STARRING: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Ulrich Tukur, Morgan Rusler

2002, 99 Minutes, Directed by:
Steven Soderbergh

A psychiatrist is sent to investigate the strange goings-on at a space station orbiting a planet which seems to be a living and intelligent entity. There he is confronted by the mysterious appearance of his wife – mysterious in that she is dead, having committed suicide several years before! This however isn’t a horror story in space, á la Event Horizon, as the synopsis might make it appear – it could be better described as a psychological drama or perhaps even as a metaphysical love story. 

Which probably explains why this remake starring George Clooney of a somewhat obscure early 1970s “art house” flick of the same name flopped so badly at the box office: it wasn’t what people expected at all. The remake is directed by the much-overrated Steven Soderbergh, who also directed Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight. That a mediocre talent like Soderbergh stands out in contemporary Hollywood is quite indicative of the current dismal state of American movies. The original was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the greatest directors of all time.  His The Sacrifice and Andrei Rublev counts among the greatest movies ever made. We are talking Art here, capital ‘A’. That director Ingmar Bergman considers him to have been one of the greatest directors of all time should tell you something.

Before it was released I was asked by a Wired News reporter what I thought of the idea of remaking Solaris. “Sacrilege” was my knee-jerk reaction. I have since changed my opinion: in a sense it is still sacrilege for Hollywood to think that it can somehow make versions of original European movies that could somehow be superior, but thankfully Soderbergh didn’t compromise the material as much as he could have. Think the dismal City of Angels as a remake of the brilliant Wings of Desire to get an idea of how bad it can get . . .

"More pretentious than any three-hour long Russian movie could ever be . . ."

Instead, this new version of Solaris refuses to overly commercialise the material at hand: it is one of the most intelligent science fiction movies to have come our way since, I dunno, Brazil maybe. No dumbing down here. Before the main feature I saw the trailers for The Hot Chick (which has a girl turning into gross “comedian” Rob Schneider) and the latest Martin Lawrence flick. I leaned over to my friend and said: “And you don’t believe that the Apocalypse is upon us.” I feel sorry if whoever would go see The Hot Chick or National Security happened to have wandered into Solaris – years of brain rot at the movies would have left them unprepared for the philosophical issues this movie addresses. (Actually I feel sorry for such cinema patrons for other reasons too.)

It really isn’t fair of me to review Solaris because I remembered the original reasonably well. The result was that throughout the entire movie I couldn’t help but compare this version to the original. This isn’t really fair to anyone reading this review, because the odds are that you probably haven’t seen the original at all. In fact, most people I spoke to have never seen the original – or any Tarkovsky movie – at all!

A pity, because Tarkovsky’s movies do not resemble films at all, but rather a Zen-like state of mind. One reviewer wrote that he creates a separate space apart from the outside in which one is allowed to meditate, which is probably the best description I’ve ever read of his films. Anyone with a more nervous disposition would be infuriated by his movies’ slow pacing – as they probably would be by this remake as well. “Very little happened in a very long time,” my viewing companion complained when we exited. My friend would probably have been more infuriated by the original: pretty much the same events transpired over a whopping 165 minutes while this remake clocks in at a comparatively brisk 99 minutes – more than an hour shorter in fact!

You might think that a substantially shorter running time would be to the advantage of the remake, but it somehow isn’t. I remember a greater sense of dread, unease and involvement lingering over the original. My biggest problem with this new version of Solaris would be summed up in the word “involvement”. One is curiously left emotionally uninvolved by it. While it is easy to admire for its sheer bravery in some of its decisions – not dumbing down the material, its use of photography and music, etc. – Solaris is a difficult movie to actually like. I couldn’t pin where the problem exactly lay: maybe it was George Clooney’s naked butt (I saw way too much of it!), who knows?

Seriously though, perhaps Clooney was miscast as the depressive lead, maybe some scenes consciously mimicked 2001: A Space Odyssey too much, but something is amiss and one never connects emotionally with the film.

It is too sterile and polished. Too studied almost. In a sense it is more pretentious than any three-hour long Russian movie could ever be. This is a pity, because like the previous ambitious attempt at intelligent science fiction, namely Spielberg’s A.I. – Artificial Intelligence, Solaris never quite works out and its failure is bound to doom us to more dumb special effects spectacles like Independence Day and its ilk instead . . .



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