I have a rather checkered history regarding Stanislaw Lem's science fiction work SOLARIS as both a book and a film. I tried to read a paperback edition of the novel when I was in college. I had brought the book along on a church sponsored ski trip and I tried to read it on the plane and during all too infrequent down times. I would always get a few pages in and then stall for various reasons. The story just wasn't working for me. It wasn't grabbing me and making me want to continue reading. I had purchased the book because of all of the tremendous praise that was printed on the book covers. Was it all just hype? Is this novel really as good as its' reputation would have me believe? Was it poorly translated into English from the original Polish language version? I don't know. I couldn't get through the book then and I have no desire to pick it up and try it again.
A few years ago, my buddy Kelly Greene and I attended a screening of the Russian film version of SOLARIS (1972). We had both heard good things about the film and as both movie and science fiction buffs, we decided that it was something we should see at least once in our lives.
Once was enough. I found the film, with a running time of 165 minutes, incredibly slow and boring. There's an unbelievably long tracking shot from inside an automobile as it drives along a freeway in Japan that may still be going on somewhere for all I know. The story seemed to take forever to get going and when it did, it still moved at a glacial pace. I know I nodded off a couple of times. It was a cerebral, psychological, ambiguous and yes, lyrical and poetic, piece of film making that just wasn't to my taste. I can say I've seen the Russian SOLARIS but I can't say I'd ever want to watch it again.
But I took a chance the other day on the American version of SOLARIS from 2002. The film had a great pedigree. It was produced by James Cameron, written and directed by Steven Soderbergh and starred George Clooney. And, with a running time of only 99 minutes, it was definitely shorter than the original version. What did I have to lose?
How about those 99 minutes? To it's credit, the 2002 version gets our hero, Chris Kelvin (Clooney), to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris a lot faster than it took in the original. But once there, things grind to a halt as Chris finds only two people still alive, a whacked out young man, Snow (Jeremy Davies in an incredibly annoying performance, full of tics and stutters) and Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis). Oh yes and Chris's dead wife, Rheya (the gorgeous Natascha McElhone) somehow mysteriously appears in Chris's room while he's sleeping.
She's not a ghost however. She's a physical manifestation of Rheya taken from Chris's thoughts, dreams and memories of her and made manifest and whole, living, breathing flesh and blood, by Solaris itself, which is not only a planet, it's a sentient alien being.
Chris and Gordon want to get the hell out of the vicinity of Solaris and return to earth. But Chris has a change of heart at the last minute, stays behind on the space station and eventually ends up reunited with Rheya on what appears to be earth. But of course, it's merely yet another manifestation created by Solaris. Is Solaris a god? Or is it God himself? Is the life and environment that Chris and Rheya inhabit at the end of the film truly heaven? Your guess is as good as mine because the film, like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) (a far better film, by the way), doesn't spoon feed viewers with information and explanations. Everything is ambiguous and slowly paced, with many long fade outs to black that last and last and last. The sets are claustrophobic and the musical score by Cliff Martinez is exceptionally annoying.
Cameron and Soderbergh are on record as envisioning this film not so much a remake of the Russian version but a new interpretation of the original Stanislaw Lem novel. It's certainly well made and Clooney and McElhone are two extraordinarily good looking people. SOLARIS was pitched as a love story, a chance for two people to try and rebuild their relationship, one which ended tragically the first time. Okay, I get that and it's not a bad idea for a science fiction story. But the telling takes far too long for me to be fully engaged and invested in the outcome.
If you have to watch a film called SOLARIS, this is the one to see. It's not great but it's shorter and more accessible than the Russian version.
But not by much.