“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship,
for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when
we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our
enthusiasm turns out to be all a sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos,
we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the
cosmos. […] We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds.
We need mirrors.” Solaris, Stanislaw Lem.
Cards on the table, Andrei Tarkovsky is a director I only discovered within the last three years, but he has already shot close to the top of my favorite directors. Easily top 3 material. So I come to the task of looking at the different versions of Solaris with a strong bias toward Tarkovsky’s version. The strange thing about these different versions of Solaris is how similar they are, in terms of the story, but how different they end up being from each other.
The basic plot between the three versions of Solaris does not change significantly. The story is based in the future, where Earth has mastered interstellar travel and has come across a planet that is not understandable to modern science and does not conform to our idea of how a planet should work; the planet is named Solaris. They send Kelvin, a psychologist, to a station on (or slightly above) Solaris after they have lost contact with the 3 men on the crew. When Kelvin arrives at the station he discovers that one of the men, Gibarian, has committed suicide and that the two now left, Snow and Sartorius (or Gordon, in Soderbergh’s version), are acting strange. Kelvin soon finds out why, as it seems the planet taps into humans unconscious and then projects memories as real beings, which they eventually term “guests”, which believe they are truly the human counterparts they represent, but have no memories outside of the memories of the person projecting them (got that?). Kelvin’s “guest” turns out to be his 10 years dead wife, who had killed herself. You see where this is going? Good. Now, let’s dive into Solaris.
Solaris(novel)-by Stanislaw Lem
Solaris is an interesting science fiction novel. It achieves what only the rare, great science fiction novels ever manage: to tie in the human condition with the horrors and wonders of science. One of the problems with the novel is also this heavy reliance on science to make the story sensible. While dealing with such weighty, philosophical issues such as the discrepancy between memory and experience, what constitutes being a human, and the boundaries of love and thought, the science behind the processes that bring these beings into existence is far less interesting than the relationship between the crew and their “guests”. The concept of a planet like Solaris and the search for an understanding of a planet-sized lifeform that science cannot predict or even begin to understand is intriguing, but the book begins to spin its wheels and lose some of the mystique as it over-explains these creatures that are an extension of Solaris. The novel never completely answers these questions and it is the worse for ware for trying to make the “guests” understandable on any absolute scientific ground. I am more interested in how a human could interact with a projection of their own memory than I am in how these “guests” neutrino field’s are stabilized (I am sure there are those that disagree with me, but even as a science enthusiast this book dragged during the science-heavy passages).
Tarkovsky, for those that are unfamiliar, makes very unique films. It isn’t that they are abstract or overly-haughty, it is more that a Tarkovsky film has its own sense of time. If not completely invested as a viewer, his films will come off as slow and pretentious. To an invested viewer, though, they come off as naturalistic and determined. Tarkvosky reminds me of a more accessible, late era James Joyce, in that his films need a sort-of cipher to be understandable. Taken casually it seems non-sensical and, in a turn of phrase, up-its-own ass. But when you dig down into one of his piece's you find that the more questions that are answered, the more questions are brought up. I implore everyone to find a quiet block of time to fully experience a Tarkovsky movie at some point (Solaris is the most accessible, Stalker is a personal favorite), but it is important to understand his film style to get a conception of how deep Solaris actually is.
This Solaris has a strange nature theme running through it; strange for a sci-fi movie, at least. It begins with a long shot of a plant flowing with the small currents of a lake and the protagonist, Kelvin, walking around in a foggy field beside said lake. We stay around this calm atmosphere (despite the people arguing in it) until we are thrown (rather abruptly) to follow another character as he rides on a city interstate system, through dark tunnels, with other cars flying around, as the soundtrack of the film builds to a noisy crescendo of illegible sound and the screen takes on more movement and chaos (I’m not even going to attempt to touch the changes between black & white and color that occur frequently throughout the film)…Then space…Silence, stars, and space. In his own way Tarkovsky has just compared the Earth in its natural state to that of space. Humans are the ones that clutter this place with noise and disarray. In its natural state though, there is a reassuring silence, as it is among the stars.
Tarkovsky keeps much of the dialogue from the book, with added or reworded lines, or a few added scenes, here and there. For the most part, though, the dialogue comes almost verbatim from the book, if not out of order at times. Still, Tarkovsky manages to reduce the level of focus on science (though it is still more present than in Soderbergh’s Solaris), while increasing the level that his film deals with the humanity of this impossible situation. The focus turns Kelvin less into the tepid scientist that slowly fall's in love with his “guest” (from Lem’s novel), into a man who is broken, but apathetic to being broke. There is an unspoken pain behind Tarkovsky’s version of Kelvin. A pain that has found no solace in life since his wife’s suicide, but also has not dwelled on her absence. He seems to have existed solely with apatathetic resentment until this film found him in the foggy field. He seems to find his life once more, in this extra-terrestial replica.
Further than being a recreation of Kelvins memory, this “guest” begins to take on a life of its own, getting Kelvin to reassure her that she is her own person, not just the memory of this long dead woman. She also begins to affirm her own humanity, begging the question of what constitutes a human. As an audience, you have to reconcile this idea of humanity with your own. She seems to love and feel much like any other human would, but we know her physical makeup is inherently non-human. Where Lem seems to only touch on this issue, Tarkovsky makes a centerpiece of it, while hardly bringing the point to light. In this way Tarkovsky all but forces the audience to ponder their own concept of being (it don’t get more existential than this, baby), and refuses to give them any guidance towards that road.
Soderbergh has proven himself a capable director. He has his own vision and his films definitely have their own feel, but his movies often feel like the product of a big studio production. I do not say that as negative aspect, he does feel like a fly in the system. Where most Hollywood-esque fare tends to feel cookie-cutter, with a lack of an authoritative voice, Soderbergh stands out as recognizable in all of that chatter. One thing I have to admit is that the man either has balls of steel, or is verifiably insane for having taken on such a haughty piece as Solaris as a big-budget Hollywood film, much less to remake a film by one of the most critically revered (yet widely unknown) directors. Soderbergh’s Solaris is by no means a bad movie (in fact, if I had seen it before Tarkovsky’s I’m sure I would have naturally enjoyed it much more), but it does suffer by seeming a little too self-aware. By that I mean that the movie falls squarely into the categories it is representing: it has the look of a sci-fi film, it hits all the notes of a dramatic film, but it never quite feels like its own creation.
Where Tarkovsky focused on the natural state of the world to juxtapose against the noise of a human life, Soderbergh draws from the noisiness of the world to show how isolated we truly are. The Kelvin of this film reaches out to support groups whose advice and self-actualizing rhetoric add up to little more than white noise for him. He walks amidst crowds, seeming wholly disconnected from them, if not the world. Soderbergh’s Kelvin is obviously a broken man who has not gotten over his wife’s suicide, as opposed to Tarkovsky’s Kelvin, whose dead wife is more of a ghost in his past he never quite took the time to understand.
The focus of all the versions of Solaris is more or less on Kelvin, but in Soderbergh’s Solaris the plot seems to revolve specifically around Kelvin and his infinite sadness from his wife’s suicide. This turns a narrative about the discrepancies of existence, into something more resembling a psych-drama. Kelvin and the “guests” love oozes from the the film, but also robs it of much of the deepness that constituted Tarkovskys, by turning a search to overcome the problems of being a "self" in a situation that questions the very nature of being into a search for reconciliation for a tragic relationship.
In the end, Soderbergh made a very capable film that was a studio misfire from the get-go. There was never any way a large mainstream audience would embrace Solaris. It’s too complicated and abstract of a story. But damn’d if Soderbergh didn’t give it his all. The movie looks amazing, extremely sleek and stylized. He has some amazing shots that don’t call back to Tarkovsky’s film (like so many remakes illogically attempt). The story is as mainstream as such a crazy and ambiguous story could ever be. It all went for naught, though. Soderbergh didn’t make an artistic masterpiece, as he falls back on standard genre tropes to make the movie digestible, and he couldn’t simplify the story and its implications enough to draw a large audience to the movie. For an estimated $47,000,000 budget, it only managed a $7,000,000 return on its opening weekend.
It is amazing how three different incarnations of the same story, all following very close to the same plot, could come out feeling so disparate from each other. Lem’s novel set the template for something wonderful. Reading the book, though, felt as if he never quite knew what he was working with, as if he could never quite see to the end of the implications he was bringing to light. Lem got mired in the believability and reasoning of the whole endeavor, and essentially never saw the forest for the trees. Tarkovsky saw what was hiding beneath this story, the raw humanity at its core, and how much the scenario really highlighted how little we understand about ourselves and how disconnected we can sometimes be, even from our own minds. Soderbergh took Tarkovsky’s work of art and tried to tailor it for a mass audience, without losing the soul. It was audacious and crazy, and for that, his film was widely ignored. There is a beauty at the heart of Solaris (any incarnation) that gets to the heart of the human condition, but maybe that rings a little too true for a wide American audience. So much so that Solaris is destined to linger on the cusps of cultural relevancy. Never quite lost, but never to be fully embraced, the way that, say, a Blade Runner is embraced. But, then again, maybe Solaris is more beautiful for that fact.