Friday, November 03, 2017

Stanislaw Lem on Film: Solaris (2002)

Don’t call it a remake. Supposedly, Steven Soderbergh was reinterpreting Stanisław Lem’s source novel rather than fiddling with Tarkovsky’s classic. Okay, so where’s Dr. Sartorius and the study of Solaristics? Arguably, this is the least faithful of the three film adaptations, but it still shares thematic kinships with its predecessors. No matter what you call it, following in Tarkovsky’s footsteps is a perilous proposition, so you have to give Soderbergh credit for creating a distinctive Solaris (trailer here) of his own, which also screens during the Stanisław Lem on Film series at Anthology Film Archives.

This time around, the fact that Dr. Chris (no longer with a “K”) Kelvin is a psychologist who has been unable to process the guilt and grief stemming from his wife’s suicide takes on tremendous significance, quite logically enough. He is rather surprised when representatives of the DBA corporation (including a blurry John Cho, in the one sf role he is probably never asked about at cons) recruits him to assess the state of moral at the Solaris space station. It turns out, he was requested by his old friend Gibrarian, who apparently committed suicide shortly before his arrival.

The two surviving crewmembers, Dr. Snow and Dr. Gordon are both acting suspiciously. The latter has become a paranoid recluse who rarely leaves her quarters, whereas the former is twitchier than Meryl Streep playing Dracula’s fly-eating Renfield. He soon learns the crew have been visited by apparently flesh-and-blood constructs generated by the sentient planet from the darkest corners of the subject’s subconscious. In Kelvin’s case, it is his late wife Rheya. At first, his “visitor” freaks him out, but then he desperately grasps at this unlikely second chance.

So yes, this is Solaris, except Soderbergh throws in an incidental plot twist that largely parallels the big reveal in Professor Zazul. In some ways, he appears to deliberately evoke the Tarkovsky classic, starting with the nearly continual rain during the early Earth-bound scenes. This is also the steamiest Solaris yet. Indeed, Soderbergh is much more interested in the relationship between the husband and wife and Kelvin’s subsequent guilt-tripping. His affinity for vintage 1970s cinema stands him in good stead, in this respect. It is a bit of an exaggeration, but a tag-line like: “in space, love means never having to say you’re sorry” would not be wholly inappropriate.

Probably best known for Spy Kids 3 and Return to Horror High, George Clooney actually slow burns quite effectively as Kelvin. He always looks torn up inside (and it literally seems like he walks under a constant rain cloud while on Earth). Natascha McElhone poignantly portrays the various Rheyas, especially the visitor incarnation’s coming to terms with her debatable human status. Unfortunately, the 2002 Solaris really suffers when comparing its Snow to previous Dr. Snauts (translations vary). Jeremy Davies basically hits the same almost shticky note over and over as Snow, whereas both Vladimir Etush and Jüri Järvet added complexity and heft to their respective 1968 and 1972 adaptations. Viola Davis hardly registers as Dr. Gordon, the Sartorius substitute, but that is still an advantage over the ’68 Russian TV production.

Much to Lem’s frustration, all three films downplayed what he considered the most important aspect of the film—the inconceivably alien nature of planet Solaris itself. Yet, there is obviously something deeply compelling about the space visitations, especially Rheya/Hari, since it keeps inspiring challenging and emotionally engaging films. Strictly speaking, the first two Solaris films are probably better, but that is not a knock against the 2002 release. In fact, it is quite rewarding to watch all three in short succession. Recommended as high quality, character-driven science fiction, Soderbergh’s Solaris screens tomorrow (11/4) and next Friday (11/10) as part of the Stanisław Lem on Film series at Anthology Film Archives.