A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 173 – Solaris (2002)

Solaris (2002)

Coming out of this movie I find I feel a little disjointed. There’s a whole lot I want to say but I’m not sure how precisely to say it. This is most definitely a science fiction film, and one with a fairly high concept. But it’s also low on frills. It doesn’t need a lot of special effects and fanciness. That’s not the point at all. It’s an introspective science fiction movie. It’s a science fiction movie that wants you to think. And I am thinking. Just not terribly coherently. Because there’s just so much to think about.

We’re made aware right away that we’re in the future, but it’s not a Jetsons sort of future. It’s just enough removed from the present that we can accept that there’s a space station orbiting a mysterious planet called Solaris, and that something very wrong is happening on the station. Something no one can figure out and the inhabitants aren’t talking about. One of the inhabitants, a scientist named Gibarian, has sent a message back to Earth requesting that his friend, psychologist Chris Kelvin, come to help. And so Chris does. And he discovers just what’s going on up there, though it’s nothing that can be easily explained. I was strongly reminded of the Star Trek TNG episode Where No One Has Gone Before. I know it underwent massive rewrites after Diane Duane and Michael Reeves submitted their script, but I can’t help but wonder if either of them were influenced by Stansilaw Lem. I might have to find the Star Trek novel of Duane’s that the episode was based on.

Anyhow, I don’t really see how I can continue with writing a meaningful review without explaining what’s happening. It’s spoilery, I know, but so much of the purpose and intent and meaning in the movie is wrapped up in the specifics. So if you don’t want to go on reading because you plan on watching this and want to find out for yourself what’s going on, that’s cool. I understand. But now I’m going to pontificate. Though I do promise that there is a little bit near the end that I won’t go ruining.

So, Chris goes to Solaris Base and it’s a mess. There are two scientists left, his friend Gibarian having committed suicide before Chris’s arrival. There’s Snow, a young man who seems to have answers and yet not at the same time. And there’s Gordon, a woman who’s locked herself in her room and won’t let anyone in. This is because of the visitors. They appear in the night, pulling their forms from the thoughts of the person they appear to. They are people we want to see. Even if those people are long gone. They’re not human. They have a strange partial recollection of their source persona, but ultimately they are alien. Because their source is the planet itself. Something about it is able to create these visitors from the minds of the humans orbiting around it. And the crew have all slowly gone mad.

Chris gets a visitor fairly quickly. She is his wife, Rheya. And he panics. Because seeing your dead wife show up in your bedroom on a space station she had no way of getting to would be a little shocking, you know? And he sends her away. And she appears again. The trouble is she is his version of Rheya. She remembers the things he remembers, sees herself doing the things Rheya did, but from his point of view, which doesn’t understand her motivations originally. And so she doesn’t understand. She’s working without all the pertinent information. She blames him, later, for misremembering her. For remembering her in a way that makes her actions make no sense to her, and so driving her mad. It’s a terrible thing, to realize that the person you love knew you so poorly. Things spiral out of control from there, but not just because Rheya and Chris have problems.

There’s also Gordon. She’s utterly paranoid about these visitors. We never get to see hers, but she clearly doesn’t want whoever it was coming back. Maybe because she loved that person and refuses to accept a facsimile. Maybe because she realized her memories were flawed. Or that the flaws were hers. It’s unclear. Whatever the reason, she warns Chris not to get emotionally involved. She’s willing and eager to kill the visitors. But given the utterly alien nature of what’s going on, her reaction is understandable. One can see it as the oddly narrow end of a wedge that widens out to include the fear of all differences. If one can postulate a potential risk, one can excuse fear. She flat out admits she’s threatened by the inhumanity of whatever these visitors are, and she wants humanity to win. She’s clearly seeing it as a combat situation. But then, in the world of the movie, there is a real risk. Gibarian committed suicide when faced with his own visitor, a version of his young son (who’s still running around the station). One of the others “disappeared” according to Snow. Either the visitors themselves or humanity’s reactions to them make interacting with them dangerous. It’s a difficult thing for me to balance. I’m not sure the movie intends me to try.

So with Chris and Rheya both so broken – Chris because he seems to still blame himself for the original’s death and Rheya because she knows that and can’t help but see herself as a warped version of the original – but loving each other anyhow, we also have to deal with Gordon. And Snow, but he sort of stays out of things for the most part, until the end. He’s interesting, and his character has interesting implications, but I don’t think the movie gave me enough to really work with. It would all be hypothetical.

I found the love story aspect of the movie to be unsettling and a little creepy. Perhaps that was intentional. I’m not sure. It’s about a man who’s in love with his memories of his dead wife. They make Rheya like the library books Jennifer takes out in Pleasantville, complete only to a point. So the love story is a painful one, because I honestly don’t think Solaris could give Chris the real Rheya back. It can only give him what he already has, just in tangible form. What I found far more interesting is the very nature of that love story. I find it interesting not because it’s a love story, but because it’s built on the issue of something utterly unlike ourselves communicating with us in a way we can’t really comprehend.

Chris’s midnight talk with a version of Gibarian of unknown origin gives me what I’m looking for here. I know Stanislaw Lem saw this movie as focusing overmuch on the human aspect, when it was the impossibility of communication between alien and human that drove the novel. But I think one can get out of it what one wants. While the human aspect is very important to the movie, knowing what’s going on I find I focused on the pseudo-Gibarian’s line about Solaris not needing a reason for doing what it’s doing. That right there is the alien. That the motivations aren’t motivations humans can fathom because they aren’t human. Ultimately, Chris decides to take what he can because the alternative is worse, whereas for Gordon the opposite is true. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Is there a right and wrong there? And what about Snow? And Gibarian’s son, who stuck around even after Gibarian’s death? Those are things I think the movie wants you to think about. Not necessarily about true love and whatnot, but about the nature of choice and communication and memory.

I’m not going to say this movie was entirely successful. It builds a good eerie mood, with a lot of silence and stillness and emptiness. It sets up the situation well, building the world just enough to get us to the station to see what’s going on. It’s a small cast, and the focus is nice and tight. But ultimately I think it’s a movie unsure of which way to go. The love story attempts to truly be a love story. I think it’s the very ending that broke the movie for me. It tries to wrap it all up neatly, when in my mind there is nothing neat about it all. There shouldn’t be. The movie invites you to think. The ending tells you to stop.


August 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment

Solaris (2002)

August 20, 2010


George Clooney is Chris Kelvin: action space psychiatrist! Except not so much with the action. And not so much with the psychiatry either. Tonight we pulled another psychological space thriller from our stacks. Again it is one that neither I nor Amanda have seen. I bought it because I like high-concept sci-fi and George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, even though the reviews I read of it when it was in the theaters were fair to middling.

I’ll start with my initial impressions. The movie takes place in a Blade Runner inspired future where it is always raining on Earth. Seriously. It is ALWAYS raining. This isn’t a plot point in the story or even commented on by any of the characters. It’s just a fact about Earth in this movie. There are plenty of futuristic fashions, but most of them are raincoats of one sort or another. I think perhaps there’s some great significance to this one little detail that evades me. Perhaps Steven is saying that the Earth of this movie is a dream-world to begin with. Maybe the Earth depicted here is just Chris’ memories of Earth, and he always remembers things as raining. I don’t know.

The movie is very much about memories and their one-sided and flawed nature. Chris is a successful but lonely psychiatrist who fills his life with work because his personal life is so empty. This is quickly and deftly established with a few sparse scenes of him at work and at home. Waking up alone. Running a group therapy session. Calling a patient on the phone. Clooney’s performance manages to tell us quite a lot about Chris with almost no dialog.

Then Chris is visited by a pair of corporate goons working for a DBA, a company that is funding the analysis of a stellar phenomenon called Solaris, and is shown a video of one of the people on this mission who implores him to come to the station. Something has gone very wrong, and Gibarian, who is an old friend of Chris and knows precisely why Chris is the man he is today, thinks that Chris’ expertise, and his history, are the key to fixing things on the Solaris base.

So off Chris goes to Solaris, where he finds Gibarian already dead, and only two crew members remaining alive. Snow and Gordon. Jeremy Davies channels Dennis Hopper in his portrayal of Snow. It’s all crazy eyes, acting with his hands and unfinished sentences. Gordon, played powerfully and passionately by Viola Davis, is clearly still rational, if paranoid. Oh, and there’s a mysterious kid running around on the base as well.

Then Chris drifts off to sleep, dreams of his dead wife, and wakes up to find her in his locked quarters on the starship. At first he’s terrified and confused. He lures her into an escape pod (somehow) and shoots her off into space. But she soon shows up again, and he becomes obsessed with her return. He’s been torturing himself for years, you see, about the circumstances of her death, and having her with him again drives him a little insane.

Of course this couldn’t be his real wife. She’s dead and he knows it. Even she, the reincarnated Rheya, knows that she’s not real. There’s a dissonance in her memories. She doesn’t know how she came to be on the Solaris station. Eventually she even remembers her own death.

This is probably the most fascinating issue in the movie. Probably the central issue. The plight of a being which at first thinks that it is a human, but becomes aware over time that it is something else. A construct based on the memories or dreams of a human. It’s a pretty bleak existence for the pseudo Rheya, since the memories she is constructed from are so tinged by Chris’ guilt.

Sadly, with such a wealth of powerful and interesting fodder for thought, this movie falls a little flat. Part of the problem is that Chris, as a character, is so broken right from the very beginning. If he were able, through the course of the movie, to find some resolution or closure in the matter of the death of his wife perhaps it would work, but he doesn’t. In fact he ultimately finds whatever the polar opposite of closure is. What this means for the plot of the film is that his journey to Solaris base is ultimately futile. He never exercises his established profession, never psychoanalyses anybody, and seems pretty dim regarding his own deliberate blindness to what is going on. The conclusion of the movie and the resolution of matters at Solaris is entirely in the hands of Gordon, and I have the feeling that she would have taken all the exact same actions without Chris being there at all. (I like a powerful female character who isn’t afraid to take matters into her own hands. Maybe Gordon should have been the lead character.)

The other problem with the movie is also its biggest strength. The tone of the entire work, as put together by Steven Soderbergh, is so staid, so contemplative and so existential that it’s very hard to become emotionally involved with any of the characters. I appreciated the movie as a work of un-Hollywood film-making. It revels in not being anything you’d expect from a sci-fi film. It’s all slow movements, soft focus and quiet, gentle, almost soothing music. There is not a single thing resembling an action scene. Which I like, as an exercise in atypical movie direction. But the effect is that watching this movie is like reading a philosophy paper. It’s interesting, but dry. It makes your mind work, but it doesn’t get your juices flowing. Combined with the sort of non-resolution at the end of the film it made me feel a little empty after watching it.

It makes me a little sad. There’s a lot of artistry here. Great performances, fascinating direction, and source material that fills the brain with interesting questions. So why do I feel so unfulfilled after having watched it? I’ll have to read the book now to see if the source material handles things differently.

August 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 2 Comments