Steven Soderbergh’s remake of “Solaris” suffers from Westernization in the same way that his remake of “Traffic” (from the British original, “Traffik”) suffered from Americanization. Because “Solaris” is short on dialog and action, many will confuse this otherwise competent film as “intellectual.” But, stripped of its original depth, and diluted to a caricature of Western theology, Soderbergh again proves he’s the master of abbreviation and a slave to mimicry.
I’m not going to review the film entire; the esteemed FilmJerk has already done that. Instead, I want to talk about the theme of Soderbergh’s version, and specifically it’s ending. Therefore if you haven’t seen the film, stop reading now. This is a very much spoiler-filled commentary, and requires knowledge of the film in advance.
“Solaris” will be a memorable film for 2002; I agree with Mr. Havens in placing it on the top ten list of my favorite films of the year. That is by no means a measure of its importance or artistry; rather, it’s simply more memorable and entertaining than the rest of what Hollywood has given us this year. The film is beautiful to look at, if contrived, and the performances of the leads are some of the best. Clooney is in top form as Kris Kelvin, and Jeremy Davies is suitably convincing as the borderline-autistic Snow. Viola Davis portrays her role as the “hard scientist” Gordon with the two-dimensionality that Soderbergh’s theme demanded of her, so she’s not to be faulted for her performance.
Visually, the film is a melange of other people’s work: Kubrick’s “2001”, Scott’s “Blade Runner” and Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (the 1972 Russian version), and his superior “Stalker”. Thievery of imagery has become so commonplace in Hollywood, it’s become acceptable fare. (Spielberg, now devoid of a muse, has made it canon.) But in my view, “homage” is just French for “rip-off,” and there’s a whole lot of homogenization going on in this “Solaris.”
But where “Solaris” is most troublesome is it’s fundamentally backward thinking. The anti-science angst that results in Gordon being so flat is exactly what is wrong with the theme. Whereas the original book explored far greater themes of humanity and spirituality, Soderbergh takes the easy road and turns the complex Polish novel into a simplified, white-bread, born-again Christian parable.
Mid-way through the film, Kelvin dreams of a dinner party where his wife, Rheya, is chastised by Kelvin and his friends for deigning to admit she believes in a higher intelligence. Humans are an inescapable, mathematical probability, snorts Kelvin and his hard-science colleagues, reducing the poor woman to a shriveled mess who flees the dinner entirely.
Later, the Solaris-created “visitor” version of Rheya stares down at the swirling, living Ocean and contemplates her existence. “It created me. Why can’t I talk to itr” she asks. With this heavy bat, Soderbergh slams his thematic ball into right field, and fills the bases. All that’s needed is a home run, and Soderbergh leaves it for the final line of the film.
As the station is drawn into Solaris, Kelvin and Gordon prepare to flee on the Athena, but Kelvin stops before boarding, staring at the pulsing planet below them. Oblivious to Kelvin’s inner struggle, Gordon mechanically spews technobabble as she preps the ship. Kelvin makes his decision, and closes the hatch behind Gordon, sending her back to Earth, and choosing to remain on the station as it plummets into Rheya’s “creator.” Kelvin has abandoned his science, and put his faith in God.
His reward is quick. After the station is absorbed by Solaris, Kelvin finds himself back at home, immortal, and standing next to Rheya. Staring soulfully into the camera, Rheya issues the line that becomes Soderbergh’s grand slam: “Everything we’ve ever done before is forgiven.” They now have eternity together, in peace and happiness.
Score: Christianity 4, Science 0.
How such a simplistic, overt and completely Christian theme has escaped most reviewers is beyond me. Sometimes we do miss the forest for the trees, but this forest is one big mother. Soderbergh even gives his characters a “Hell” to wallow in, in the dreary, wet Earth that is populated by raincoat-slickered, grey-faced bodies who crowd together in subways like the workers of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Where the water in Tarkovsky’s film had deeper meanings, here it’s just used to establish Soderbergh’s purgatorial atmosphere.
The Jesus plot, however, is at best impotent in the presence of such heavy sci-fi trappings. We are meant to believe that defeated, depressed Kelvin relies on his belief in pure science to eke out a daily life in the wake of his wife’s suicide. God is not part of his vocabulary; he is the pure Atheist. When science dutifully carries him to Solaris, via a myriad of manmade devices, he is confronted with a creator he cannot explain. When his visitor-Rheya attempts suicide herself, but magically reconstitutes, Gordon again explains the obvious. “I never get used to these resurrections.” But, using science, Gordon analyzes the situation rationally, and comes up with a solution to destroy the visitors. It works, religion be damned. So is Soderbergh heralding the triumph of science over Godr
No. Immediately thereafter the creator — Solaris — gets pissed (or at least more curious) and threatens to absorb the station. Gordon leaves, to return to the Hell of materialism. Kelvin opts to stay, to put his trust in Solaris. And thus we have the baseline of born-again Christianity: you don’t need science, you need only accept Christ unconditionally and you will be forgiven.
And, of course, he does and he is, even if his Christ is dressed up like a big, fat planet. Kelvin is handsomely rewarded for such Faith-with-a-capital-F. He gets eternal life and the girl. We can presume that had a fundamentalist Muslim written the screenplay, Kelvin would have gotten a thousand wives and eternal orgasms.
But through it all the contradiction of science vs. God is barely explored, and as a result fails miserably. A single sentence is spent on it during the dinner argument, and then abandoned. We are expected to take the power of Solaris at face value, and in this way Soderbergh is no more convincing than a late night televangelist. Without science, there would have been no trip to Solaris at all, and no redemption for Kelvin. Paradoxically, Science becomes the tool by which God/Jesus enables forgiveness, so that Man should learn to trust in Faith and NOT Science. You see the problem here; Soderbergh has created a plot that, in the end, defeats his own thesis.
Christians, on the other hand, should be overjoyed. Despite attempts to get their message out through hokey, right-wing trash like the Left Behind series of books and movies (and planned TV series), and low-budget junk like “The Omega Code”, big-budget producer Soderbergh has handed them a free proselytization tool that is running in every theater in the US right now. If they can bring themselves to ignore the 30 seconds of George Clooney’s nude buttocks, they should capitalize nicely on this gift.
Scientists, atheists, Darwinians, or any non-Christian believer, however, will have to look to the original source material for something deeper than this flat, Americanized view of spiritual redemption.