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The unique trajectory of Steven Soderbergh’s career takes him close to the stratosphere with his wholly unexpected and unexpectedly fine remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, itself adapted from a first-rate novel of philosophical sci-fi by Stanislaw Lem.
For the past dozen years, Soderbergh has alternated between slick, impersonal, sometimes accomplished genre flicks and pretentious, scruffy, usually unsuccessful narrative experiments. The Limey came nearest to reconciling these seemingly antithetical modes, but Solaris achieves an almost perfect balance of poetry and pulp. This is as elegant, moody, intelligent, sensuous, and sustained a studio movie as we are likely to see this season—and in its intrinsic nuttiness, perhaps the least compromised. Tarkovsky’s Solaris (just out on DVD) was the Russian visionary’s most pop movie; the remake, which draws on both Lem and Tarkovsky, is Soderbergh’s most avant.
The action is mainly set in the space station Prometheus as it orbits the planet Solaris. While earthling scientists study this enigmatic world, entirely covered by a great, roiling, apparently sentient ocean, the planet appears to probe them—most spectacularly by materializing their traumatic memories and repressed fantasies. The breakdowns and bizarre hallucinations thus precipitated have thrown the Solaris program into understandable disarray, and following a mysterious video transmission, astro-psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is dispatched to the delusion-ridden space station to investigate.
A brooding series of vignettes introduce Kelvin’s life on Earth before he’s blasted into space—a few scenes re-creating images from 2001. Derelict in Tarkovsky’s version, the eerily underpopulated Prometheus is here as gimmicked-up and spiffy as a new pair of $200 sneakers, and just as hot to trot. Kelvin discovers that one member of the crew has recently committed suicide, while the mission commander, Gordon (Viola Davis), has barricaded herself in her room and a skinny stoner type named Snow (Jeremy Davies), working his chewing gum as he gibbers and gesticulates, appears to have lost his mind: “I can tell you what’s happening, but I don’t know that that would tell you what’s happening.”
Any reviewer could say the same. As elliptical as Solaris is, it’s much easier to follow if you’ve seen the Tarkovsky film or read Lem’s novel—and I imagine that it might be utterly inexplicable without any prior knowledge of the material. But lack of comprehension would not vitiate the poetic charge of the mysterious hand that slinks on-screen to caress the sleeping Kelvin. Waking with a start from a dream of his years-dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), the psychologist discovers that this formidable yet skittish creature is now lying beside him. She is what the crew of the Prometheus calls a “visitor.”
Over an hour shorter than Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Soderbergh’s is more lyrical than epic. The fragmentary assemblage of Kelvin’s memories—his initial meeting of Rheya, their life together on Earth, and her suicide—suggests Alain Resnais’s underrated, seldom screened, and no less bravely absurd time-travel fantasy Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime. In distilling the action and emphasizing the flashbacks, Soderbergh regrounds his story in genre—although not necessarily sci-fi. (The very subtle futurism is predicated largely on newfangled TV screens and the sense that Earth’s climate has become seriously deranged.) The movie is a romance, lovingly shot by the director himself (under a pseudonym), so that warm flesh tones glow in a bluish void. Cutting aside, the action is largely metaphysical. As a shrink, Kelvin naturally believes that “the whole idea of God was dreamed up by man.”
Scarcely a drawback, Clooney gives the project a certain material credibility. McElhone matches his cartoonish, big-jawed profile with her muscular cheekbones and huge Bette Davis eyes. Their status as comic book creatures is further accentuated by frequent cutaways to the giant purple and blue lava lamp that is Solaris. Have movies ever offered a more majestic metaphor for the unconscious than this oceanic planet? The visiting Rheya is not only Kelvin’s projection but also a symptom of the guilt he bears for his wife’s suicide. The kick, not sufficiently emphasized by Soderbergh, is that he realizes this. Dr. Kelvin falls in love with his visitor even as she becomes aware of her falseness: “I’m not the person I remember.” Why, she wonders, did Solaris create her? (Soderbergh has changed some of the rules regarding visitors and their hosts—although he does seem consistent on his own terms.)
Kelvin remembers Rheya’s first words to him as “Don’t blow it.” Does the filmmaker? Lem’s Solaris is unknowable; his novel satirizes anthropocentrism and the limitations of human thought. Tarkovsky transformed the book into a love story—not unlike the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, or Vertigo—albeit one deriving its pathos from the impossible reconciliation ultimately facilitated by Solaris. Soderbergh’s emotionally cataclysmic finale goes beyond Tarkovsky in its ambiguity (as well as its dynamic montage). The space station could be falling into Solaris. Dr. Kelvin is able to split back to Earth—or not. Time doubles back on itself yet seems to stand still. The apocalyptic Dylan Thomas poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” which Kelvin quoted to the original Rheya and she re-quoted in her suicide note, is literalized—perhaps so that the movie’s denouement might be mistaken for a happy ending.
Where then does Solaris wind up? The visitor Rheya’s video farewell hints that there might be a third place for Kelvin and herself—neither on Earth nor on the Prometheus. Is it Solaris—or the mind of the viewer? Could it be cyberspace? Solaris may never reach the wide audience that it richly deserves (who’d likely have to see the movie twice to see it at all), but it is certain to keep cultists, fanboys, and pundits in blissful argumentation for weeks.
Solaris notwithstanding, the year’s ultimate space odyssey is actually scheduled to open theatrically December 13. Alexander Sokurov’s sublime Russian Ark—screened once at the last New York Film Festival—is the longest continuous take in the annals of motion pictures, a single 96-minute tracking shot in which the invisible narrator and a historical figure, the 19th-century French Marquis de Custine (Sergey Dreiden), accompany a lively group of dead souls across several centuries and through 33 rooms of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg.
The narrator—who is, of course, Sokurov—wonders if this unfolding pageant has been staged for him, as well he might. Some 2000 costumed actors and extras, including a full symphony orchestra, rehearsed this unparalleled stunt for seven months before it was shot, on high-definition digital video saved to disc with a custom-built hard drive. A participant in the action, Tilman Büttner’s camera peers into windows and swims among the artworks. The terrarium effect is enhanced as people slip and fall on cue, sidling through the slightly wide-angle field of vision. One can only imagine the crazy minuet going on behind the Steadicam.
A kind of human arabesque, arms folded behind his back, Custine skips and strides through the whispery corridors, recalling his previous visit to the Winter Palace and commenting on the half-baked state of Russian culture. The narrator mildly contradicts—and at times, defensively corrects—the caustic marquis’s remarks as they wander together through history’s backstage, glimpsing Peter the Great beating one of his generals and Catherine II watching a performance in rehearsal (and then frantically searching for a pot to piss in).
Russian Ark is blithely anachronistic and slyly achronological. The walls are hung with images of frozen tumult. A blind woman—later identified as an angel—explicates a Van Dyck painting of Madonna and child. The marquis meets the Hermitage’s current director and complains that there’s an aroma of formaldehyde. Eluding an attempt to close the museum on them, Custine and the narrator stumble upon a royal presentation—emissaries sent by the shah of Persia to apologize to Nicholas I for the murder of some Russian diplomats—and catch sight of Alexander III en famille. When the pair open the wrong door, a custodial worker reproaches them for treading on the corpses of World War I. (The Nazi siege of Leningrad goes tactfully unmentioned.)
Although the viewer may be only intermittently aware of the ongoing tour de force, Russian Ark builds in hypnotic intensity toward a suitably mind-boggling finale of the Hermitage’s last royal ball in 1913. For eight minutes or so, the camera circles around and threads between hundreds of courtiers dancing the mazurka in the huge Nicholas Hall. (The marquis joins in.) Sokurov can be forgiven for the inscribed applause as the last chord sounds in this crescendo and a sense of pleasurably exhausted melancholy descends.
“Everyone can see the future but no one remembers the past,” someone remarks. In a final flourish, Sokurov’s camera cavorts behind and—coming off the grand staircase—pirouettes ahead to gaze back at the exiting throng, revealing more and more people as the narrator murmurs his farewell. History disappears into the Petersburg mist. The long day closes and the long take becomes its own meaning in this dazzling dance to the music of time.