Sunday, August 15, 2010

Solaris (2002)

Science fiction is one of those genres that has masses of potential; potential that is rarely mined or achieved. At the low point of the genre we have The Matrix, Barbarella and countless cult or 'SyFy' (as the channel is now called) films which pretend at intellectual or social relevance but end up being frustratingly shallow. At the high point, we have the original Solaris, Cronenberg's output, Lynch's output (depending on how liberal your definition of science fiction is) and The Fountain. This remake, or if we're to be more accurate, reinterpretation ranks at the high end of cinema. (You can take your Star Wars, Star Treks and Avatars and shove them. Well-crafted if we're being generous, but morally simplistic and backwards.)

You can't begin to analyse Solaris without acknowledging that it is based off a novel which is very different, and it stands in the very large shadow of the original Tarkovsky film. This Solaris is still as brainy, vervy and technically exquisite as it's predecessor, but there is a clear shift in focus between the films. The Tarkovsky version is much more focused on the titular Solaris, a seemingly menacing planet whereas the remake, by wunderkind Steven Soderbergh, is far more focused on the main character, a psychologist sent to figure out what is going on with the inhabitants of the space station above Solaris. It is this change in focus that makes the films interesting to compare and contrast.

Alas, I'm not going to be doing that. Because I haven't seen the original Solaris since I was a wee young lad of fifteen. And I have Soderbergh's version on hand. And this is a review/essay/analysis/criticism of that one.

Solaris is much more concerned with the headspace of it's hero, in his insecurities, frailties and half-memories refracted by Solaris. The central plot of Solaris, unchanged, is the psychologist, Chris, (Clooney) goes to a space station to figure out what is wrong with the inhabitants (Davis, Wright), and finds things to be seriously strange and off-kilter there. A spectre of his dead wife, Rheya, (McElhone) shows up and he puts her out the airlock, convinced she is some projection of the planet. And then she returns. Things get worse.

Inserted between the present mystery of the space station and Solaris are memories of Chris and Rheya's troublesome marriage, fraught with misunderstanding, overworking, and all the things that middle-class people have issues with in their marriage. There's also a fair deal of interesting, and provocative talk about religion and philosophy that's uncommon in this genre, let alone any commercial film. (It's easy to forget that in 2002, this was intended to be a commercial film. And it flopped quite badly. Sadly, that box office flop has translated into an unfair critical slamming.)

What gets me, and appeals to me, about Solaris is it's preoccupation with the human elements of science fiction. The purpose of science fiction, to me, is to shine a light on humanity and society, not to show aliens beating up other aliens and shapely women. That could just be me, though.

The horror sets into this film when the audience realises that this spectre is not in fact Chris' dead wife. Even in this science fiction fantastical setting, which skews uncomfortably close to reality, we know this cannot be true. Instead, she is a projection powered or fueled by his memory, as her chilling remark tells us, "If I'm suicidal it's because that's how you remember me." It sets up the most interesting parts of the film, where we see Chris wrestling with this fact, and even more horrifically, trying to bring Rheya back to Earth with him. When Gordon (Davis) says, "It's not human." it is just as much of a shock to the audience as it is to Chris, not because we think she's human, but because it's easy to get duped.

There's so much about this film that I'm not getting across that I want to. So I'll talk about the craft. Soderbergh is never an uninteresting craftsman, and the editing style in this film is nearly as experimental as The Limey, there's a docu-drama kind of feeling to it at points, and a fractal memory like quality. It isn't consistent, and it never lets you rest. It's a definite bonus. The widescreen photography is also gorgeous, especially on the Earth scenes, with the golden hues. Cliff Martinez delivers a subtly creepy score that underlines that bad shit is going to happen well before it does and setting the audience appropriately off-edge.

On the other side of the camera, all of the actors are assets to this piece. This is Clooney's best performance, haters of him aside, he's removed all of his charisma. There is nothing wry or sarcastic here, there is just the harrowing guilt and disbelief. He has a subtle character arc to play, and there's nothing showy or false about this turn. Natasha McElhone is severely underrated, as well. There's a dual performance here, the Rheya as Rheya and the Rheya as Chris remembers her; there's enough overlap between the two to make it convincing, and enough difference to make it unnerving. The actress has an inert quality that makes her very well-cast for this part; it's just another shading that this projection is not human. This is Chris' memory funneled through Solaris. As an afternote, Davis is perfect in this film as the severe Lieutenant Gordon. She's the audience medium here, and she although she doesn't get a big scene or moment to herself, her line-reading of "It's not human." reverberates after the film.

The most troubling question the film poses is at the end, "I am haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong." For me, that sentence is as brutal and harrowing as it gets. The film is an example of how close science fiction can get to the human condition, even as it spreads outwards in surreal and often horrific ways.

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