SOLARIS

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. USSR. 1972.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. USA. 2002.


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Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion - Dylan Thomas


Armed with scientific curiosity, a desire for adventure, and a chauvinistic desire to spread its power to other realms, mankind has always dreamed about traveling to outer space. What is ironic is, as the film Solaris suggests, the journey may only bring us closer to confronting inner space: our fears, regrets, feelings of guilt, and issues of conscience. Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris has been filmed twice: once by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and recently by Steven Soderbergh in a much more condensed version, though the idea can be traced to the 1962 film, Journey to the Seventh Planet. The three-hour plus Tarkovsky version takes place almost entirely within the claustrophobic confines of a space ship but the philosophical space is vast. Tarkovsky's film is exceedingly slow-paced with his trademark long takes, static compositions, and mood of solemnity, yet it contains haunting images of cinematic poetry.

Set at an undisclosed time in the future, the film opens with psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) gazing at a lovely image of underwater reeds rising and falling in cadence. He then visits his estranged father in his countryside home in a fifteen minute sequence that is not present in Lem's novel, but crucial to the film's conclusion. When Burton, a friend of his father, warns Kris of strange happenings on the space station surrounding the oceanic planet Solaris, Kris is sent to investigate. After an extended highway montage of Burton's car ride home that perhaps suggests a road going nowhere, Kris arrives at the space station to find that one of the crew has committed suicide, and the others talking about ghost-like apparitions that resemble dead loved ones. He gradually discovers that the planet they are circling is a living entity, producing exact copies of people extracted from the crew's memory. One of the "guests" is Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), Kris' wife who took her own life. 

Though able to regenerate herself after being sent on a rocket into space, she slowly begins to take on human characteristics and Kris becomes as attached to her as to the memory of his wife. The character of the psychologist is much less emotional than in the Soderbergh version and the lack of flashbacks makes it difficult to fully appreciate the trauma of Kris' recent past. In a gorgeous scene, Hari discovers a painting by Pieter Bruegel of a village in winter that helps her get in touch with snowy scenes from Kris' childhood, enhancing her development toward being human. As the alien Hari realizes, however, that she can never become the real Hari, she separates herself physically and emotionally from Kris, suggesting that the created memory of the past is more real than the reality of the present. While Tarkovsky's film is plagued with poor editing and other technical difficulties and struggles to amass any cumulative power, it is filled with unforgettable images that remain indelible and a philosophical depth that demands repeat viewing. 

In Soderbergh's leaner and more accessible film, George Clooney is Kelvin, the psychologist whose wife has committed suicide. He is sent to the space station Prometheus to investigate the loss of contact with the Solaris mission after receiving a plea from Commander Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), a Prometheus astronaut. When he arrives he finds that Gibarian has committed suicide, Dr. Helen Gordon (Viola Davis) has barricaded herself in her room, and scientist Snow (Jeremy Davis) is barely comprehensible in his attempts to explain what is taking place. Kelvin quickly learns that Solaris is not just an inert planet but a sentient being (perhaps a metaphor for Heaven) that creates exact replicas of people from the crew's past including Gibarian's young son and Kelvin's wife Rheya (Natasha McElhone). 

Increasingly drawn to the double of his wife, Kelvin is forced to complete the past and take responsibility for her suicide. Enhanced by a lovely score by Cliff Martinez, Soderbergh's is a moody and deeply spiritual version that pares the story down to its essence. As told in numerous flashbacks, much of the film is taken up with Kelvin's memories. In one crucial scene at a dinner party, while Rheya defends the idea of a higher intelligence, Kelvin plays the role of a coldly rational scientist and scoffs at her ideas. Ultimately, with the guidance of the intelligent ocean of Solaris, Kelvin is provided a second chance to confront his demons. Allowed to take responsibility for his past, he is able to embrace the spiritual harmony of the universe. While perhaps less poetic than the Tarkovsky version, it's theme of the pain of love and memory are deeply moving and the film resonates with a quiet beauty all its own.

Howard Schumann
 
 
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