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Things I've Found 27 (The All-Solaris Issue and Yes, It's a Love Story)—12/4/2002

by Mark Rose

I have gone and seen the movie Solaris.

And I am stunned.

Stunned for many reasons. The biggest of which is that who would have thought Hollywood-types could have made such an anti-Hollywood movie? But wait, you’re saying, it has George Clooney in it. How can it be any good at all? Well, let’s start from the beginning.

Solaris is a science fiction novel written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. Those of you on this list who have listened to me for more than five minutes know that I think Stanislaw Lem is one of the greatest writers to ever walk the face of this earth. He is predominantly a science fiction writer but occasionally breaks the genre (in his “The Hospital of the Transfiguration”), is smart (”A Perfect Vacuum”), uproariously funny (”The Star Diaries”), a quick and sweet storyteller (”Tales of Pirx the Pilot”) and sometimes superhumanly philosophically deep (”Solaris”). He crams more science fiction into five pages than most authors do in a career.

And what is widely regarded as his best work, his literary masterpiece Solaris, is quite frankly, his most difficult, least likable, quite unfilmable book. So of course, now it’s been filmed twice. The first time was in 1972 by Russian filmmaker Andrej Tarkovsky. Some of you on this list actually watched this film with me on video. None of you have managed to stay awake through its conclusion. Tarkovsky’s version of the book is a snoozefest but has some fascinating imagery and a deep respect for the original work, which is not necessarily explicated by the on-screen action.

Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Solaris, now in theaters but trust me it will only be for a very short time, is quite authentic, faithful to the book (and includes an homage to Tarkovsky’s work as well), but it succeeds in its own medium beyond the scope of the book itself. This is very difficult to do. I can only think of a few movies that have accomplished this: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was better than Peter Benchley’s book, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose is different from Umberto Eco’s book of the same name but tells a similar story and does so very well, and now Soderbergh’s Solaris mimics Lem’s book, going only as far as it needs to, explaining more than the book does in some instances, and letting other sidelights slip away into obscurity.

You don’t need to have read Lem’s book to appreciate this film, but doing so will make you appreciate the effort involved. Because if you come to this movie thinking it’s a science-fiction action movie like every other film ever made (from Star Wars to Pitch Black to The Fifth Element), you’ll be sorely disappointed. For one thing, there’s not a lot of space things going on.

The plot is this: space station in orbit around planet Solaris — crazy things going on there — George Clooney asked to go there and figure out what’s happening — crazy things start happening to him too — planet is living sentient being — well, better come back to earth then. There are no gun battles, no bombs, no tentacles, nothing but the raw emotions of the crew on the space station and their efforts to communicate with something either on, or that is, the planet itself, and how they deal with the results of that communication.

Yawn! But not really. The book is much wilder than the movie with lots of red herrings and inexplicable events. The movie pares this down to the core events and is very good at exposing Lem’s original commentary on human-alien communication. In the movie, we see George Clooney grapple with his present, his past, the existence of an alien being who seems to be attempting to communicate with him, the fact that this communication is seriously screwing him up, and the end resolution of which is that he just doesn’t really know what to do. It’s a film about existence, communication, love, identity, representation, and the meaning of God.

So you KNOW it’s going to be a blockbuster, right? Well, when I went to see it, there were 6 people in the entire theater, and 2 of them left halfway through the film. Sigh. That’s to be expected. The last original idea that came out of Hollywood was to go look at other original ideas coming from other places. And I understand the attitude — this film, like the book, like Tarkovsky’s film, is slow. It’s measured, it’s paced, it needs to be savored and appreciated and perhaps we can only do that any longer in our own homes with the joys of VHS and DVD. But you SHOULD see it.

Reading the book would help and you can buy the book here:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0156837501/qid=1039043077/sr=2-1/ref=sr_2_1/104-2660860-0576768

but frankly, I would recommend that you read any of Lem’s other books first such as “Tales of Pirx the Pilot,” “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub,” “The Star Diaries” or “The Futurological Congress” because they’re more accessible, more of an opening into Lem’s fun and paradoxical mind. I’d provide a link on a Stanislaw Lem search but it doesn’t seem to work when you do that for some reason, anyone know why? In any event, you can manage to type his name into the search field at Amazon, I’m sure.)

But even without the book, the movie is interesting in its own right. It’s a love story much more than a sci-fi tale for one thing, and the movie explores the depths of a love that was gained and then lost. George Clooney gives a tremendous performance as the man who has lost his wife to suicide and believes he may have found her again; Natascha McElhone is touching in her extraordinarily lost performance where she’s not even sure of her own identity (her eyes are distractingly large for a human being, they’re bigger than Clooney’s head); Jeremy Davies is creepily insane as one of the space station employees, and Viola Davis gives an intense if one-sided performance as the tough-assed doctor who is on the side of humanity. A lot of this movie is well-acted but there are a few extreme closeup scenes where pretentiousness wins out, so beware.

Visually, it’s not much to get excited about. Space station corridors from Space: 1999 and pretty animated planet atmospherics. The music score’s central motif is promising, but the peripheral music is all single-note blasts that sound stupid. There is almost no action in the film whatsoever, I don’t think anyone even breaks into a run throughout the entire 2-hour length. BUT the characters’ thoughts and emotions are dynamic enough to fill that timeframe. The movie doesn’t really tell you what is going on or what has happened, it allows you to fill in the blanks. That’s not an easy thing to do for today’s moviegoer, and it’s not being well-received by the public.

Since you’re on this list, that means you might be the type of person to enjoy such an oddball effort. I’d prefer you see it in the theaters just so you can give a few bucks to the estate of Stanislaw Lem, but if you want to wait, you won’t miss much in visuals when it comes to DVD or VHS. Get it then, and read a book or two of Lem’s in the meantime. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

But if you go and you just get really bored, look out for the scenes of George Clooney chopping zucchini. It’s painfully obvious this man has never been in a kitchen in his life. Now that’s acting!