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'According to... the British Board of Film Classification... the latest Clooney release contains "a moderate sex scene". Can we expect them to tell us when there is a really good one?' - Letter to The Guardian, last week

The inappropriate sequel or remake has long been a staple of the film industry's attempts at self-parody - think of Good Will Hunting 2 from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, for example - and one that's occasionally made all the more ironic by the sequels and remakes that they genuinely seem to think are a good idea. Most Hollywood attempts in this department make a bad film out of a good one, but there are a small but significant number of instances where they've taken a bad film and improved it no end. The number of good remakes of good movies is even smaller. So it was with rather mixed feelings that I learned of the news that James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney had joined forces to remake Andrei Tarkovsky's classic SF movie Solaris.

The day will eventually come when it will not be obligatory for descriptions of Tarkovsky's Solaris to contain the phrase 'the Russian 2001: A Space Odyssey'. But obviously not yet. Cerebral, glacial, thoughtful, all these words apply to the Russian Solaris in exactly the same way that they don't to anything James Cameron has worked on in the past. But to be honest he appears to have taken a definite back seat on this production, which seems much more typical of Soderbergh's filmography.

George Clooney plays psychologist Chris Kelvin, who leads what looks like a fairly miserable existence on a near-future Earth. But a message from his old friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) leads him to the space station Prometheus in orbit over the mysterious planet Solaris. The surviving crew are suffering from a wide range of psychological complaints, all due to one thing: by night, 'visitors' from Solaris materialise out of nowhere on the station, taking the form of the crew's loved ones - as Kelvin learns for himself when he awakens next to his wife, who back on Earth had been dead for years...

Conventional advertising for Solaris hasn't really caught the essence of the film. This is mainly because all the trailers and so forth either show one important scene or lots of significant and/or striking moments in quick succession. What they don't, and can't express to the viewer is the fact that these important and striking bits are invariably separated by long passages where not much of anything at all seems to be happening. I'm not saying I agree with the German critic who asked Soderbergh at a press conference why he made such a boring film, but I can certainly see where he's coming from. Cerebral, glacial, thoughtful - yup, the new Solaris is all these things too, but at least it's only an hour and a half (-ish) long and not three hours like its predecessor (even if this does mean it achieves the startling feat of somehow managing to seem slow yet rushed simultaneously).

I was going to say the new Solaris isn't a conventional SF film, but I may as well just broaden that out and say it's not a conventional film, full stop. It's wilfully oblique and impenetrable in places, it offers no easy explanations for the events of the story, it has very little in the way of 'plot' - a major revelation about one of the characters, which would be a crucial moment in a different film, here is passed over almost without comment. This is in no way a dumbed-down version either of Tarkovsky's film or Stanislaw Lem's original novel.

Where new Solaris differs from old is in its emphasis. Old Solaris was much more about the nature of the visitations from the planet and what they truly represented - new Solaris concerns itself much more with the relationship between Kelvin and his wife (Natascha McElhone) - their past relationship is depicted in flashback, as Kelvin comes to terms with the simulacra Solaris has created for him. (And, yes, you do get to see George's bum, albeit dimly lit and in medium-shot.) For all that it's about a romance, it's not actually that romantic, nor does it really want to be - it's more interested in question such as the subjectivity of memory, the division between the self and the world, how well one can truly know another person, and so on. At the time McElhone's rather mannered performance irritated the life out of me but on reflection she does a remarkable job, modulating effectively between the 'real' Rheya and the replica of her. (Jeremy Davies, on the other hand, is just plain annoying as surviving crewmember Snow.)

And as for Clooney himself... well, I think we're in danger of underappreciating one of the most ambitious and charismatic leading men in current cinema. Sure, he made a few mistakes early in his career, but since then - and more often than not with Soderbergh as his accomplice - he's made some of the most interesting and classy films of recent years - Out of Sight, Three Kings, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Spy Kids (well, maybe not the last one). His performance here is dedicated and serious and largely successful.

This being a Soderbergh movie, it naturally looks gorgeous throughout, mixing earthy tones for the Earthbound sequences with metallic blues and greys for those set on the station. Soderbergh chooses to shoot much of the film in very long, static takes, which contributes to the continental-drift-like pace. Admittedly, though, the effect is rather hypnotic and the film has a dream-like quality. But at the same time it's cool and uncompromising: a demanding film to watch, and not a very cheerful or immediately rewarding one. This is probably reflected in the film's poor box office in the States (where, according to a cheerful Clooney, 'it bombed') and by the fact that, at the end of the showing I attended, I was the only one left in the theatre.

But just because something is utterly uncommercial doesn't mean it's necessarily bad and Solaris is probably a very good film, just one pitching to an extremely limited target audience. I would probably go and see it again if the opportunity arose and nothing else was on. As it is, Soderbergh has made the perfect date movie for depressed philosophy PhD laureates.


06.03.03 Front Page

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