The one constant in Steven Soderbergh’s directorial style is his tendency to change that style at the drop of a hat. Prior to his 2002 update of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Soderbergh’s previous four films – all released within the span of two years – were a biographical film (Erin Brockovich), a crime drama (Traffic), an ensemble comedy heist (Ocean’s Eleven) and an art house-infused Hollywood take on the artifice of film (Full Frontal). Not only was this a hot streak for Soderbergh, it was an audacious display of range, driven home by his artistic adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi classic.

In classic Soderbergh fashion, though, the science fiction in Solaris is incidental. The essence of his abbreviated adaptation focuses on questions of memory, loss and the transmutability of human identity. From the film’s opening scenes, Soderbergh plays with the concept of self with protagonist Dr. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), with pointed visuals alternating between shots that position the camera directly behind and in front of Kelvin. It impresses upon the viewer the notion that Kelvin is a two-sided man. And when he is tasked with venturing to the space station orbiting the sentient planet Solaris to determine what is happening to the rapidly dwindling crew, that duality within the clinical psychologist plays out on the screen.

In this lean Soderbergh version, the nature of the planet’s malevolent effect on the crew is no more vague than Tarkovsky’s or the original. The ambiguity inherent in a planet that seemingly reads minds and restores those lost to us is all the more fascinating without blatant detail. This is a different kind of space crazy because the people that reappear to the crew are real, to an extent. The shock has driven some to suicide, but Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis) and Snow (Jeremy Davies) seemingly are maintaining their grip on reality. The question is whether Kelvin will be driven mad by the reappearance of his dead wife Rheya (Natasha McElhone), perhaps after you’ve asked why Kelvin was presumed to be immune to whatever psychological phenomenon is occurring.

Yet Kelvin does approach the situation with a clinical eye. He knows this Rheya can’t be real, despite the amount of information she knows about her past. But it is precisely what she doesn’t know that turns Solaris into a psychological drama and calls into question the extent to which one can know another person. Dr. Gordon is adamant, forcefully telling Kelvin, “She’s not real.” Rheya’s tearful admission “I’m not the person I remember. I don’t remember experiencing these things” supports that notion while proving that these “replicants” are self-aware. In the confines of his room, Kelvin and his “wife” relive the romantic and fraught moments of their past together, in dreams and in conversation. Soderbergh depicts the past awash in warm red hues, contrasting it explicitly with the cold blues of the space station. Many of Soderbergh’s stylistic choices in Solaris are heavy-handed.

But these memories are only Kelvin’s, his resurrected wife the product of the extent and limitations of his own memory. “I’m suicidal because that’s how you remember me,” Rheya says. In his professional capacity, Kelvin is expected to have an answer to these events, but his personal strife is debilitating. Soderbergh is relentless in his efforts to constrict Kelvin, to mirror in his dark, claustrophobic room the starkness of his mind. Rheya and the other replicants first arrive in dreams; his existential debates with her are essentially the inner workings of his mind made manifest. Lem’s material posits that, for better or worse, you are purely made up of what people remember of you. That makes this iteration of Rheya not real, but does not so completely invalidate Kelvin’s concept of her.

While there is merit to Lem’s own sharp criticism of Soderbergh’s more simplified adaptation, which referred to it as “Love in Outer Space,” the film is more than its Clooney-McElhone scenes. And the ambiguous ending Soderbergh chose for Kelvin – pulled with the station toward Solaris only to be seen struggling to regain his normal life, either on an approximation of Earth on Solaris or as an unbeknownst replicant on Earth – only heightens his effort’s discourse on the nature of humanity, existence and being. In sharp contrast to Tarkovsky’s focus on choice and taking ownership of one’s identity, Soderbergh paints in broad strokes, somewhat diluting the strength of an argument that would say that a replicant – as the sum total of memory – may be close enough to the real thing.

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One Comment

  1. Marion

    October 16, 2016 at 1:52 am

    Why the visitor of Snow is Snow ?? What does that mean?


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