates any sort of metaphysical or ethical dilemma for the scientists on board the space station. The crew's visitors are a part of the planet, created by some sort of mischievous but benevolent force from the planet itself, and do not impose much, if anything, in the way of duties or obligations. Indeed, our psychiatrist only ponders going back to Earth with his visitor because he's desperate for a second chance, and because he needs some way to relieve the guilt he feels over her death. Naturally, this raises a few questions about how other people can forgive us, whether we can forgive ourselves, and whether it ultimately matters if we're forgiven at all. Such questions aren't at home in the science-fiction genre, but they're the questions that this Solaris wants to focus on.

Given that the Tarkovsky version is seen as something of a masterpiece, remaking this story must have been tricky. What makes it work is the clash of sensibilities. Tarkovsky loved to let the camera linger. His stories took place in something close to real time, and the audience was allowed to make choices about what they wanted to observe. Very little was dictated by the director himself. Soderbergh's great skill, on the other hand, is his ability to compress time. He makes sense here of events that took place years apart without the benefit of extra explanation or obvious cues. Soderbergh is also known for his desire to pare stories down, and tell a story as simply and directly as he can. The 90-minute running time of this movie is an obvious counterpoint to the 200-minute running time of Tarkovsky's adaptation (and, if you who thought the new version was slow, know that even less happens in the Russian film).

Though it makes a number of departures from Tarkovsky's original, however, the new Solaris isn't any weaker as a result. Indeed, there's something to be said for the efficiency with which it tells its story; and, for those who may be turned off by the overbearing ponderousness of the earlier version, it's a more palatable interpretation of the source material. Soderbergh's ambitions seem to run toward craftsmanship rather than art; this is the second movie this year that he's written and directed, but he seems willing to cut anything and everything that would make his movies unnecessarily long or convoluted. It's an unusual strength for a director, but it's Soderbergh's greatest strength, and it's on full display here.