Jean Lynch dares to go and pick Steven Soderbergh's mind about Solaris.
It is fair to say that Steven Soderbergh's retelling of the 1972 science fiction classic Solaris has not had a massive impact on audiences in the States. The dilemma facing Soderbergh was that science fiction fans tend to fall into one of two categories: the lovers of special effects driven blockbusters, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Independence Day, and the more cerebral aficionados of the more philosophical examples of the genre, such as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and, indeed, Tarkovsky's Solaris. The first are unlikely to follow a story that is, according to Soderbergh, "a very convenient and wonderful metaphor for anything that you don't understand", whilst he is treading on hallowed ground for the second group of fans, plus remakes are notoriously often the poor relation to the original. However, despite cutting the running time by almost half, and having the cast speak in English rather than Russian, critics in the UK have been uncharacteristically approving of the film. Soderbergh was originally approached to see if he would be interested in making a science fiction film. Not a big fan of action driven sci-fi, he gave Solaris as an example of the genre that he would be interested in. As luck would have it, that friend then found out that after five years of negotiations James Cameron had just secured the rights to remake the film.
Says Soderbergh "I'm a big fan of Tarkovsky. I think he's an actual poet, which is very rare in the cinema, and the fact that he had such an impact with only seven features I think is a testament to his genius. I loved the (original Solaris). I didn't feel that his film could be improved upon. I wasn't trying to take what he did and build on it, I really just had a very different interpretation of the Lem book, which had a lot of ideas in it, I think, to generate a couple or more films."
Soderbergh acknowledges that he tried to emulate the mood of the earlier version. "What I did try and incorporate from the Tarkovsky film was the really intense sense of isolation that he created with Kelvin (Clooney), and also between all the characters. This sort of psychological claustrophobia that he created I thought was really compelling, and as a result you can see that with our film there are no establishing shots, there aren't a lot of exteriors, the camera stays very close to the characters, and I was really trying to imitate that sense of proximity to the characters and to the issues that he created. But I watched all (Tarkovsky's) films numerous times actually while I was preparing."
George Clooney, Soderbergh's business partner and long-time artistic collaborator, says "It was a big thing for Fox (the distributors) to do, to make this film, and that's the truth. It's not designed to be a blockbuster and we knew that going in. The problem is that early on, you're sort of forced into going very quickly and we weren't able to do what we're able to do overseas, to talk about it and sell it as the film it is, not to go see a big action film with naked people, which is how it was sold in the States, and that's the problem: people sit down to see something and they see something completely different. I understand why it happened. It forced me to do three days of junkets where every question was 'so did you work out?' and this isn't a film that necessarily is about that, and it trivialises everything Steven did in the film, and trivialises everything I was trying to do in the film, and that's too bad because, you know, what we're trying to do is push the envelope a little bit."
The Clooney-Soderbergh partnership is rapidly proving to have a lot of mileage, having begun with Out of Sight (1998) and continuing with the supercool and classy Ocean's Eleven (2001). Their production company, Section Eight Limited, has been responsible for a clutch of critically-acclaimed films, including Far From Heaven and Insomnia (both 2002) as well as their own vehicles. In the Spring of next year, they will start shooting Ocean's Twelve. 'Opposites Attract' was the tagline for their first film but it could have been describing this duo. With an infectious jovial interaction, the amiable, wise-cracking Clooney and the serious, intellectual Soderbergh are the Morcambe and Wise of the film industry or, as Soderbergh puts it, "the Martin and Lewis of Hollywood right now."
Natasha McElhone, who plays Rheya, Kelvin's wife, says "I guess the presumption would be that because they've worked together and because they have a production company together, that it would be that team of 'them' and everyone else, and it was not like that at all, they were very generous and inclusive. And they really bounce of one another, so to speak."
"There's got to be something wrong with you to get into this business," Soderbergh muses, 'and when you find somebody that you feel has similar ideas about what they want to accomplish, and how they want to accomplish it, you make sure you work with them again . I think we just 'got' each other very quickly, and fell into a very fluid way of working."
Solaris sees Clooney tackling a lower-key role that requires an understated performance but one that is inherently emotive for the audience. Their easy working relationship and the degree of trust between the two allowed Clooney to take on the challenge.
A serious engagement with the film is a rewarding one. It's been said that this is a film in which very little happens - 'boring' was the word used by one critic at the Berlin Film Festival, for which he rapidly found himself on the sharp end of Clooney's tongue. There is an innate, low-key tension that gently pulsates throughout the film, the subdued blue and grey hues creating a soporific effect. This does not equate to 'boring'. What it does do is draw the viewer in to film, much as the characters are drawn into Solaris itself, and one enters a sort of state of active meditation. Clooney cannily articulates this when he says "it questions pretty much all the major issues about belief, about God, about memory, and providing no answers except that every single one of your conclusions would be right as long as you don't force that conclusion on anyone else." Solaris indulges the audience.
Its central premise is that a psychiatrist, Chris Kelvin, has been sent to investigate the deaths of two astronauts on a space station circling Solaris, a planet that seems to be able to read minds and to give them what they want. Thus, on his first morning, Kelvin awakens to find his wife beside him, even though she has recently committed suicide. Kelvin struggles to come to terms with her existence, realising she can't exist even though she does. Rheya is similarly confused, saying, "I'm not the person I remember". The people that Solaris duplicates are the sum of the memories of the person for whom they appear, and memories are deceptive, forcing both the characters and the audience to confront their own perceptions of reality.
Says Soderbergh "The motto for me was the line that Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) says when he comes to Kelvin in the dream - 'there are no answers, only choices.' At the end of the day, I guess, I don't know that it's even relevant, what we believe or what is true, it really comes down to 'what do you do? What choices do you make?' and the whole film to me was about a character, at the end, sort of surrendering to something that he doesn't understand, that is a total mystery to him, but he's in the moment and he's making a decision based on what he feels, and he's let go of the past, he's let go of logic, surrendering, and I liked that idea. We constructed the entire film to lead to that idea. I thought it was . hopeful."
For many, science fiction may conjure up images of obsessive trekkies and people who fill in 'Jedi' as their religion on their Census returns, but traditionally science fiction has allowed thinking writers and filmmakers to extrapolate some interesting themes and ideas.
"There was a time when sci-fi was viewed as a way to explore serious ideas' Soderbergh explains 'and as active as a film like The Matrix is, I think one of the things that made it so successful, and has given it such a huge following is that there are some actual ideas at play in it, and I hope - well, we'll see when Solaris plays out around the world - I hope that it is viewed by filmmakers of my generation and the one on our heels, that they'll look at it as a viable way of exploring characters and human issues.
"The Lem book is a perfect example. There is a beautiful premise there that cuts right to the heart of some issues that we experience every day, about projection, and memory, and guilt, and what it means to be human, and it's that conceit that allows for such an interesting story to be created.
"I think it'd be great if people stopped looking at sci-fi films as westerns."