Welcome to Where Everyone Has Gone Before, the column where I continue my film education before your very eyes. I will seek out and watch all of the movies I know I should have seen by now. I will first "review" the movie before I've watched it, based entirely on its reputation. Then I will give the movie a fair chance and actually watch it. You will laugh at me, you may condemn me, but you will never say I didn't try.
The Film: 'Solaris' (2002), Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George "Batman" Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies and George Clooney's posterior.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: Well, I didn't want to see Steven Soderbergh's remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's science fiction classic until I had seen the original, but I put off seeing the original until last week's column because I was quivering in my boots at the thought of actually trying to watch it, an undertaking some have compared to scaling Everest. Now, having fought and defeated the original, I can watch the remake guilt free!
At literally half the length of Tarkovsky's 'Solaris,' the Soderbergh version acts as a bizarre counterpoint to the original. Where the original took it's sweet time (45 looong minutes) to launch into space, the remake has Clooney suited up and blasting off towards the stars by the 10-minute mark. Where the original was all about tone and theme, the remake is all about plot. Where the original used science as a background element to allow for beautiful, sad and romantic imagery, the remake places the science at the forefront, making this a heady and intelligent, if somewhat emotionally shallow, hard science fiction story. Where the original starred some chunky Russian guy, the remake has George "I Would Have His Babies If I Wasn't to the Male Sex" Clooney.
These changes are not surprising, really. What studio is going to pony up a fistful of millions for a slow-paced, emotionally driven, ice-cold science fiction story? But if you stick The Clooney in there, cut the running time down to a breezy 90 minutes, add more special effects and mold the story into something that operates as a mystery/adventure instead of a contemplation on life and death ... now you've got a studio project.
That's not to say Soderbergh's 'Solaris' is a bad film. It's not. It's a solid, extremely entertaining film that will do you no serious harm. But it doesn't have Tarkovsky's ambition and it definitely won't linger around in the back of my brain like the original has in the time since I've watched it. Like all remakes, good and bad, it's cursed to live in the shadow of its predecessor.
It's fascinating to see Soderbergh, a jack of all genres, a filmmaker capable of radically changing his style from film to film, try to ape Tarkovsky, a filmmaker who had a very specific style and never wavered from it. Soderbergh's remake of 'Solaris' is surprisingly faithful to the original film in tone and spirit. While the cinematography and sets feel more like 'Event Horizon' than the stripped down (and let's face it, often slightly dated) original film, both films have the same goal and operate on the same thematic playground.
But let's just get one thing out of the way right now: While Soderbergh's film is a borderline effortless watch compared to Tarkovsky's, it is not a better film. It's a slick and streamlined Hollywood project. Granted, it's an artistically ambitious Hollywood project that deserves all the praise in the world for not devolving into some sort of horror movie (as it seems to threaten to on more than one occasion), but the original was difficult, and non-Hollywood for a reason. The original 'Solaris' puts you through an emotional wringer, triggering visceral feelings by forcing you to actually endure the film, a bold artistic choice that has not done it any favors whatsoever with a mainstream audience. The new one, although captivating, tells its story, hits the proper beats and ends. There's plenty of post-film discussion to be had over Soderbergh's film, but none of the post-film sense of isolation and regret and remorse that accompanies Tarkovsky's.
Oh, and I was wrong. Clooney's not in space by the 10-minute mark. He's in space by the seven-minute mark, off to a space station circling the stellar body called Solaris, which has the strange ability to manifest people's dreams and memories into physical realities. As in the original, Clooney is a psychologist tasked to figure out what the hell's going on on the station, but there's the natural Hollywood addition of him knowing someone on the station and going there to help a friend. When he arrives, he finds his buddy dead and two half-crazed scientists (Davis and Davies) who aren't going to tell him nuthin.'
And then his dead wife (McElhone) appears and things really get weird.
At only 90 minutes, 'Solaris' often feels like the original film on fast forward. The original took its sweet time laying out our protagonist and his plight in the opening act of the film. Soderbergh and his fancy schmancy editing techniques tightens the pace by incorporating the backstory into bite-sized flashbacks that occur throughout the film. The same story beats are hit and the same emotional conclusions are reached, but they come faster and lack any and all ambiguity. Both films even have essentially the same ending, the only difference being that Tarkovsky's conclusion is mysterious and creepy and may have more than one interpretation, and Soderbergh makes sure you know exactly what's going on and ensures that there will be no debate as to what's going on.
I don't want to slight Soderbergh, though. In fact, the straightforward ending, which involves our hero making a clear, conscious decision and seeing it through to the end actually works better for me than the "Dun dun duuuun PLOT TWIST!" conclusion of the original film. Actually, Soderbergh's lack of stylistic pretensions allows 'Solaris' to work as an actual story, something the original film never did (but in all fairness, never aspired to do). I can throw around phrases like "mainstream" and "simplified" all day and make Soderbergh's work sound completely pedestrian, but that's just not the case. A remake should try something completely new with the material and by taking his 'Solaris' in a completely different stylistic direction than the original, it could be argued that Soderbergh is making a bold artistic choice. He's taking fascinating ideas originated by a filmmaker most people have never heard of and encapsulating them into a dense, smart 90 minutes. You come for the Clooney, you stay for the mature, thoughtful look at death and regret.
(Next week, keep your eyes open for the first non-science fiction entry in this series. Let's just say we'll be going back to the 1980s, and to the horror genre, for a film that may or may not feature some sort of squad of monsters ...)
Colossus: The Forbin Project
A Boy and His Dog
The Thing From Another World