Going Gentle, Too Gentle, Into That Good
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 lostnot 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) beautifulso
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.