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Solaris (2002)

by on 2011/11/25

“There are no answers, only choices.”

* * * *

A friend of mine and I once wrote the story of an alien invasion. I devised the idea of a “realizer” based on an inside joke, a device allowing its user to literalize any given concept. For example, feed it the word “unstoppable” to create the invading army. I’d have thought it was still a reasonable novelty until I realized Solaris was ahead of me, long decades ahead.

Based on a 1961 sci-fi novel by Stanislaw Lem, it was originally made as a feature film in 1972. The version I saw was done in 2002. Produced by James Cameron (Terminator), directed by Steven Soderbergh (the new Ocean’s series), and starring George Clooney (From Dusk Till Dawn), even its terrible DVD cover could not distract me from its pedigree.

Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychologist hired to “talk down” a group of exo-scientists who refuse to return to Earth. Orbiting the world of Solaris in a sparsely inhabited spacelab, they will not explain their reticence, even when he arrives. What begins as a mystery to be solved soon becomes his own quagmire. When waking from sleep — assuming either are real — he encounters visions bridging the gap between reality and remembrance.

Recalling similar themes in Contact, Sphere, and the Matrix series, I was happy to be immersed in this meditative take on memory. If the foregoing were intellectual, adrenalizing, and philosophical, Solaris might best be described as lyrical.

Its claim to being science fiction resides as much in facade as in focus. Advanced technologies are woven in without any particular fanfare. Monitors are replaced by midair projections, and treated with more utility than wonder. Spaceflight seems to be a necessary drudgery, rather than an adventure. And Kelvin regards his touchscreen tablet with an apathy that would panic an Apple marketing executive, ten years along.

No, the obsessions here are the same longstanding “human” issues we’ve been dealing with since before the dawn of recorded history.

Now I’m tempted to make a “monolith” joke, because the dawn of history makes for a good segue to 2001: A Space Odyssey, an earlier piece this one very much resembles. No, there are no proto-humans cavorting around alien tech but — beyond the blase regard for material advancement — the production took every opportunity to remind me.

Takes are drawn out, long and pensive in tone. Many shots linger so particularly on Clooney, we see little of his environment, adding to the myopic subjectivity. Long stretches of time pass in an instant. Mindscapes are intercut with views of the planet, foreshadowing one character’s suggestion Solaris reacts as if it knows it’s being observed, an uncertainty principle Heisenberg himself may not have expected.

How much its forerunner drew upon Soviet cinematic conventions I don’t know, but this version makes liberal use of its montage and juxtaposition, splintering the relationship between real and unreal. Slow fades appear, lending a dreamy patina and, within single shots, Soderbergh dips to a black screen as if illumination itself was an unreliable tool.

The music by Cliff Martinez complements the effect incredibly well. While I’m not familiar with his other efforts, I’m very impressed with this score. Pervasive and persistent, yet subtle, it’s an effectively understated affair reminiscent of Tangerine Dream or Vangelis. Fuzzy, rounded bass tones pulse, layered overtop with percussive elements (possibly bells, glockenspiels, vibraphones, xylophones, and so on). Some parts are reversed, adding a surreal flavour to the sparse and spacey resonance. Brilliant.

I can see how the filmmakers’ work will have little appeal to the blockbuster masses. Some will call it careful, perhaps even slow. No doubt it’s deliberate and methodical, however its hypnotic spell makes the perfect prism through which to view the elusive, ephemeral subject matter. Solaris is less romantic than it hopes to be; nonetheless, I was enormously satisfied to contemplate its questions, not just “What is real?” but “What is reality?”

* * * *

Rated PG (Canada) / PG13 (United States)

99 minutes

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