Paler Sun

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Review of 'Solaris', director Steven Soderbergh

The first film version of Stanislaw Lem's science fiction story 'Solaris' was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. Thirty years later Steven Soderbergh--the man responsible for 'Erin Brockovich' and last year's re-make of 'Ocean's Eleven'--gives us his version. Both films use the bare plot of Lem's story and develop themes implied in it, but the difference between the two films is startling.

The story is set in the near future where world-weary psychiatrist Chris Kelvin is contacted by his friend Gibarian, the commander of the space station Prometheus, to ask for help. Prometheus is orbiting the beautiful planet Solaris in an attempt to assess its commercial potential. Something is happening on the station but Gibarian is reluctant, or unable to describe what the 'something' is. Kelvin, living a pointless existence on earth, agrees to go to the station. What he finds when he gets there and what role Solaris plays in the events make up the body of the story. It's something that's not fully explained in either film and it's this ambiguity which makes the story genuinely disturbing. But a plot is only the skeleton of a film--the execution of it is everything.

Tarkovsky's film, which unfolds at a leisurely 165 minutes, is a powerful poetic work which explores the major issues of subjectivity, memory and regret. There's even an ecological subtext. It's a story about revelation and pain in inner space, rather than adventure in outer space. What makes his version so absorbing is the demands the film makes on its audience. We become participants in the search for meaning and actively contribute in wresting understanding from the unfolding story. No doubt censorship in the Soviet Union--where Tarkovsky shot his film--made ambiguity a creative necessity. Nevertheless it's a work which credits its audience with an active intelligence.

To be charitable, Soderbergh's version has some things going for it. A beautifully designed work, it's a tender film suffused with melancholy. But he has chosen, probably for commercial reasons, to narrow the focus of the story down. The themes that Tarkovsky takes up are there, but are peripheral to a love story which now takes centre stage. This 'Solaris' abandons all Tarkovsky's delicious uncertainty. Worse still, it doesn't trust its audience. The technical brilliance of the slick special effects is let down by a clumsy finale which includes a hitherto unused voice-over from Kelvin just to make sure we've all understood what's happened. It's 'Solaris'-lite, not a patch on Tarkovsky's version, and they've even given it a happy ending!