Thursday, July 05, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #7: Solaris? (2002)

A reader named Chris writes:

"I'd love to read a 'Muir' analysis (and hopefully an appreciation too) of the Soderbergh re-make of Solaris (11/27/2002). The film impacted me in ways I did not expect when I saw it 4 years back. In the same way I sense that you do, I derive the most enjoyment from films that deliver real identifiable characters, and subtext.

In terms of psychology and subtext, the Solaris re-make has it (no, I haven't seen the Lem original yet, I'm holding off on that for now, while I continue to experience the resonance wave patterns of the remake), and then, some.  It's not only good Sci-Fi, but good horror, and a sort of "Eyes Wide Shut" type film too." 

Hi ChrisI saw the remake in the theater back when it was released in 2002, and the ticket sales-lady actually tried to discourage me and my wife from seeing the film.  She said that "nothing happens" in the movie and by that I presume she meant that there are no laser battles, no spaceships fighting, and no other obvious action scenes.  Then I talked to a manager about turning down the heat in the auditorium, and told him offhandedly that I heard the movie was "kind of slow." He replied that I was wrong and that it was a brilliant movie.  Thus two very different perspectives came at me regarding the film right out of the gate, before I even saw it.

Well, guess who was right?  Solaris is a brilliant movie, and what it lacks in terms of sci-fi movie bells and whistles in gains through its dedicated excavation of character.  The film is a profound meditation on identity, and how identity is actually an internally-constructed quality.  It can't be constructed from outside by someone else, even someone who loves us very much.  It's a haunting and memorable thesis, told in the context of a tragic love story.

I own the film on DVD -- it's a favorite -- so it looks like it's time to haul Solaris out and do a full-scale review.  Look for it in the days ahead, and thanks for reminding me of a great movie from last decade.


  1. Anonymous12:21 PM

    Such a great movie. Very different from the Tarkovsky version, and thanks to this fact stands on its own. Like all good scifi movies, it's about the characters and even more it's about the love story.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      I agree that the film stands up on its own, distinct and different from its (great) Russian predecessor. I'm looking forward to watching the remake again, and reviewing it here soon.


  2. RE: lol

    Dear Mr. Muir,

    "She said that 'nothing happens' in the movie and by that I presume she meant that there are no laser battles, no spaceships fighting, and no other obvious action scenes."

    ... Thank you. That bit of humour effectively destroyed my laptop computer as it caused me to spray a mouthful of dark-blend coffee over the keyboard and screen. Where should I send the bill? (I had to switch to my desktop computer to write this comment.)

    Thanks for the hearty laugh! Great way to start the day!

    1. Hi Barry,

      Sorry about your computer. Ouch.

      In terms of that conversation, I find it's actually indicative of how a lot of folks I encounter feel about movies set in space. If there isn't a monster, a laser battle or a dogfight...they don't get it.

      In this sense -- and I'm a fan saying things -- I think that Star Wars and Star Trek have "spoiled" modern audiences, so that when the occasional 2001 or Solaris comes around, the collective response is..."huh?"

      I can recommend a good computer repair store for your laptop... :)


    2. Hi John,

      I agree with your point about Star Wars and Star Trek spoiling modern audiences. Now, and I've encountered this, some people will not watch SF if it does not have those space battles you speak of. I remember reading a comment -- probably from a kid -- saying that ST "The Cage" could have used a "ship battle". What the?...

      Also, Star Trek has turned into Star Wars. I rarely see any modern Trek but whenever I do "tune in" what I tend to see is two starships spitting energy bursts at each other while barely two cables apart. Or yet another forehead-appliance alien. Sorry, starships would not meet face-to-face to battle it out. And they would hardly be in the same frame.

      That's the way things have gone, unfortunately. Film or television SF is no longer about "ideas"... most of the time. (Not all should be, necessarily; depends on the type of story, of course.)

      Note about Tarkovsky's Solaris: The first time I saw it was back in 1986 at the Bloor Cinema here in Toronto. The place was packed full (over 800 seats) and you could hear a pin drop. Totally attentive crowd. Imagine that!... an intellectually engaged audience. Stop the presses!

    3. Hi Barry,

      We see this very much the same way. It's not that we're dissing either franchise, per se (Trek or Wars), only that the pervasive nature of their "visions" of outer space dominate the media, which can be unfortunate in certain situations. That comment that The Cage could have used a "ship battle" is unbelievable, isn't it? A real eye opener about what people expect in terms of stories set in space.

      I stopped watching modern Trek about five seasons into Voyager. I tried to return with Enterprise but it was...dire. You're right, the franchise had became concerned with big ships sitting nose to nose, tossing off energy bolts at one another -- typically to little avail -- and that's disappointing. Kind of false excitement.

      I tried Trek Online recently, only to find it is all warfare and combat too. The original Trek vision was supposed to be something better than that, something deeper than that.

      I agree with you that SF film and television has not been enough about the ideas, especially of late. However -- and I realize this is a controversial remark -- SGU bucked the trend.

      I am not now nor have I ever been a fan of the Stargate TV franchise, so imagine my sincere surprise to write these sentences. But SGU is a legitimately ideas-based series. Some of the episodes in the second season, which concern the nature of consciousness itself, are incredibly thought-provoking. And believe me, I never imagined I'd be writing positively about the ideas of the third spin-off from a blockbuster movie...

      I love the original Solaris, and it's good to know that it engaged the audience at that cinema in Toronto. But, of course, the audience that seeks out that film is going to give it a chance. If only we could widen and deepen that particular demographic...

      Great comment!


  3. Anonymous12:10 PM

    Thank you, John, for such an enticing 'coming attraction'! Some possible and random considerations... The emotional-overlay impact of Cliff Martinez's score; the convention of several actors speaking directly into the camera; the sound (aka the continual background noise) in the film. Truly quiet moments are scant, until final act. It's a trope that, for me, brings comfort (for years, I've fallen asleep to the sound of a running fan, so it's become my normal), but I'm sure in others, it's angst. So much 'meat' in this movie. Can't wait to see how the film wraps it's tendrils round you! - Chris T.

    1. Hi Chris,

      I'll be watching Solaris this weekend for a review next week, and I can't wait to return to it. I'll be looking at all these qualities you mention, and I have no doubt I'll be "wrapped" in the film's tendrils once again. It's hard to believe the film premiered ten years ago, because I still have such vivid memories of my initial screening.

      Thank you for asking this question, Chris, and for bringing my attention (and the blog's attention...) to this particular film.

      All my best,