- Steven Soderbergh's "Making of Solaris Special"
- HBO making-of special
- Stills of screenplay
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Superstar George Clooney turns in a stellar performance in this "brilliant sci-fi movie" (New York Daily News) from Academy Award winners Steven Soderbergh (2000 - Best Director, Traffic) and JamesCameron (1997 - Best Picture, Titanic). Aboard a lonely space station orbiting a mysterious planet, terrified crew members are experiencing a host of strange phenomena, including eerie visitors who seem all too human. And when psychologist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) arrives to investigate, he confronts a power beyond imagining that could hold the key to mankind's deepest dreams?or darkest nightmares. Co-starring Natascha McElhone and Jeremy Davies, Solaris is "mind-bending!" (Rolling Stone)
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(1) This film will not be well-liked by most people. There are a ton of spoilers in most reviews, so I'll try to boil it down for its essence to avoid ruining the unfolding of the movie should you choose to see it: a guy goes to a spaceship where weird things are happening and sees his dead wife. Maybe. That's all you need to know about the plot. The movie, some might think is slow, there's no action, it's a head-tripper, and honestly, had I not read the book before and also seen the magnificent Tarkovsky original, I might not have followed what was going on. As such, while I really enjoyed it, I can't call it either a great film nor one that is likely to appeal to a broad cross-section of movie watchers. There are some heady issues surrounding reality, consciousness, life and death, and if you take them too seriously you'll find yourself snoozing.
It's definitely in Soderbergh's style, and it's been fun watching him skip between genres in recent years, but it's more like "The Limey" and less like "Erin Brockovich" if you want to pin it down. While it's not an indy flick -- in the sense it's expensive and bankrolled and produced in Hollywood fashion -- it feels like a small art film or an indy. And please, god, don't expect "Aliens" or "Titanic" because James Cameron's name is over the credits as Producer.
(2) Both the original book and the Tarkovsky film have much to recommend them, although they also share characteristics of being verbally philosophical and talky which this version most assuredly does not. This version is incredibly tight.
(3) If you're a film student or into the mechanics of film, though, this DVD edition is an utter delight. I can easily see this sequence in a film class curriculum: watch the movie; watch the DVD commentary; read the screenplay; watch the Tarkovsky "original"; read the Lem original source book; write your term paper.
The DVD contains two interesting but not unusual featurettes on the making of the film. It also includes, somewhat unusually, a complete original screenplay (that you have to page through with the fast forward button). And it contains the customary Director's commentary, featuring director Stephen Soderbergh and producer James Cameron bantering about the movie. (In the honest assessment of Sodbergh, the commentary is "Just another version of two white guys sitting around talking.")
The two of them discuss nearly every choice that was made in assembling the movie, from lighting and the use of post-production to CGI and whether to rehearse actors or not and dozens of technical tricks. And the movie itself is sort of like a catalog of techniques and effects. I don't mean to imply it's showing off: it simply uses a huge variety of film techniques to move the story along, and Cameron and Soderbergh discuss in the commentary both what works and what didn't work, what reshoots were required, what processes underlay the film, how the rewrites were done, and so forth -- and do it in a rather entertaining way, to this film fan, at least.
And one of the things I enjoyed both about the film and the DVD is the way Soderbergh just endlessly pillages other directors and films: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Tarkovsky himself, Eisenstein, heck, even the Lumiere brothers -- even a dash of James Cameron. As Cameron himself says at the end of the commentary, "There are no new ideas. We're a hundred years into the process of filmmaking now."
As such, while I enjoyed watching the movie, I rather much more enjoyed immediately re-viewing it with the commentary, and I think this is going to be a keeper for those who like studying technical details. It's like "Citizen Kane" in that it comes close to summarizing what the 21st century film-maker has at his or her fingertips (the way "Kane" slopped together virtually every technique of 1941 -- rest assured I'm not actually comparing the film's stature to Kane.) There's a bit of what Soderberg immodestly calls "pure cinema", visual-only story-telling, which does remind me of "The Limey" and some of the silent classics as well as "2001" and the original "Solaris", and I mean that all in a complimentary sense.
It's also a huge genre-bender. There are elements of slasher flicks, ghost stories, horror, detective mystery, romantic tragedies, a very slight dash of comedy (thanks largely to the great Jeremey Davies in a supporting role), Soviet agitprop, Godard nouvelle vague, 1930s theatre, and who knows what else I missed the first couple of times I saw it.
This is not a flick you're going to want to pick out for Saturday night brain candy, or to change your mood if you're depressed, because it will either bore you or depress you more if you want mood-altering fluff. But it's a good one-timer for those who like the brain-bending what-is-reality film along the lines of Philip K. Dick or Alejandro Almenabar, and a multi-viewer for film school.
"She's not human," Kelvin is warned by Dr. Helen Gordon (Viola Davis), one of the surviving crew members. Kelvin knows this materialization cannot be his wife, yet is confronted with a person who seems palpably real, shares memories with him and is flesh and blood. The other survivor, the goofy Snow (Jeremy Davies), asks, "I wonder if they can get pregnant?"
This story originated with a Polish novel by Stanislaw Lem that is considered one of the major adornments of science fiction. It was made into a 1972 movie of the same name by the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky. Now Steven Soderbergh has retold it in the kind of smart film that has people arguing about it on their way out of the theater.
The movie needs science fiction to supply the planet and the space station, which furnish the premise and concentrate the action, but it is essentially a psychological drama. When Kelvin arrives on the space station, he finds the survivors seriously spooked. Soderbergh directs Jeremy Davies to escalate his usual style of tics and stutters, to the point where a word can hardly be uttered without his hands waving to evoke it from the air.
Even scarier is Gordon, the scientist played by Viola Davis, who has seen whatever catastrophe overtook the station and does not consider Kelvin part of the solution. In his gullibility will he believe his wife has somehow really been resurrected? And ... what does the planet want? Why does it do this? As a favor, or as a way of luring us into accepting manifestations of its own ego and need? Will the human race eventually be replaced by the Solaris version?
Clooney has successfully survived being named People magazine's sexiest man alive by deliberately choosing projects that ignore that image. His alliance with Soderbergh, both as an actor and co-producer, shows a taste for challenge. Here, as Kelvin, he is intelligent, withdrawn, sad, puzzled. Certain this seems to be his wife, and although he knows intellectually that she is not, still--to destroy her would be ... inhuman. The screenplay develops a painful paradox out of that reality.
The genius of Lem's underlying idea is that the duplicates, or replicants, or whatever we choose to call them, are self-conscious and seem to carry on with free will from the moment they are evoked by the planet. Rheya, for example, says, "I'm not the person I remember. I don't remember experiencing these things." And later, "I'm suicidal because that's how you remember me."
In other words, Kelvin gets back not his dead wife, but a being who incorporates all he knows about his dead wife, and nothing else, and starts over from there. She has no secrets because he did not know her secrets. If she is suicidal, it is because he thought she was. The deep irony here is that all of our relationships in the real world are exactly like that, even without the benefit of Solaris. We do not know the actual other person. What we know is the sum of everything we think we know about them. Even empathy is perhaps of no use; we think it helps us understand how other people feel, but maybe it only tells us how we would feel, if we were them.
At a time when many American movies pump up every fugitive emotion into a clanging assault on the audience, Soderbergh's "Solaris" is quiet and introspective. There are some shocks and surprises, but this is not "Alien." It is a workshop for a discussion of human identity. It considers not only how we relate to others, but how we relate to our ideas of others--so that a completely phony, non-human replica of a dead wife can inspire the same feelings that the wife herself once did. That is a peculiarity of humans: We feel the same emotions for our ideas as we do for the real world, which is why we can cry while reading a book, or fall in love with movie stars. Our idea of humanity bewitches us, while humanity itself stays safely sealed away into its billions of separate containers, or "people."
When I saw Tarkovsky's original film, I felt absorbed in it, as if it were a sponge. It was slow, mysterious, confusing, and I have never forgotten it. Soderbergh's version is more clean and spare, more easily readable, but it pays full attention to the ideas and doesn't compromise. Tarkovsky was a genius, but one who demanded great patience from his audience as he ponderously marched toward his goals. The Soderbergh version is like the same story freed from the weight of Tarkovsky's solemnity. And it evokes one of the rarest of movie emotions, ironic regret.
Walt Whitman once said, "Great poems demand great audiences." And so it is with this film: passive, spoon-fed viewers need not watch. The filmmaker trusts in the intelligence & depth of soul of those who do watch. Everything contributes to the establishing & sustaining of its mood: gorgeous cinematography, haunting music, a tasteful underplaying of special effects.
No, it's not Tarkovsky's masterpiece -- but it's not meant to be, either. Rather it directs a fine & powerful focus on one aspect of its source material, striving for & achieving an emotionally luminous work of Art. Highly recommended!
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