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Attack of the Clooneys
by Lucius Shepard
December 1, 2002

I once told a Hollywood agent it struck me as odd that a studio had decided to change a character in a screenplay based on a novel of mine from a 19-year-old raw recruit into a middle-aged top sergeant. Her response was, “You’re lucky they didn’t turn him into a black grandmother.” The point my agent was in essence making was that when you sell a piece of intellectual property to Hollywood, you often come to wonder why they bothered to buy it at all, because they have modified your work to such a degree that they could easily have circumvented the copyright laws and produced their own variant work without paying you a nickel. Which leads me to consider the question of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. If it was Soderbergh’s intent to turn Stanislaw Lem’s novel of ideas into a romance, why not just hack out a screenplay, slap a more pertinent title on the puppy—Astronaut Love Crud or some such—and avoid paying a substantial sum for the rights? What’s left of the story might be tweaked to bear no copyrightable resemblance to Lem’s book and the original title surely has no great resonance in the public mind. While the novel is considered a minor classic within the bounds of the genre, I assume that, prior to the movie’s release, were you to ask an average sampling of the populace what Solaris was, they would likely have responded by saying it was a brand of sun block or a new model Chevrolet.

In 1972 Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky made a version of the Lem novel that ran for approximately three hours, a movie that some critics have called a work of art and others describe as tedious and pretentious. (I tend to straddle the fence on the issue and think of Tarkovsky’s movie as a tedious and pretentious work of art.) The most remarkable thing about this new version is that Soderbergh’s picture—essentially a distillation of the Russian film—runs a mere 98 minutes but feels as though it lasts every bit as long as Tarkovsky’s. The story is set in a future that appears to differ from our present in only a few ways—men’s suits have no lapels, it rains all the time, they have really cool TVs set in plastic panels, and the space program has unaccountably bounded forward and established a station orbiting a remote poem of a planet called Solaris, a globe done all in swirling indigos, electric blues and greens, replete with thready electric thingys designed to resemble synaptic transmissions—the whole deal looks very much like a high-end Lava Lamp such as one might find in The Sharper Image catalog. Psychiatrist Kris Kelvin (George Clooney) receives a message from his friend, Dr. Gibarian, aboard the station asking him to come and help unravel a mysterious problem. On his arrival he discovers that Dr. Gibarian has killed himself. Indeed, everyone on the station is dead except for Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis) and science wonk Snow (Jeremy Davies), both of whom are displaying symptoms of psychoses. Unable to make any sense of the situation, exhausted, Kelvin goes to sleep in his quarters and wakes to find his wife Reya (Natascha McElhone), who committed suicide several years before, giving him a hug. Freaked by her presence, suspecting she is—well, we’re not really sure what he suspects at this point—he leads her into an escape pod and jettisons her into space; but when next Kelvin falls asleep, Reya reappears and this time he becomes reconciled to her presence and sets about attempting to understand what she and the “visitors” who have attached themselves to Snow and Gordon are, and further to determine what should be done about them.

Though it is the consensus among Snow, Gordon, and Kelvin that the “visitors” are somehow being manufactured from their memories by Solaris itself, none of them appear to be in the least concerned with how this is being achieved. Of the planet we are told, “it reacts as if it knows it’s being observed,” and that is all. No further mention is made of the Solaris’ possible sentience—the idea that occupies the heart of Lem’s novel—and thus the planet’s potentials come to seem those of an enormous magic bean that grants wishes whether you want it to or not. Soderbergh seems chiefly interested in the love story between Kelvin and Reya, and for the first part of the movie this suffices. Rapidly intercut flashbacks fill the audience in on Reya’s mental difficulties and the marital problems that drove her to suicide, and we soon learn that her present incarnation, configured solely from Kelvin’s memories of her, is as confused and unhappy as was her original, albeit for slightly different reasons. But as the movie progresses we discover that while Soderbergh is less than engaged by the scientific aspects of the story, he finds the metaphysical shadings downright fascinating and rather than emulating the poetic melancholy that infuses the Tarkovsky film, the script devolves into a sophomoric speculation on the nature of identity, with snatches of dialog that one might expect to run across in a Classic Comics rendering of Herman Hesse novel, often given a ludicrously portentous weight by Chris Martinez’s overbearing score, and a happy ending that is entirely inappropriate both to the sterile feel of the film and to the bloody events that precede it. An unwitting complicitor in this downward spiral is the leading man. George Clooney has proved himself to be a serviceable comedic actor, but though he appears to be giving the part of Kris Kelvin his best shot, he lacks the chops to do drama. When called upon to project fear or existential confusion, he merely succeeds in looking as if he has eaten some bad clams. But the true architect of his failure—and of the film’s—is Steven Soderbergh.

Technically, for the most part, Solaris is state of the art, its editing and cinematography top notch, but it’s evident that Soderbergh is not overly conversant with science fiction. Lately he has directed a series of remakes (Oceans 11, Traffic), and it may be that, mistaking the commercial success of these films for a proof of genius, he has come to look upon himself as able to do a quick study and thus become the master of each and every genre. Judging by the set design in Solaris, it would seem that the only science fiction film to have made an impression on him is Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. The docking sequence in Solaris is almost a quote from that film, and throughout there are sequences that reflect Kubrick’s influence. Yet while this is somewhat annoying, it is his refocusing of the story that stands as his most egregious error. The sentient ocean of Lem’s novel, an entity capable of replicating not only people but cities, would—in this age of CGI effects—have made a memorable centerpiece for a movie that lacks any memorable centrality. Without this underpinning, Kelvin’s interaction with Reya seems less redolent of cosmic mystery than of pure idiocy. I mean, one would think that after a bad marriage to a mentally disturbed woman who kills herself after a quarrel, after a subsequent liaison with her—let’s say—clone who kills herself by drinking liquid oxygen (only to be reborn), even an unreasonably smitten man would find this a cure for obsession. Had there been, however, some scientific promise in her origin, some hint that this new Reya offered Kelvin at least a scant hope of fulfillment, a portrayal of that relationship would have not only made more sense, it might have created a magical sense of wonder, a quality the film possesses in short supply. Soderbergh’s decision to concentrate on the question of identity strikes me as an almost equally myopic choice. The recognition of Philip K. Dick’s work as a source for cinematic stories appears to have exercised a deadening effect upon whatever remained of the Hollywood imagination. What is reality? What is life? Do clones have souls? Does George Clooney? Variants of these questions, simplistically stated, have informed the thematic structure of a veritable deluge of recent films, including a mainly regrettable batch treating of Dick’s own properties, most recently Imposter and The Sixth Day. It is as if Hollywood has decided that science fiction is either a monster-disaster genre or else should be invested with the intellectual content such as might be gathered from sitting in one evening on a Survey of Contemporary Philosophy course at an especially non-descript community college. Given the staleness of the thematic material, the stilted dialogue in the second half of the film, its derivative setting and under-equipped leading man, Solaris ultimately weighs in neither as an entertainment nor as a serious film, but rather as the latest in a line of movies (a la American Beauty, AI, Road to Perdition) in which the studios have taken a ponderous stab at doing art and produced instead a series of pompous, self-important, expensively mounted Technicolor belches.

As the saying goes, The third time is a charm. It’s easy to see what a great genre film Soderbergh could have made from Lem’s novel, and since this Solaris falls so far short of realizing its source materials, it’s tempting to hope that another director will pick up the torch and shoot a film that actually dares to tell Lem’s story rather than “making it more accessible,” “tuning it to the present,” “updating it,” or any one of a number of popular studio strategies that every one translate to “screwing it up” or “removing all the individuality.” Considering what directors like Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan and various others might do with the project . . . It’s an alluring prospect. But the chances are, given the necessarily high investment, the multiplicity of voices that would badger the director, whoever he turned out to be, into broadening the picture’s appeal, it’s probably not worth the effort. For my part, I would prefer to skip another remake, to revisit the novel, close my eyes and imagine what might have been.