Now that Brad Pitt has been exploring space in Ad Astra, it’s become pretty clear that the Ocean’s 11 gang aren’t the best people to send into space. Matt Damon obviously had a tough time during The Martian. Brad Pitt had to face up to his daddy issues. And, way back in 2002, George Clooney was facing his own demons in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. The film was based on the 1961 science fiction novel by Polish writer Stanisław Lem. By 2002, the book had already been turned into a Soviet television film and a film adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky. Though the earlier film is critically acclaimed, Soderbergh claimed that his version would be more faithful to the novel than Tarkovsky. Unfortunately, the author hated both versions. Well, I guess you can’t please anyone. With the release of Ad Astra recently, there were plenty of critics who were bringing up Clooney’s space adventure. Well, I guess the two are science-fiction films that dealt with the deep stuff. It felt right to watch it for today’s post.
Steven Soderbergh made this film after coming off a hugely successful run. He had brought us Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven and people were keen to see what he made next. I don’t think anyone really expected him to make Solaris. Even for a filmmaker with as varied a filmography as his, the science-fiction film seemed like an odd choice. And most people agreed. It didn’t do incredibly well at the box office and most of the reviews were mediocre at best. I guess it doesn’t help that the original film is still so well-loved by many. But is it possible that people have underestimated Soderbergh’s film? Maybe.
Science-fiction isn’t really the big thing in Solaris. The director seems to go out of his way to avoid any of the normal details that fill most space films. We don’t know much of the time we’re living in or what life is like on Earth. Just as we don’t delve into the mechanics of space travel or the science of alien planets. These are all things that we just accept as truths. They are background details that are incidental to the main story. A story that is, at its heart, about humanity and memory. This is a film that asks the question “what does it mean to be human?”
The film sees Clooney play Dr Chris Kelvin, a psychologist who is sent into space to try and help the crew of a space ship. The ship is studying the planet Solaris and is experiencing a weird phenomenon. Kelvin is invited by his old friend who, by the time the doctor arrives, has already committed suicide. The rest of the crew are being cagey about what is going on so it isn’t until Chris comes face-to-face with his dead wife that he starts to understand. The planet is creating replicas of the crew’s loved ones and the crew are having a hard time dealing with it. Chris finds himself lost between knowing that the replica isn’t real and getting a second chance to right the wrongs of his past.
Solaris is a weird and slow-moving film. Everything has a dreamlike quality to it and it’s all quite thoughtful. This isn’t the kind of space movie that we’re used to but one that will get you thinking. We see that the replicas aren’t evil and are just as much of a victim as the crew. Kelvin’s “wife” has all of her memories but understands that she hasn’t actually lived them. She knows that she lacks certain bits of information and her memories are limited to Chris’ experiences. She feels things but realises that she isn’t real. She questions the existence and what makes us real. It’s all very deep. Then we have the crew dealing with having their loved ones back. Chris realises that he made mistakes as a husband and sees the replica as a way to make amends.
Solaris isn’t as bad a film as everyone seems to keen to remember it as. Is it great? No. But it’s also not dreadful. It is a deep and insular film. It may be set in space but this is a film that never really moves out of the character’s heads. This isn’t a film intended to give you a thrill but one meant to make you think. Could it perhaps be a little less intense? Probably. I did find my concentration wavering slightly during some of the heavier moments but, for the most part, I like this film. It’s not one of Soderbergh’s best but it’s not the huge disaster history wants to brand it as.