In Solaris, STEVEN SODERBERGH brings new life to a once ponderous movie. Words: Nigel Floyd and Maureen Ellle
hy would anyone want to remake a cerebral and heavy-going Russian sci-ﬁ movie? What is it about Solaris. Andrei Tarkovksy’s
imaginative but dry 1972 space drama, that would make a director
want to return to it? Especially one such as Steven Soderbergh. who’d previously steered well clear of the genre. ‘I hadn’t ever come near sci-fl
before.’ says the director. ‘mostly because the hardware aspects of the genre
don’t really interest me.’
Blame it on 2001. Tarkovsky made his ﬁlm - an adaptation of the 1961 novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem - in reaction to what he saw as the ‘Iack of humanity' in Stanley Kubrick’s space odyssey, which is, after all, the ultimate sci-fl hardware movie. Soderbergh’s remake takes this process further. The space ships and ice blue interiors in his film are merely a hi-tech backdrop for a moving ‘second chance’ romance between a haunted psychologist and his dead wife. George Clooney calls it ‘a $40m art ﬁlm’.
Soderbergh, the chameleon filmmaker who kick-started his career with the Cannes-prize winning independent movie sex, lies and videotape. has since alternated between personal projects such as Kafka and Schizopolis, and Hollywood star vehicles such as Erin Brockovich. Trafﬁc and Ocean's Eleven. Instead of a straight remake of the Tarkovsky ﬁlm, Soderbergh
returned to Stanislaw Lem's novel as the basis for his own alternative vision.
‘l’ve always felt that my film is another take on the book,’ he says. ‘I was
using that more as my source. My attitude was: “Well. that was Tarkovsky's take on the book. but I have a different one.” Of course. I watched the Tarkovsky ﬁlm several times, made notes and picked out things here and there. but the book was what I had next to me all the time. And that’s one of the reasons I felt it wasn’t criminally heretical to make this movie. because there was a book that existed before the Tarkovsky movie.’
Soderbergh’s immersion in the ﬁlm was absolute. As his lead actor explains. he even took roles not credited to him. ‘He did everything.’ says Clooney. ‘He was part of every decision that was made. He puts the credits in other people’s names. The editor is his mother's maiden name. Peter Andrews is his father’s middle name and that's the name he uses for the cinematography.’
There is one fundamental difference between Soderbergh’s Solan's and Tarkovsky’s ponderous, philosophical take on the Lem novel. While the basic plot remains the same. Soderbergh has brought the central romance between psychoanalyst Chris Kelvin (Clooney) and his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) into the foreground. Summoned to the Prometheus space station, Kelvin descovers that each crew member has experienced a series of frightenineg real hallucinations in which a ﬁgure from their unconscious memory has been made ﬂesh. Then it happens to Kelvin himself.
In his case, the ‘visitor' is his wife Rheya, who has been dead for ten years. ‘I wanted Rheya to be as present in our story as Kelvin is.’ says Soderbergh. ‘I felt that if it was ever going to enter any signiﬁcant emotional terrain, we had to see the relationship that they had before she committed suicide in order to feel the emotional pull of her now being back. Otherwise, the emotional undertow of the story is just an idea, an abstraction.’
For Soderbergh, the appeal of the story lies in its treatment of differential memory. ‘Nothing that either of them remembers can be assumed to be accurate,‘ he says. ‘Kelvin and Rheya both have vivid memories of one another. but they don’t necessarily mesh. And that’s part of the psychological make-up of all our everyday lives. We all have this issue with people we’re involved with. I have to use data compression to ﬁll you in, because I don’t have any choice. There’s been an error in your filling in of the mosaic and suddenly the pieces just don’t fit. It's an existential dilemma we have to live with — the ultimate unknowability of another human being.’
Quite a subtle one to sell to 3 lowest common denominator US market and Clooney is the ﬁrst to admit that they missed the mark over there. ‘Oh, it was a ﬂop,’ he says with refreshing candour. ‘We got killed. It’s OK. it's easier for me to say. We sold it the wrong way. We were selling it as a big sci-ﬁ ﬁlm. with the idea that it’s like a bunch of naked people on a space ship, and it has nothing to do with that. Everybody who went to see it thought they were going to see a science ﬁction ﬁlm and didn’t get it all, so immediately it was a bad response. We’ve already opened in Spain bigger than we opened in the United States: we opened at a million and a half bucks in the ﬁrst two days in Spain. We already beat what we were doing in the States.’
It is better summed up by producer James Cameron: “This is science ﬁction the way it used to be back in the 503 and 603, when it was a ﬁction of ideas. a ﬁction of people.’
Selarle Is on general release from Fri 28 Feb. See review, page 21
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27 Feb—13 Mar 2003 THE LIST 19