Thoughts Trip Into Trap

in 53rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Cristina Nord

Red and blue, stainless steel and skin: Steven Soderbergh’s competitor “Solaris” reduces Stanislaw Lem’s science-fiction novel to an immaculate love story with somnambulatory sex appeal.

Is what we perceive real or are our senses being fooled? The question might be a fiddling about, a frivolous one perhaps, and yet it possesses an indisputable attraction. Jorge Luis Borges has based some of his most beautiful stories on it, “The Circular Ruin” for instance: A man dreams (of) a son, who enters the world as a person like you and me, except that fire will not hurt him. His creator tries hard to conceal his son’s illusionary origin from him. Yet, in the end, the creator himself is confronted with a conflagration. The flames do not hurt him: He, too, was only somebody else’s dream.

Stanislaw Lem’s science-fiction novel “Solaris” (1961) employs similar themes: A research scientist, Kris Kelvin, undertakes a journey to a space station above the oceanic entity Solaris. This object possesses the ability to kidnap and materialize the imagination of those who approach it. Consequently, things aboard the station are out of joint. Kelvin is supposed to set things right, but is confronted with the reincarnation of his dead companion Harey. While in the very beginning, he is aware of her being materialized imagination, this knowledge is progressively getting lost, and it becomes increasingly hard to tell which level he is on – the one of reality or the one of his imagination.

Eleven years after its publication, Andrei Tarkowski turned the novel into a movie starring Donatas Banionis as Kelvin. From a modern point of view, Kelvin’s spacesuit (long johns with a suspensory turned inside out) is not much of a marvel – in contrast to the extended discussions he holds with his colleagues Snaut and Sartorius about the use of solar science and the dangers inherent in the human longing for knowledge. Solaris looks like an ultrasound of something from the beginning of time, and after a mere 170 minutes have passed, Kelvin is swallowed by this wobbly soup, though he is quite unaware of it. Moreover, the audience is also quite unaware of it. After all, in a movie that plays with different levels of perception, you should remain suspicious: Who guarantees that the last picture is not a lie? This much is certain: Tarkowski got two Palms in Cannes for “Solaris”, and Lem was not happy with the movie version of his novel.

Another 31 years later, Steven Soderbergh enters the scene and, by putting George Clooney into Banionis’ long johns, returns Solaris to the realms of our imagination. Purists will be appalled, yet they will have to sort out their arguments quite well, dealing with material inherently associated with reincarnation. Soderbergh renames Harey into Rheya (played by Natasha McElhone) and reduces the length of the movie by an hour. After fabricating fragments of a pre-story, he focuses on the romance. The characters look as if they had been deprived of sleep for a month: a good basis for their somnambulatory sex appeal.

The planet appears, depending on the time of day, as either a blue ball of water or a red ball of fire: a good scenery for a ballet of space stations, which was inspired by Kubrick, not Tarkowski. Within the contrast of red and blue, of stainless steel surfaces and Clooney’s skin, Soderbergh sows a romantic seed: the idea that death can be overcome by love. With Lem, this would be impossible: “Lovers’ and poets’ everlasting belief in the power of love, which is supposed to outlast death, this ‘finis vitae sed non amoris’, which has haunted us for centuries – it’s a lie”, it says in the novel. In the movie, George Clooney never tires of mumbling a Dylan Thomas poem: “Though lovers be lost love shall not; / And death shall have no dominion.” It sure is beautiful: Camera, set design and cut are – as could be expected after Soderbergh’s immaculate surfaces of “Ocean’s Eleven” or “Traffic” – state of the art. The material per se certainly stands on its own since Lem’s novel: Its attraction will survive any new creator.

Nonetheless, the question remains why Soderbergh lets the audacious potential of this mind game slip away and instead gets lost in the faces of Clooney and McElhone. He groups close-ups to a slowed-down shot-countershot sequence, and the resulting elegiac rhythm substitutes what could have become reflection. This is even more deplorable because the movie theater itself is a kind of Solaris that keeps dead people alive, materializes imagination and thus shifts the perception of reality and illusion.

Cristina Nord