Solaris (2002)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

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Solaris is a remake of the Andrei Tarkovsky film of the same name.  Like the original it is a philosophical science-fiction story that takes its time and might put off certain viewers who want Alien more than they’re looking for the final thirty minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The story follows psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) as he is sent to assemble the scattered pieces of a mission to study the planet Solaris.  He arrives at the space station where strange events have occurred.  There are two dead bodies, a strung out scientist (Jeremy Davies) and a paranoid doctor (Viola Davis).  One of the dead men was a friend of Kelvin’s who had requested he be sent to the station and who later committed suicide.

Kelvin soon feels the full weight of the strange occurrences plaguing the space station when his deceased wife, Rheya (Natasha McElhonne) shows up in the middle night.  She has no memory of how she got here or even where she is.  Deeply unsettled, Kelvin demands to know if she has any idea where she is.  She figures they must be at home.

Knowing this couldn’t possibly be his wife, Kelvin sends her aboard an escape vessel and shoots her off into space.  The next night Rheya comes back but with no memory of being shot off into space.

After letting it sink in, Kelvin begins to fall for his wife all over again.  He is seduced by her appearance, though soon she suspects she might not be human when she begins to investigate her own memories and missing memories.  She holds onto fragments, but she can tell that they aren’t really hers.

Rheya points out to Kelvin that she isn’t really Rheya, instead just a projection of what Kelvin remembered of her.  She is needy, subservient and a little heartbroken.  Rheya even observes that the sound of her own voice is likely just Kelvin’s memory of Rheya’s voice, and because Kelvin remembers her as a deeply melancholic, troubled person, then this Rheya comes across that way as well.

By this point Kelvin is either enamored or obsessed with what passes as his wife.  He wants to take her back to Earth, but as Dr. Gordon (Davis) says, this isn’t possible.  When Kelvin protests, Gordon makes him reveal to Rheya that he purgatory’d the previous Rheya.  Devastated by this betrayal, Rheya attempts suicide.  She succeeds at first but then cracks back to life in a disturbing manner.

In the end Rheya goes to Dr. Gordon in secret, hoping to be dealt with.  Gordon has an idea that will vaporize Rheya and the other visitors (there are others, including a child), and Rheya pleads with her to do it.  Before said vaporization, Rheya tells Kelvin that they can be together again, just not on Earth.

Kelvin hopes to keep Rheya alive not so much because he loves her as much as he wants to make up for his previous failure to protect Rheya from herself.  In a series of dreams and flashbacks (this is how we first meet Rheya), we see that he feels responsible for her suicide.

Kelvin becomes more and more desperate and strung out.  When he realizes Gordon has vanquished Rheya, he goes after her, and the two characters find themselves on opposite sides of a glass door.  It’s telling that the camera looks at Kelvin through the glass panel, in effect siding with Gordon.  This helps make it clear, if it wasn’t already clear, that Kelvin is losing his mind.  We are not meant to side with him but to look at him with objectivity, to understand his fragile state of mind.

When Gordon asks him, “whose side are you on?” she refers to Kelvin versus the entire human race, since the visitors (like Rheya) may pose a risk to life as we know it.  The camera, and thus the film, take Gordon’s side.  This means that Chris is the one who’s lost.  His obsession with Rheya is otherworldly, meant to make him unique so that he is his own character and not a representation of us.

Tarkovsky’s Solaris was a story about all humanity.  About two hours into that three hour film, one of the characters mutters that all we’ve done is go to the edges of the universe looking for a mirror.  Within all this expedition we only want to find ourselves.

In that film this feels like a turning point, something the characters finally admit after years of searching (and within the movie runtime, hours of searching).  In Soderbergh’s version someone mentions this same exact line very early into the film.  The thing that isn’t said until two hours into the original film is mentioned in the first twenty minutes of the remake.  What it took Tarkovsky so long to work work to, his thesis, is laid out near the beginning of Soderbergh’s movie.

To  me, this takes the onus off the audience.  Instead of wondering what this is all about and experiencing the journey with the characters, we are instead told what it’s about, and we use that as a framing device when we look at Chris.  So as he is so taken with Rheya (who is not really Rheya), we’re always meant to see her as “other,” and to see his adoration for her as flawed.  We’re distant from him.  We see his struggle, but we don’t feel it.

Solaris (1972) was about us, and Solaris (2002) is about Chris Kelvin.  In his own journey we can recognize something about ourselves, about our own memories and obsession, but the story is less consciously or overtly about us.  It’s less open to interpretation we well, though that being said this is a pretty opaque movie which allows the audience to read into it many different ways.

The plot culminates with Gordon and Kelvin rushing to escape from the station as it begins to break down.  They have learned that the other crew member, Snow (Davies), is really no different than Rheya.  Snow the real person dreamed Snow the visitor into existence, and then panicked as a result.  He tried to kill the visitor, and in self-defense Snow the visitor fought back and won.

Anyways, that’s kind of a side note, something not in the original film.  It’s a thrilling plot point and one which demonstrates the violent capabilities of the visitors, but it doesn’t feel completely necessary to the story.

So Gordon and Kelvin escape, and suddenly we see Kelvin back on Earth, taking part in the same day to day duties that we observed in the opening moments of the film.  Like in the beginning, we see these moments as quick shots, often with little to no exposition.  Kelvin is in one place and then another.  We observe more about his state of mind then what he’s doing, and because Soderbergh shoots this often in medium shots or close ups, with no establishing shots, the effect is that we feel we’re following Kelvin through a dream.

That was the effect at the beginning and certainly in the end as Rheya suddenly appears, Kelvin asks if he’s even alive, and she says it doesn’t matter because they are together again.  So he’s definitely dead, right?

Time and place is whack in Soderbergh’s Solaris.  The opening minutes of the movie establish the cinematic rules of the story.  There are no establishing shots and no music, presenting a stark image of Kelvin’s stark, lonely existence.  He’s free floating and yet almost always enclosed.  He’s like a balloon in a glass cage.

Kelvin moves with no urgency, but he’s a deeply sad character.  He mostly just exists, and it feels like a miracle that he’s even capable of moving anywhere on his own.  It’s not until Rheya shows up that he has any life force.

The beginning of the film typically gives us one shot of Kelvin in a different location.  Then we cut to a new location without seeing him move between the spaces or without seeing how they are spatially connected.  Adding to that, the cinematography and set design collaborates to make a moody, futuristic looking world, like The Walking Dead meets The Jetsons.

It’s an unsettling portrait of a man and a place.  As we watch the story, though, we realize we’re not supposed to identify with either the man or the place.  This world is outside of our own, and this character is as alien to us as Rheya initially is to him.

Or maybe we are meant to identify with him?  The end plays out as if in a romantic drama.  The two lovers feel like Romeo and Juliet only they get to be together, but in the afterlife, I guess like Romeo and Juliet.

So there’s this surface level idea that we’re buying into the relationship, but because both the setting and the character is so unsettling (we also never meet the real Rheya, just the man’s image of her), I never bought into Kelvin’s worldview.  He remained foreign to me throughout the film, a character whose pain and emotion is understandable but still detached from my own experience watching the movie.

Solaris is a meditative film, one that is over an hour shorter than the original but still has plenty of space to breath.  The time Soderbergh takes to tell the story gives you time to think, even if the story seems constructed in a way to limit the scope of your questions.  It’s pretty early on that the nature of the film seems to funnel down from humanity as a whole to Kelvin as an individual.

Up Next: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Point Blank (1967), The Cooler (2003)

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