Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Tale of Two Solarises...or, Solarii?

In 1972, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky released a nearly three-hour long film adaptation of Stanislav Lem's sci-fi novel Solaris. It is almost universally regarded as a masterpiece, and played continuously in the U.S.S.R. for 15 years. Thirty years after Tarkovsky's film was made, Steven Soderberg released a 90-minute long remake/re-adaptation of the book. It received an "F" CinemaScore, which asks moviegoers to grade the movie they just saw when they step out of the theater, and bombed. Soderberg and star George Clooney blamed the studio's marketing efforts. But not me.

I didn't know how I was going to tackle this post initially. The Russian version (which I'll refer to as Solyaris, which is probably pretentious, but which allows me to distinguish between the two) had been on my must-see list for a while, but I hadn't gotten to it until last week. When I told a friend how much I'd liked it, he said "That Clooney movie?" and was surprised to hear there had been an original. So I figured maybe I'd review both movies. But while some people surely esteem Soderberg's movie, in my mind there really is no comparison between the two. That got me wondering why, and clued me in on how to write about these films.

Both films tell the story of a doctor, Kris Kelvin, sent to investigate whatever's going on aboard the manned space station orbiting the water planet Solaris. Kelvin leaves behind a largely isolated life on Earth, where several years earlier his wife had killed herself. When he arrives at the Solaris station, Kelvin finds his contact dead (also via suicide), and the other two inhabitants of the station very cagey, even belligerent. But mysteriously, Kelvin soon starts seeing people that shouldn't be there, too, and his dead wife quickly puts in an appearance. What does this mean? Is it really his wife? Do people go to Solaris when they die? Has the planet made a facsimile based on Kelvin's memories? What the hell is going on? Kelvin, his wife, and crewmates must wrestle with ideas of loss, regret, memory, what it means to be human, and our place in the universe. Heady stuff. Good sci-fi stuff.

Solyaris is an Ingmar Bergman movie set in space. It is slow, yet thought-provoking and gripping. But though it tells the same story (albeit almost entirely in closeups) there is literally nothing for me to recommend about Solaris. I thought a lot about the "Why?" and I believe it's because Tarkovsky's film has a lived-in, frumpy quality that makes it extraordinarily human. Soderberg's on the other hand, is a visually sterile minefield of emotion, where the characters plunge from one high-octane emotional moment to the next from the second Kelvin steps onto the station. And I don't think that's how we work. The same story's being told in the two films, with almost the exact same story beats, but Tarkovsky's cast of odd-looking Soviets (excepting Natalya Bondarchuk, who is stunning) deadpan even the strangest of occurrences while Soderberg's cast is all stand-offs, yelling, and unnecessary physical tics.

Explaining the reasons for these differences is beside the point, really, because I believe there's an invaluable lesson here about what makes compelling science-fiction. In Solaris, we get LOTS of emotion. We load up on flashbacks, dream sequences, and re-enactments of Oscar-caliber relationship and family drama (prompting the original novel's author to write "to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space...This is why the book was entitled Solaris and not Love in Outer Space). Solyaris gives us none of that — it is enough to know that Kelvin was married, his wife killed herself, and he remains haunted by it. So while emotional coherence is certainly critical, it's not the melodrama that is necessarily gripping, nor the big sci-fi ideas, because there isn't a ton of science in either version. I believe there's something fundamental that Solyaris captures about a human's ability to adapt, to habituate to even the most absurd situations, to maintain a sense of humor and wonder, and to strive for a better solution to the problems we face. For the scientist Gordon in Solaris it's all about the humans "winning," which plays as stunningly absurd. For the crew in Solyaris, the two options on the table are the two options that are always on the table when it comes to human conflict: violence, or communication. Space doesn't feel new to these guys. They seem like human beings, who happen to be in space. For the crew in Solaris everything is shocking, everything is urgent, and everything is done at a fever-pitch. We can't live like that in real life, and we don't.

We adapt. It's what we do, and it's recognizable. So if I were giving advice to any sci-fi writers out there, I'd say make your characters a little frumpier, leave the beds unmade, throw some rust on your fancy space-machines, and look for the basic warts-and-all humanity that allows us to see our own messy lives in the world we're being invited to visit.

Published by: Vance K, resident cult-film aficionado, unapologetic lover of terrible movies, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.