Steven Soderbergh has always been a filmmaker who belies easy stereotyping. His prolificness and his chameleon-like ability to switch between genres, between the arthouse and the mainstream, have always made his work and position in the film industry tricky to pin down. Never has that slippery quality of Soderbergh’s been more evident than in his highly ambitious project to remake Andrei Tarkovsky’s colossal arthouse titan, Solaris.
Remakes are, of course, ten a penny in today’s cinematic landscape, but even 15 years ago when Soderbergh’s Solaris was released, remakes were not uncommon. What perhaps marked Soderbergh’s out as a real curio – over, say, Quentin Tarantino’s recurrent postmodern retreading of cult B-movies, or even Hollywood’s co-opting of the J-Horror fad – was Soderbergh’s sheer balls in trying to take on a bona fide cinematic masterpiece and sneak it into the multiplexes reasonably intact.
Though not especially derided on its release, Soderbergh’s Solaris was an unquestionable box office failure, and, with time, even its critical esteem appears to be slowly receding. With the upcoming release of Logan Lucky, and the accompanying journalistic retrospectives of Soderbergh’s career to date, Solaris has interestingly slipped to the lower reaches in many rankings of his films – below such anonymous works as Contagion and Ocean’s Twelve. Thus, it feels only right to attempt to reclaim the nobility of Soderbergh’s Solaris experiment and place it much higher; not only in Soderbergh’s own filmography, but in the canon of recent Hollywood science fiction.
The obstacles to remaking Solaris must have been obvious even at the outset. To some extent, they are still identifiable in the end result. It always had the whiff of something that could end up falling between two stools. On the one hand, it was never going to satisfy the purists likely to claim sacrilege against Soderbergh’s temerity to even deign to remake a film by the great Tarkovsky. On the other hand, genre buffs would be frustrated by the almost complete lack of action or spectacle. Furthermore, by chopping an incredible 70 minutes off the original film’s running time, Soderbergh naturally had to compromise on Tarkovsky’s abstract, languorous approach to the subject matter in exchange for a much more concise, structurally-refined approach (although many might argue there is real skill in abbreviating a dense and unwieldy 166 minutes of Soviet arthouse solemnity into a precise and slick 98-minute Hollywood vehicle).
Perhaps a more unequivocal point about the flaws of the remake is that, in the trimming of the material, Soderbergh’s storytelling winds up being a little too inelegant, and naturally omits some of the gravitas and mystery of Tarkovsky’s vision. Charting astronaut Chris Kelvin’s profound distress as he is “visited” by the spectre of his dead wife on a spaceship orbiting the planet Solaris, Soderbergh’s need to fast-track all the deep metaphysical baggage implicit in this conceit means putting a lot of expository dialogue in the mouths of his two leads, played by George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. It is perhaps no coincidence that many of Soderbergh’s best films – particularly those that were adaptations (especially Out of Sight, 1998 and Traffic, 2000) – were penned by screenwriters other than himself.
The presence of George Clooney in the lead role stands at the heart of Soderbergh’s difficulty with his whole concept of Solaris. In 2002, Clooney was becoming Hollywood’s most bankable actor. He was only 40, so could still pull off playing the youngish leading man, and Soderbergh himself had exacted great mileage out of Clooney’s star quality in Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven. But Solaris required something different, and it’s questionable whether Clooney was able to pull that off. Clooney is the classic “film star” actor. One is aware of his innate presence and charm the moment he appears on screen, and his better performances are when he is not trying to be other than himself; when he lets that natural charisma shine through.
This isn’t meant to underestimate Clooney’s natural versatility, but in Solaris, he unwittingly becomes an icon for the difficulties of Soderbergh’s experiment. His fish-eyed, sombre gaze feels unconvincing, and the clear commercial need to ogle on Clooney’s starry sexiness – there are spurious love-making flashbacks and even a couple of gratuitous shots of Clooney’s tensed bum – jars with the subject matter. (Those familiar with Tarkovsky’s version would surely chuckle at the sheer unlikelihood of that film’s lead, the extremely solemn Donatas Banionis, ever being asked to perform similar scenes).
Before placing Solaris conclusively into the bracket of “interesting failure”, though, it is worth recognising the film’s merits, and the fact that it was never intended to be a like-for-like remake of Tarkovsky’s vision. Indeed, this was the very dialectic brought up by Mark Kermode in a recent tweet, in which he railed against the premeditated snobbery of those denigrating the right of Soderbergh’s version to even be considered in the same breath as Tarkovsky’s. Kermode is, of course, right, although as someone commented immediately underneath, allowing both movies to be considered side-by-side is unlikely to provide much in the way of objective evidence for Soderbergh’s film being better – which it clearly isn’t.
Soderbergh may not have succeeded in matching the profundity of Tarkovsky’s colossal treatise on what it means to be human, but who says he was even trying in the first place? And his more genre-inflected take finds other angles in the story not altogether clear in Tarkovsky’s version. Soderbergh’s film is, in essence, a superior romantic drama, wrapped up in a sci-fi conceit. The tale is age-old: an examination of the poignancy to be found in remembering a lost love. Whereas Tarkovsky’s film was a cerebral engagement with concepts of memory, relativity and Lacanian theory, Soderbergh’s is a classy, narrative piece – no more, no less.
Where Soderbergh loses out to Tarkovsky in lyricism and philosophy, he more than holds his own in terms of structure, style and emotion. Solaris is a prime example of Soderbergh’s masterly use of the flashback as an imaginative way of making comprehensible to a mainstream audience what is at stake in the psychologically fraught sequences on the spacecraft (see the truly brilliant Clooney-Lopez seduction sequence in Out of Sight as another such example). As Kelvin sleeps – which brings the visitations of his wife – his dreams expertly take us, the audience, chronologically through the history of his relationship with his wife. As the recollections reach their poignant conclusion over what ultimately happened to her, it chimes with the emerging crisis over what to do with her troubling apparition on the spacecraft.
The sheen of Soderbergh’s cinematography and mise en scène is also first-class in Solaris. Often noted for themed, colour-coded palettes in Out of Sight and Traffic, the brown, metallic hues of Solaris’ opening sequences automatically clue the audience in to a nagging sense that something isn’t quite right with Kelvin’s mental state. Cliff Martinez’s tender, subtle score is also the perfect accompaniment to the slow-burning, emotional undertow of the film.
Viewed with the understanding that Soderbergh wasn’t trying to ape, steal from, or even better Tarkovsky, his Solaris exercise actually takes on a much more favourable light. In attempting to pay homage to the man, while also transposing the weighty ideas of Solaris to a format suitable to a mainstream audience, he surely succeeded in crafting yet another ingenious chapter in one of American cinema’s most admirable careers. And with Soderbergh coming out of “retirement” at the tender age of 54, could there be more such experiments left? Say, a version of Tarkovsky’s incomparable Stalker? I, for one, won’t be complaining.