Great Films: Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, 2002, USA)

The trouble with remakes and/or ‘updates’ of classic and not-so-classic films is that many of the subtleties and complexities of the original are lost somewhere along the line, presumably to pander to modern Hollywood’s desire for box-office-friendly fodder. Imagine, if you will, how a grand, ambiguous film such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey would be different if it had to have been produced today: presumably feedback from test-screenings would demand more narrative coherence, or indeed any. One only needs to watch Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001), a rather confused remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s superior Abre Los Ojos (1997) for a more recent example. And let’s not even think about The Vanishing, though strangely the remake was ruined by the same director as the original, George Sluizer.

One of the wonderful things about Steven Soderbergh’s reimagining of Solaris, then, is the fact it could be made at all. Here is a film which does not patronise the patient viewer, instead allowing the complex and mysterious ideas of the Stanislaw Lem source novel to swirl around the audience’s consciousness. Soderbergh is able to do this because of his immense commercial clout; nobody will say no to a director who pulls in the big bucks, and with the success of his Ocean’s Eleven franchise, Soderbergh is one such big-hitter. He is renowned for being extremely cost-efficient, delivering wildly successful films on-time and on-budget, an executive producer’s dream. This gives him a great degree of artistic freedom to pursue more personal, lower budget projects, most recently his adaptation of Joseph Kanon’s The Good German (2006). Solaris is clearly another such project: an existential meditation on the nature of memory and feeling is box-office poison, and so it proved, grossing little over $6 million in its first weekend on a budget of nearly $50 million, despite the superstar draw of la Clooney.

There was, of course, a previous attempt to adapt Lem’s novel to the big screen: Andrei Tarkovsky’s overlong 1972 Solyaris divides opinion between those who think it is a slowly delicate, melancholy masterpiece and those who feel the urge to fall asleep roughly 5 minutes in. I certainly think it is a masterpiece of mood and style, though at 165 minutes it does get snore-worthy. Brevity is so often a cinematic virtue, and thankfully Soderbergh restricts his adaptation to a trim 99 minutes, befitting of a novel of little over 200 pages (in the English translation). Tarkovsky fans would probably baulk at this relatively short running time, but I feel that the film still manages to cover the important ideas in the Lem novel; the Soviet’s version is too ponderous at times, and adds external elements not in the novel, such as the scenes in the datcha which bookend the main events on the space station.

Credit too should go to George Clooney, who in recent years has quite nobly attempted to branch out into varied material, mostly with positive results. His film collaborations with Soderbergh now number six in total, and to an extent he seems to be the director’s current muse. In Solaris, Clooney pitches it just right – never too respectful of Donatas Banionis’ original performance as psychologist Kris Kelvin. What is similarly impressive is the casting of the striking Natascha McElhone in the pivotal role of Rheya, whose ghostlike-beauty is a suitable tribute to Natalya Bondarchuk’s original Hari. A hard act to follow, but tastefully done.

Soderbergh did such a great job with Solaris that when I first saw it I was completely taken aback at what a grand piece of work it was. So taken aback, in fact, that I nearly forgot that this was remake of a classic, and that I was planning to be indignant that the director had the audacity to tinker with what seemed an untouchably great film. On balance, and given time to reflect on both versions, I think Tarkovsky’s original was a landmark piece of cinema, but that this reimagining of the great novel does its ideas more justice, and is one of the rare occasions that a remake actually ‘dumbs-up’ on the original. And full marks to Soderbergh both for doing so, as well as simply being able to do so.

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