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Natascha McElhone haunts the future
in Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris"
The Ghost of Cinema Past: Solaris
by Jürgen Fauth

"Solaris" by Steven Soderbergh-  


"Solaris" by Andrei Tarkovsky -  

When I first saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" as a teenager, I was terribly disappointed. I'd hoped for a space opera in the mold of Star Wars, full of daring action and epic spaceship battles-and instead I got space stations lazily rotating to the tune of "The Blue Danube." But then the impossible happened: just as slowly as the film's plot proceeded, "2001" turned into one of my favorite films.

It seems that many audiences are making the same mistake with Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris," the tale of the mysterious planet that sends haunting specters onboard the doomed space station orbiting it. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (George Clooney) is sent to investigate, and soon finds himself in the arms of his wife, who has been dead for years....

Picking up on the theme of lost love, "Solaris" has been marketed as romance, but this is not a mass-market film. Many audiences seem to truly hate it because it was sold to them as an intergalactic love story - which is not entirely wrong, but disingenious. "Solaris" is an art film, stylishly photographed by Soderbergh himself and full of philosophical conundrums.

Tarkovsky's 1972 original, based on the novel by Stanislav Lem, is full of the Russian director's trademark extended tracking shots. It is meditative cinema, cinema to be watched half-asleep, cinema that makes you forget yourself and the movie - it just is.

Soderbergh speeds the original up significantly. Gone is the infamous highway sequence, which featured sustained footage of the roads of the future-which happened to look a lot like the roads of today. Gone is most of the prologue on Earth, Gordon's midget, the moment of weightlessness, and Snout's name (he's called Snow now). Soderbergh's film is Solaris light - shorter, more focused, more accessible, sweeter. Trimmed and tightened, Soderbergh can focus on the film's emotional core: the unbearably nostalgic longing for lost love.

Clooney quickly sheds his suave exterior and reveals levels of suffering I'd previously thought him uncapable of. The original Kelvin, Donatas Banionis, shows the same raffish handsomness, but Clooney's familiarity enhances his performance: how did he ever come so undone? See what loss can do to any man, even Dr. Doug Ross? (Also, we get to see his butt. Twice.) As his dead wife, Natascha McElhone is excellent. Her striking features, angular cheekbones and wide-open eyes seem designed to communicate bewilderment. She's not real, and she knows it.

The pulsating planet that reflects our own dreams, regrets, and desires back to us in immortal form is, of course, a metaphor -- for memory, for the unconscious,and ultimately for the movies themselves.

Tarkovsky's "Solaris" still stands as the definitive version, but Soderbergh's deserves to be seen as its slick compendium piece. Both films can tax your patience, but they take you places rarely even considered by other movies, and the rewards are well worth the effort.

If you see it with the right expectations, you will find a lot to admire.

Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris" is currently playing in theaters.

Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" is available as a two-disc Criterion DVD set with audio commentary, essays by Philip Lopate and Akira Kurosawa, video interviews and deleted scenes.  


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