Space Oddity Case File #141: Solaris

Space Oddity Case File #141: Solaris

There came a point in the creation of my memoir when I started thinking of myself less as a writer and more as a literary exorcist. I wasn’t telling stories so much as I was conjuring up old demons. I began to think of the people in my memoir that I’d lost touch with as ghosts who existed only in the past tense. Oh sure, some part of me realized they were alive as I was, if not more so—I’m not very good at this whole “life” thing—and were going about their daily business, but some lizard part of my brain assumes that, in a strange fundamental sense, people cease to exist the moment they leave my field of vision. 

The world is filled with these strange ghosts. Even more disconcertingly, as my book neared its release date, some of these ghosts of my past began e-mailing, calling, befriending me on various social networking sites, and generally behaving in a most unghostly fashion. Part of me wanted to scream, “No! You belong in memory, in the past, in moments lost forever, not in my inbox!” Conjuring up spirits can be a tricky proposition. 

Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 adaptation of Solaris, a 1961 novel by Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, is obsessed with these elusive specters of memory and the delicate interplay of past and present. It’s about what happens when the ghost of one man’s past pops up on a spaceship looking to make a new beginning, and the tragedy that ensues. There are really only two kinds of science-fiction films: the kind with Wookies, and the kind that would benefit from the addition of Wookies. Solaris belongs in neither category. In a genre of epics, it’s boldly intimate; in a realm of spectacle, it’s a film of almost heroic quiet. 

Coming on the heels of the widely reviled Full Frontal, it served notice that writer-director Steven Soderbergh was going to do whatever the hell he wanted, even if it meant playing to a tiny audience or losing studios a bundle. Soderbergh is a one-man New Wave who has figured out a way to satisfy his restless muse while keeping one foot firmly in the realm of mainstream commercial filmmaking. He’s living the cinephile dream, cranking out movies at a rapid clip while shifting effortlessly between genres, styles, and budgets. 

In the past decade alone, he’s executive produced groundbreaking, reality-bending, wholly improvised television comedy-dramas populated with politicos playing themselves (2003’s intriguing K Street) and actors doing likewise (Unscripted). He wrote and directed a quirky digital-video comedy of Hollywood manners with major movie stars (Full Frontal). He went über-indie with the grimly proletarian 2005 crime drama Bubble, and got Warner Bros. to finance and release a black-and-white Michael Curtiz homage (2006’s The Good German). Oh, and he made a two-part, wildly uncommercial, four-and-a-half-hour biopic of Che Guevera. And a zeitgeist-friendly Godardian digital-video drama (The Girlfriend Experience) starring a porn star. Other filmmakers have long lists of dream projects they’d love to get made someday, maybe, if fortune smiles upon them. Soderbergh gets a dream project made every couple of months. He’s a champion talker, but more importantly, he’s a doer who leads a charmed life. Verily, he is a god among men. 

It would be bad enough if Soderbergh merely wrote, directed, and/or produced a nonstop barrage of provocative, eclectic films and television shows. But that isn’t enough for our greedy little friend. No, he has to shoot his own films and edit them under pseudonyms. Quite frankly, I find it a little sickening that one bald, bespectacled little man is able to do so many things so brilliantly. It isn’t fair. Soderbergh is throwing off the curve. Maybe the reason Hollywood is filled with so many mouth-breathing troglodytes is because he’s hogged all the talent. Either he’s one of the most remarkable talents in American film, or there’s a very busy genie out there granting all his wishes. Alternately, he’s cloned himself Multiplicity style, and has six or seven exact copies helping him get shit done.

So while directing a $50 million adaptation of a seminal science-fiction novel that was already the source material for a masterpiece—Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film of the same name—would be a huge gamble for anyone else, 2002’s Solaris only ranks about a 5 on the Soderbergh risk-ometer. Also adding to the riskiness of the endeavor: Solaris has the proverbial cast of several, it features almost no action, and it primarily deals with the psychological torment of a single lost man in space. 

Handsome actor George Clooney plays a heartbroken psychiatrist enshrouded in a fog of despair following the suicide of mentally ill wife Natascha McElhone. Clooney is roused from his stupor by a despairing message from a friend beckoning him to travel to a ship hovering outside a mysterious entity known as Solaris, and rescue what remains of the crew. Clooney arrives to find the ship in the grips of what Ren and Stimpy might call space madness. Something has gone horribly, horribly awry on a spiritual, metaphysical, and physical level. Clooney’s friend has killed himself, leaving Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies, and a spooky little mystery boy as the ship’s sole inhabitants. Or so it would seem. 

When Clooney asks Davies what’s happening to the ship and its deeply freaked-out passengers, Davies delivers a wonderful line that succinctly captures a horror and mystery so vast and mind-blowing, it can’t be put into something as reductive as words: “I could tell you what’s happening. But I dunno if that’d really tell you what’s happening.” 

A lot of people don’t care for the sentient ball of twitches and tics that is Jeremy Davies, because let’s face it: He’s fucking annoying. He’s creepy. He always seems to be playing Charles Manson. Even when he’s trying to sell you a fucking car, he still seems to be channeling Manson. 

During my Random Roles interview with him, Davies mentioned that just for larfs, he decided to videotape himself playing Charles Manson years before he actually played Manson in 2004’s Helter Skelter. That kind of dedication either gets you a plum role as a famous lunatic in a TV miniseries, or gets you taken into protective custody. Yet the unbearable fidgetiness of Davies’ being works in Solaris’ favor, since his character has seen and experienced things that have scarred him irrevocably and left him a twitchy, anxious, Jeremy Davies-like mess of a man. It also adds an additional urgency to the dire situation in which Clooney finds himself. Is there a fate worse than being trapped in outer space with Charles Manson? 

Viola Davis brings her usual no-nonsense gravity to the role of the ship’s other melancholy survivor, a tough, smart woman fighting a brave but losing struggle to hold onto her sanity. Soon Clooney receives a visitor simultaneously wanted and unwanted: a strange creature professing to be McElhone. At first, Clooney is freaked out and tries to get rid of this exact double of his dead wife. That doesn’t work, and he’s torn between the dictates of his rational mind and irrational heart. Logically, he understands that the beautiful woman before him cannot possibly be his dead wife, yet there she is all the same, flesh and blood and hungry eyes and Mona Lisa smile. 

Clooney must decide whether to believe a beautiful fiction—that, to paraphrase a particularly resonant phrase from the Dylan Thomas poem that serves as one of the film’s motifs, in the brave new world of outer space, death has no dominion, history is not destiny, and the past can be rewritten—or the soul-crushing truth that the woman gazing adoringly at him is a trick of imagination, a phantom being created by a mysterious alien intelligence using the raw material of Clooney’s memories of his late wife. She’s an alien who looks and feels like home.

Soderbergh asserts his authorial voice in part by fracturing the film’s chronology and cutting back and forth elliptically between the present, and flashbacks of Clooney and McElhone meeting, falling in love, getting married, and growing apart. It’s a testament to the film’s dreamlike mood and hushed, hypnotic tone that the flashbacks cover a great deal of thematic ground—including McElhone’s suicide after Clooney leaves her—while still seeming like a random assemblage of wonderful little moments captured out of time. 

Solaris author Stanislaw Lem was disappointed with Soderbergh’s adaptation because he felt it highlighted the central emotional dynamic between Clooney and McElhone over his novel’s science-fiction aspects. I was deeply moved by it for the same reason. Clooney and McElhone create a sense of psychological intimacy that pervades the film. They communicate through a secret language of half-smiles and charged looks. Solaris captures the way a couple can form a sort of private universe; Clooney and McElhone don’t have to go to outer space to feel like no one and nothing in the world matters but them. Clooney longs to hold onto that connection at any cost. The woman on the ship with him may not be McElhone, but it’s the closest thing to her this side of heaven. 

Solaris is a profoundly sensual film in mood and visuals, but the spectacle always serves the story. McElhone plays her part with a heartbreaking combination of vulnerability and otherworldliness. She possesses a fragile beauty that’s just a hair’s breath away from ugliness; if her nose or chin were an inch or two longer, she wouldn’t need makeup to look like a witch. McElhone may not be anybody’s idea of a big movie star, but she has an unforced chemistry with Clooney that’s essential to the film’s success. Clooney, meanwhile, manages not to lapse into histrionics while playing a man consumed with grief and a fatal eagerness to rewrite the past.

I was tempted to revisit Solaris in part because it reminds me of this year’s Moon, another cerebral, Kubrick-inspired science-fiction film about outer space as inner space. It also recalls Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind—one of my favorite films of the decade—in its deeply moving depiction of a man who learns the absolute necessity of holding onto the most difficult parts of our past even if they cause us unimaginable pain. The tragedy of Clooney here is that he isn’t willing to let go, that he ultimately chooses fantasy and delusion over the agonies of real life. To paraphrase “Midnight Train To Georgia,” Clooney would rather live in her world—even if it’s not really her or her world—than live without her, or at least a synthetic substitute. He’d rather hold onto a ghost rendered flesh than have her only as a memory. 

Solaris shocked no one by failing to recoup its budget, and it received respectful but far-from-fawning reviews. It isn’t the kind of science-fiction film that draws huge crowds, but it is the kind of haunting, resonant romantic tragedy that leaves a lingering impression.

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success