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Solaris (Mark's Take)

01/01/2004. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy Solaris in the USA - or Buy Solaris in the UK

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An alien planet gives George Clooney a perfect facsimile of the wife he lost on earth in SOLARIS. The philosophical film has some engaging ideas, but viewers expecting romantic sci-fi will probably be disappointed and perhaps even bored. This is dense, introspective, and intelligent science fiction as distinguished from entertainment.

Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem is famous for his whimsical stories. His best known work, however, is his 1961 novel SOLARIS, a serious exploration of ideas going back to Ray Bradbury's 1948 short story "Mars is Heaven."

In 1972 Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky adapted the SOLARIS into a classic if somewhat ponderous film of the same title. Now Steven Soderbergh has written and directed his own version. It should be noted that of the book and the two film versions, no two are much alike.

However, similar to the first film, the new version is slow and contemplative, but it is considerably shorter to get to many of the same ideas. Soderbergh has produced a film that is abstract and considers some complex philosophical questions. Like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY much (and especially the last part) is open to interpretation.

Unfortunately on top of a film complex enough already Soderbergh has added some 2001-like stylistic touches. The film was already difficult enough to interpret.

About a century in the future Chris Kelvin (played by George Clooney) lives alone thinking of the past and blaming himself for the events leading to his beloved wife's death. He is pulled out of his funk by a message from Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) an old friend on a space station circling the distant alien world Solaris.

The message seems to imply that there is some sort of a strange problem there, but that Kelvin himself would be perfect to come and investigate the problem. Being there would help the mission and it would help Kelvin. Kelvin learns attempts have already been made to bring back the crew, but the crew is not cooperating.

Kelvin travels to the station only to find that Gibarian has committed suicide and the only two surviving crew members are acting very peculiarly. Snow (Jeremy Davies) seems to have become an incoherent schizophrenic whose speeches are full of paradoxes. Gordon (Viola Davis) seems to want to hide in her sleeping cabin. Snow will not explain what is going on, telling Kelvin, "Until it starts happening to you there no point in discussing it."

Bewildered, Kelvin goes to sleep in his cabin and awakes to find his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) somehow there, alive and well. She is a facsimile created from his memories, but does she have a life of her own? The story proceeds in three worlds: one world is Solaris Station, one is Earth in flashback, and the third is the world of Kelvin's dreams.

SOLARIS looks like it was filmed on a small budget, well-spent. Scenes aboard the Solaris Station, as filmed by Peter Andrews, seem to feature two looks. We have dark scenes in which the shadowed half of actors blends into the background. We also have pans across impressive expanses of shipscape with lots of round ports.

These look a lot like they were inspired by certain Michael Whelan book covers like the one for DISTANT STARS. Scenes of the planet, shot from orbit, seem to paint it in hues of pink and blue pastel. These are the only colorful scenes in the film, but there is not much variety.

The planetary effects would have been impressive in the 1950s or 1960s, but this film is not trying to impress the viewer with its visual effects and leaves them at the only adequate state. Scenes set on Earth seem to feature mostly dark rooms and constantly rain-soaked sidewalks as if something unmentioned has upset the balance of the weather. The future Earth is a cold world with listless people.

This is yet another film that assumes unimaginatively that Nehru jackets, or something like them, will come back into style and will be the fashion of the future.

SOLARIS is a very dense science fiction film, and one that requires a great deal of thought and perhaps multiple watchings. I rate SOLARIS a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Rheya's favorite poem, and she was the kind of person who has a favorite poem, is never fully identified in the film and we get only snatches of quotes. It is:

And Death Shall Have No Dominion
Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion. Dead men naked they shall be one With the man in the wind and the west moon; When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, They shall have stars at elbow and foot; Though they go mad they shall be sane, Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion. Under the windings of the sea They lying long shall not die windily; Twisting on racks when sinews give way, Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break; Faith in their hands shall snap in two, And the unicorn evils run them through; Split all ends up they shan't crack; And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion. No more may gulls cry at their ears Or waves break loud on the seashores; Where blew a flower may a flower no more Lift its head to the blows of the rain; Though they be mad and dead as nails, Heads of the characters hammer through daisies; Break in the sun till the sun breaks down, And death shall have no dominion.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2002 Mark R. Leeper

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