• Dr. Doug Ross
  • Soderbergh Thinking He Made an Art Film
  • No Special Effects


Directed by the Sole Reason Julia Won An Oscar

"Mr. Soderbergh encouraged me to improvise my lines, but I wrote them on my hand just in case. "

Going Gentle, Too Gentle, Into That Good Night

Steven Soderbergh's latest is less an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's novel, an answer to Andrei Tarkovsky's Marxist version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even a sci-fi film at all. The bulk of HBO's "Making of Solaris" is dominated by Soderbergh and his producers ruminating on how "passionate" the story is, that there's a "genuine love story" that "fills every frame of the film." They're right: Soderbergh fills Kubrick's agnostic voids with a ghost of girlfriend past, but Soderbergh's themes more informed by the meticulously organized visual schemes of Dylan Thomas than Lord Stanley's cold intellectualism. Infusing romance into sci-fi minimalism may seem an ill fit, but the allusion that begins Dr. Chris Kelvin's journey to Solaris is a planned come-on of "And Death Shall Have No Dominion." Though Kelvin loses the wife attracted by the words, their love is not lost—not on Solaris, anyway.

You see, death has no dominion on Solaris because the planet itself is a vast ocean of soft electric current that resurrects visitors' past loved ones, as if plucking them straight from the subconscious. Which, of course, is precisely expressed in Soderbergh's image of Solaris as a Dylan Thomas CAT scan, a sinewy mass of brain waves under the windings of the sea, where the lovers, apparently, "shall not die windily, twisting on racks when sinews give way." Visitors to Solaris are reunited with past loves and go stir-crazy in its purgatory, but what Chris Kelvin learns is that death is not an end, but a step in the process of life and death bred by love. In Thomas' later volumes (The Map of Love, Death and Entrances), the theme is carefully patterned in images (like a well-constructed Soderbergh time-scheme) so that the reader feels the magical unity of men and women's love as the first step toward growth, death, and procreation, and he took great comfort in the idea that love is a gloriously necessary aspect of biology that binds generations and makes them immortal, which, as we learn, is the central conflict that caused Kelvin to lose his wife.

In the abstract, all of this is just fine and dandy, if not nobly ambitious and worthy of heaping praise if crafted with the equal skill of the poet. The problem is that Steven Soderbergh yearns so badly to be an "artist" that he forgoes his entertainment obligation to the audiencewhich is not to say that the film is "too slow." Soderbergh excels on a grander scale (the sex scene with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, the epic parallels of Traffic, even the pop spectacle of Ocean's Eleven), but when his artistic pretensions guide his filmmaking, disaster strikes (Kafka, Schizopolis, Full Frontal). Clearly he wants this to be a meditation, but at a little over ninety minutes, he's just left a yearning romance between sketched characters and token conversations about God. Tarkovsky's film is infamously long, but he fills the frames with ruminations on love and death (think Terence Malick in the voice of Tolstoy) and spellbinding, numbing images, like full minutes of a still camera focused on random traffic that labor the point.

If the audience is going to spend this sort of quality time with the characters, then the artist is obligated to let us into their world. Soderbergh either couldn't flesh out the script, or he couldn't trust the audience on his journey; only ten minutes into the movie, Kelvin is on Solaris. He's a psychologist, I guess, who conducts roundtables for depression victims, bored as Chomsky at a community college. That's about all we know, really, though we are dutifully informed that his "background and experiences make you the ideal candidate to come to Solaris...don't worry, I didn't elaborate." Don't worry, you didn't: Sounds like sort of a "God Will Hunting" scenario to me. In typical Soderbergh form, Kelvin's story is fleshed out by flashback, but I had trouble grasping this "passionate romance" between Chris and Rheya (Natasha McElhone). We only get to know her after she's met Chris, so she plays as more of a symbol, and Chris seems attracted to her because she's 1) artsy, and 2) beautiful—so she must be an archetype. The relationship has a tenuous feel, but Soderbergh never clues us in to the nature of their attraction, other than Rheya's mother "not communicating with her" and Chris' constant attention. I don't know for sure, but I'll bet Chris has a Sixth Sense about her.

That's essentially what Soderbergh does with the internal logic of Solaris: He takes what could have been a poetic meditation on the themes of guilt, memory, and purgatory and turns it into something worse than a Shyamalan movie. Shyamalan's ideas on faith and love are simplistic at best ("Everything is a sign."); at worst, he spends forty minutes of an hour forty movie convincing us that Bruce Willis has never been sick. But Shyamalan gets credit from me for having the confidence to pace the audience through a movie without forgetting about them either. Signs' idea of faith is almost purely Calvinist, but he elicits a few good jumps and laughs; to contrast, Soderbergh reconstructs the set of 2001, deadens the pace, and hopes we buy it. Kubrick's camera stares into the empty space pods and dares ask us what we see, or plays the journey into space as a ballet. Soderbergh's camera seeks out the creases in George Clooney's befuddled forehead, and the score evokes eighties Depeche Mode, which also turned techno into clichéd romance.

Perhaps my sharp criticism of the film is that it seems like such a waste. Soderbergh's grounding in the themes and images in the work of Dylan Thomas seems so inspired: Now that's a man who would find the idea of purgatory as an expression of guilt-ridden intrusive memory. He's dealing with Thomas' passionate, romantic themes, but the tone of the movie doesn't match the recklessness and impulsivity that fed his romanticism. Soderbergh's is film's visual scheme seems more fit for W.H. Auden's deep yet unsentimental tones in "In Praise of Limestone" or "Lullaby." Thomas's romanticism relies on "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower" and his gin-raged fireball orations balanced by the compelling lyricism of simple, natural imagesnot ghosts on minimalist spaceships. Instead, Soderbergh scribes such poetry as "I never get used to these resurrections" and "I could tell you what's happening, but that won't tell you what's happening." It's a testament to George Clooney to imagine Tom Cruise in the role, but Soderbergh places too much on his broad, lovingly filmed shoulders. I very much enjoyed Soderbergh's composition of Solaris as "poor nerves so wired to the skull," but he still misses the point: Thomas' hero "bares his nerves"; Soderbergh's bares his ass. Twice. It's not the same thing.

The Pitch:
2001: A Space Odyssey
Dylan Thomas
1 Solaris
See It For:
Soderbergh daydreaming about Erin Brockovich's push-up bra.