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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan

from Film Forum, 11/27/02

What would you dvo if you could get your lost loved ones back? Solaris, the new film from Steven Soderbergh, asks that question and a host of others.

They are not new questions, and Solaris is not a new story. Author Stanislaw Lem wrote the novel on which it is based. And film buffs are already well aware of the 1972 film version made by the greatest Russian filmmaker and, according to some, the greatest filmmaker of all time: Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky's film is a rewarding epic, but it also requires subsequent viewings, and a lot of patience, because of its complex tapestry of plots, themes, and mysteries. It's 165 minutes long, while Soderbergh's film tells a simpler version in only 95 minutes. Thus, this new take might seem more like a lost Twilight Zone episode or a more cerebral Star Trek.

But it is remarkable how much Soderbergh accomplishes in that short space, and just how artfully he pulls it off. Solaris is the most subtle and abstract commercial American movie of the last few years. Many viewers will find it hard going, vague, and frustrating. Those who love it owe some credit to Tarkovsky and Lem, whose work clearly inspired much of Soderbergh's vision. But Soderbergh deserves some measure of applause as well for his courage in re-inventing a challenging work of art for a larger audience after stumbling with the frivolous, star-crowded Oceans 11.

Here's the premise: Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a therapist psychologist sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris after he receives a vague message of distress from the ship's commander. Upon arrival, Kelvin first interrogates Snow (Jeremy Davies), a confused, deranged young crew member who has no answers to Kelvin's questions. Questioning the ship's captain (Viola Davis) further confounds him. It is only when he is visited by an entity resembling his dead wife (Natasha McElhone) that he realizes why the crew is going mad. Each of them has a visitor supposedly dead and buried back on earth, but seemingly alive here in the far reaches of space. We are drawn into Kelvin's state of mourning and near-madness as he debates whether to rid himself of this somewhat alien presence or to embrace her as the resurrection of Rheya, his lost spouse. This leads to questions about the planet Solaris itself, whether it is the manifestation of an alien intelligence or some embodiment of God Himself.

Much of the film was familiar to me, as I have long been a fan of Tarkovsky's strange and spooky film. Soderbergh's version is somewhat disappointing by comparison. As we catch Kelvin's flashbacks of a dreamy courtship and a troubled marriage, Kelvin's relationship with the "original" Rheya seems more like infatuation than love. Clooney and McElhone look like movie stars rehearshing David Mamet dialogue instead of human beings going through the daily struggles of a real marriage. Thus, I did not find Kelvin's grief and struggle as compelling it was in Tarkovsky's work. Further, Jeremy Davies overdoes the Dennis Hopper weirdness in his role as a deranged survivor.

Still, I am very impressed with Soderbergh's courage to let so much go unsaid. His restraint giving us wide open spaces for thinking about what's going on. I am also impressed by Clooney's performance, which broadens his already impressive range. (This is the same guy who goofed his way through O Brother Where Art Thou?) I am also excited to see audiences given yet another science fiction flick that focuses directly on the question of God's existence, the possibility of His benevolence, and the way the romance of a man and a woman reflects the relationship between humanity and the Divine. In a world still grappling with acts of terror and the pain of mourning, Solaris joins Signs as a work of art that can point in the direction of the answer. Those who do not have the patience to hear the truth being preached might instead catch glimmers of truth in the work of subtle and skilled storytellers. That's something the greatest parable-spinner of all knew very well.

Critics are bound to debate whether this is a meaningful film or the pretentious ravings of a snob.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says, "Initially intriguing, the mysterious premise gradually gives way to a sluggish pace and dreary tone that become oppressive. Clooney and McElhone do their best to convey emotional turmoil, but the vagueness of the dialogue and the chilly visuals eventually distance the viewer. However, some may find this somber meditation on grief, regrets and mind games to be a bracingly different addition to the sci-fi genre."

Mainstream critics go to even further extremes in their summations. Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) says, "Solaris teems with ideas (perhaps too many) about illusion and reality that Soderbergh handles with spare, unhurried grace. Solaris is a mind-bender in the best sense of the word: The spell it casts follows you all the way home." David Poland (The Hot Button) agrees: "I don't like to jump all over the 'masterpiece' thing after one viewing. But Solaris has been with me every day since I saw it. In the face of a lot of rageful movies, something as pure as Solaris is a heartful respite to a tender place. And in the pantheon of great movies, Soderbergh's Solaris will soon takes its place."

But Ed Gonzalez (Slant) calls it "a prolonged grief counseling session with a minimalist sci-fi backdrop. Solaris is burdened by an overly facile Psych 101 discourse that's every bit as heavy and pretentious as his purposefully inscrutable Full Frontal." Todd McCarthy (Variety) says, "Despite its undeniably pure and earnest intent, Solaris is equally undeniably an arid, dull affair that imposes and maintains a huge distance between the viewer and what happens onscreen, and never successfully negotiates the paradox of being a study of the deepest emotions that doesn't engage the heart for a moment."

from Film Forum, 12/05/02

Last week, Film Forum ran early discussion of Steven Soderbergh's Solaris. Some found it a challenging, award-worthy spectacle. Some argued that the film was worth seeing, but inferior to Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's much more challenging 1972 Solaris (I'm with them). Then there were those who found it challenging to stay for the entire 95 minutes, and they came out distressed and dissatisfied. This week, opinions are similarly divided, but the majority sum up Soderbergh's first sci-fi venture as a voyage to nowhere.

Simon Remark (Hollywood Jesus) is pleased with the result. "Solaris is an intelligent, thought-provoking, beautifully shot exploration of philosophical and spiritual ideas and issues, such as personhood, the afterlife, memory, existentialism, and the nature of reality. It brings up so many spiritual and philosophical ideas and questions. And what I love about it is, it leaves so many questions unanswered. … Not a lot is explained about the planet Solaris, and I'm not sure the planet itself is incredibly important, perhaps it is a metaphor for something else, or maybe it's just a catalyst for the more important themes in the film."

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) sees pros and cons. "Soderbergh is a master craftsman, whose command of camera movement, lighting, and sound is brilliant. Having said that, though, this version still left me cold. Clooney doesn't quite have the depth to pull it off, and the film's conclusion is bizarre, New Age wish fulfillment. Like many adventurous science fiction films of the last two years (think A.I. and Minority Report), this is an ambitious movie that comes up short."

Dick Staub praises Solaris as beautifully filmed and well acted but adds, "Only those with a heavy tolerance for freshman philosophy will find the posing of [the movie's] questions and deliberations over their answers satisfying. Go along for the cinematic ride, but don't be taken by the philosophical, theological drivel."

Blaine Butcher (Preview) argues, "The story has positive themes of forgiveness, loyalty and personal responsibility, and some conversations about God, the metaphysical and the afterlife. These positives, however, are overshadowed by graphic images of sexual intercourse, some nudity, and bloody scenes."

Movieguide's critic says it's "a pointless movie with underdeveloped characters, plot and concept that touts a strong humanist message, removing God from existence and giving power to some unknown alien being."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) concludes, "Solaris fails at both ends of the spectrum: it is a very boring story with special effects that just aren't interesting."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "Soderbergh is an archer aimlessly firing philosophical arrows into the air in hopes that he'll hit something (which occasionally he does.) Without a target, this ambiguous intellectual exercise gets tedious. Many viewers will leave the theater more frustrated than fascinated."

Phil Boatwright says the film dwells on "the meaning of life and the existence of God. Unfortunately, it prefers to dwell on Clooney's naked bottom than giving much thoughtful merit to those questions." For Boatwright, two glimpses of Clooney's backside qualify as "a predominate visual that will remain the focus of discussion, bypassing the story's theme."

Hmmm. I've visited several online chats about the film, from Christian film critics and mainstream moviegoers. I've found no civil unrest about buttocks, only healthy discussion and debate over the film's thought-provoking conclusion and how this Solaris compares to the original film and the Stanislaw Lem novel. However vague this film's implications may be, movies like this can give the Christian moviegoer windows of opportunity to discuss things that don't come up in everyday conversation.

For an excellent, detailed comparison of the two film versions, read Doug Cummings's review. "If the former film is about dealing with one's past in the form of unresolved guilt, emphasizing emotional work and renewal, the new film is about returning to the past to the point of complete immersion," he writes. "Viewers would scoff if a film presented a doctor who regularly smoked or ate spoiled food, but movies regularly depict psychologists making the worst emotional choices conceivable. Given the film's sultry visuals and sappy twist ending(s), self-destruction has never looked so sexy."

Mainstream critics are still at odds as well, but Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) speaks on all three versions. "The problem is, whichever version of Solaris you encounter first may well spoil the other—as well as the book. I saw the Tarkovsky film before I read the … novel it's based on, which suffered a lot as a consequence. Soderbergh's … is several rungs below both. And it doesn't even cite its key source, Tarkovsky's film, in the credits. So if you get to it first you'll probably be cheating yourself; I'd call it 'worth seeing' only if you've already seen the Tarkovsky."

And Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) says, "The movie wants to be a poetic evocation of Loss, but since the relationship, as shown, remains naggingly sketchy and abstract, it's hard to work up much feeling over its demise, or its restoration. Soderbergh, in essence, has come up with a plodding and far less psychologically arresting version of Ghost."

from Film Forum, 12/12/02

Solaris also won further support from religious press critics this week. Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say, "While Stanislaw Lem might have had a strong interest in exploring the ramifications of science and philosophy, Soderbergh interprets his story with spiritual significance." They then offer a list of challenging discussion questions for post-viewing contemplation.

Adam Palmer (Relevant Magazine) says, "Solaris … defies genre pigeonholing, instead mixing in elements of science fiction, romance, and psychology to create a film that is as marvelous for its artfulness as it is for its brains. However, if Solaris has a flaw, it would be its lack of emotional engagement. For all the soul-wrangling that happens onscreen, its connection with the heart of the viewer is clumsy; the film is directed squarely at the mind."