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Solar Flares

  Solaris (1972)

 

Andrei Tarkovsky,

USSR, 1972

Rating: 4.5

    Solaris (2002)

 

Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.5

Posted: November 30, 2002

By Laurence Station

Released 30 years apart, the two films based on Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel Solaris, revolve around the future discovery of a world covered by a presumably sentient ocean, and the subsequent study of the planet by a low-orbiting research station. The inability of the scientists, or Solarists, to make human-identifiable contact with the ocean has fomented a growing attitude that the project should be scrapped, and scientist/psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to Solaris to assess the well-being of the three remaining Solarists and make a recommendation on the continued viability of the base.

What he finds is disturbing. One of the three scientists is dead -- an apparent suicide -- and the other two are reluctant to offer any insight into what's transpiring on the station. But Kelvin soon understands the scientists' reticence when he's visited by his wife, Hari (Rheya in the English-from-French translation of the novel, as well as in the most recent film adaptation) -- a remarkable feat given that Hari committed suicide ten years earlier. This mysterious appearance, coupled with similar visitations among the other scientists, draws Kelvin deeper into the powerful influence the living ocean seems to be exerting on the station. Does the physical conjuring of suppressed memories in one's unconscious -- buried desire, guilt or fear -- serve as the ocean's way of communicating with humans? Is it simply tormenting or testing the Solarists? Is it not even aware of the effect that its replication of thoughts is causing? Is it just one of the planet's natural phenomena, akin to geologic or meteorological disturbances?

Lem's novel intentionally left many of these questions unanswered, citing the Latin phrase "Ignoramus et ignorabimus" ("We do not know and we will never know"). For Lem, the presumption of humanity that the universe must fall in line with a distinctly humanocentric viewpoint (as witnessed by our anthropomorphizing of deities) is ludicrous. In his view, humanity is just a speck of dust against an unfathomably large and ultimately unknowable backdrop.

Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 adaptation reworks and fleshes out much of Lem's narrative structure, and eventually takes its own slant. For Tarkovsky, Solaris, the planet, isn't nearly as interesting as Earth, which the novel never visits. But Tarkovsky sets the film's first act here, and it's obvious where his sympathies lie. Solaris is a distant, emotionally detached world that only serves to remind Kelvin just how much he misses his homeworld. Tarkovsky uses Solaris as a dramatic contrast to meditate on the beauty of the natural world, the bucolic, pre-World War II Russia of his childhood. Where Lem ended Solaris on a cynical note -- with Kelvin pining for Hari's return, a prisoner of Solaris' mystery and power to fashion nearly perfect replicas of remembered or long-buried thoughts -- Tarkovsky offers more closure, with a memorable closing image that offers Kelvin absolution, even at the cost of forsaking the Earth he loves.

American director Steven Soderbergh, however, approaches Solaris from a completely different direction. Whereas Lem used Solaris as a staging ground for asking deeply philosophical questions about our place in the grand scheme of things, and Tarkovsky expanded and deviated from Lem's ideas by inserting more personal concerns into the story, Soderbergh boils Solaris down to one central conceit: Love is stronger than death. Lem touched on this notion, but debunked it as useless romanticizing, yet another example of humans trying to impose their will on immutable universal law. For Soderbergh, however, love can triumph over death, as it has in recent films like Ghost and Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. Soderbergh also understands basic economics: will audiences really go for a brooding mediation on time, memory and intransigent contact with a living ocean, or would they prefer to see George Clooney (playing Dr. Chris Kelvin in the update) and the striking Natascha McElhone (as Rheya) falling in love and getting naked?

Soderbergh uses a grim Dylan Thomas couplet -- "Though lovers be lost love shall not; and death shall have no dominion" -- throughout his Solaris, and the director believes every word of it. Unlike Lem's novel or Tarkovsky's earlier adaptation, Soderbergh's Solaris shows us the couple's courtship, marriage and turbulence, as well as Rheya's ultimate suicide. When Kelvin encounters her years later on Solaris Station, his love for her hasn't diminished; if anything it's only grown stronger. This theme, the triumph of love over death, is well executed. Clooney does a good job of revealing a man obsessed with making the most of his unexpected second chance with Rheya. But Soderbergh's "love conquers all" message comes at the expense of the source material's most intriguing element: the planet Solaris itself. In the book, as in Tarkovsky's film, the living ocean was a constant presence throughout, something discussed, debated, omnipresent; essentially a character in its own right. But Soderbergh has no use for it, other than as a metaphor for the power of Love. For him, Solaris is merely a higher plane of existence, where Kelvin and Rheya can spend eternity together without all the meddlesome baggage that comes with living together on Earth.

Although he's fashioned a solid film about the issue of transcendent love, Soderbergh's work is only tangentially related to Solaris; it's a markedly streamlined adaptation, the more profound elements of the preceding film and novel so reduced as to call into question any connection at all with the original idea. Tarkovsky grafted his own personal worldview onto Lem's vision, but still paid great respect to the novel. The only respect given to Lem with the updated version is the fee paid for use of the name. Tarkovsky's Solaris is far and way the deeper and richer (although admittedly more taxing) of the two films. Soderbergh's is the better date flick -- but, honestly, you'd be just as well off renting Ghost instead.

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