Monday, December 12, 2022

50 Years Ago Today: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Based on Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel of the same name, Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is one of those disaster movies from the seventies that even today -- fifty years later -- proves impossible to resist.  

It’s not just human curiosity that makes this film appealing, with audiences inevitably wondering how, in the same situation, they might fare.

On the contrary, there’s actually a strong spiritual component at work in this thriller directed by Ronald Neame. 

Indeed, the movie offers a full-throated, abundantly muscular version of Christian faith that many viewers will find appealing now, in 2022, and must have proven highly appealing at the time of the film's original release, in the aftermath of Time Magazine’s “Is God Dead?” cover story.

The filmmakers knew what they were onto, I believe, and so the film’s promotional materials read, pointedly. “Hell, Upside Down!” 

That tag-line very nicely sums up the movie’s thematic through-line. 

Specifically, a widely-disdained man-of god -- a Moses or Jesus figure -- played by Gene Hackman leads a group of would-be survivors through an industrial Hell on Earth: the capsized ocean-liner S.S. Poseidon.  

The path to safety and indeed, salvation, is veritably Dante-sque in its grueling, horrific dimensions, consisting of floods, fires, and other challenges for the faithful to overcome. Again and again, Reverend Scott’s tenets of faith are asserted, challenged, and vindicated as he rallies the spirits and courage of his wayward flock.

This approach is quite different, for certain, from the specifics of the novel.

In the literary version of this tale, Scott possesses some rough edges, and takes his own life. Additionally, the character played by Pamela Sue Martin in the film is, in the book, raped by a fellow survivor. The filmmakers have removed this controversial material so that Scott and his “flock” are easier to identify with and root for, perhaps.

And that’s the thing worth lauding about The Poseidon Adventure (1972). 

In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how much Ernest Borgnine over-acts, or if the special effects have aged poorly (and mostly, they haven’t).  

Despite any such superficial drawbacks, the film enthralls the viewer because we desire to see the characters live up to their leader’s words. We hope to see them take responsibility for their own lives; for their own survival. 

When they do so, their victory is not merely one of physical endurance. It is one of spiritual strength.

“Resolve to fight for yourself and others.”

At sea, the ocean liner S.S. Poseidon is struck by a tsunami, and it cap-sizes. The captain (Leslie Nielsen) and bridge officers are killed instantly, leaving survivors of the disaster to fend for themselves.

In the ship’s main hall, a ballroom where a New Year’s Eve party was in full swing, the Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) attempts to convince the others that they must leave the hall and head for the upside-down vessel’s aft propeller section. There the metal hull is at its thinnest, and rescue is therefore possible.

Many don’t heed his message, but some do. 

Climbing a Christmas tree and escaping the ballroom with the reverend are a young woman, Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her little brother, Robin (Eric Shea), and an older Jewish couple, the Rosens (Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson). 

Also going with Scott’s group are an argumentative police officer, Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife, Linda (Stella Stevens), as well as a single man, Mr. Martin (Red Bttons) and a traumatized singer, Nonnie (Carol Lynley).

The group escapes the hall just as water floods it, killing those who stayed behind. 

But the survivors can’t look back, and must soon navigate a passageway called “Broadway,” a kitchen riddled with fire, a submerged compartment, and the obstacles of a burning engine room.

“Nobody’s gonna help us except ourselves.”

Early in The Poseidon Adventure, Gene Hackman’s outsider reverend (who is bound for exile in the third world for his non-dogmatic views of Christianity) delivers a powerful sermon on the ship's deck.  

He declares that God cares about humanity, but sees humanity on a different scale than we can understand. God is looking at man over the generations, over a huge span of time, and can’t worry about each one of us, says Scott.

Instead, Scott informs his flock -- and the audience -- when we “pray to God” we should “pray to that part of God within” all of us. 

God wants winners, not quitters,” he says. Scott then suggests that his listeners “resolve to fight” for themselves and "for others."

Scott’s philosophy comes in handy during the crisis, but on a much more significant level, also informs the rest of the film.  It is not actually in Scripture that “God helps those who help themselves,” but The Poseidon Adventure puts forward that philosophy, on steroids, as a guide-post for the faithful in harrowing and uncertain times.

Again, one must consider historical and cultural context when thinking about a film’s meaning. In the early 1970s, the pop culture was agonizing over the issue of God and faith. The 1966 Time Magazine with the “Is God Dead?” cover appeared in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), for example. 

The Poseidon Adventure’s response to such questioning, is, essentially, to say, stop being a crybaby about God and go pull your own weight. 

God’s got other things to do besides saving your scared ass. He made you in his image, so find that part of God inside you...and survive.  Quit being a victim.

Now, I am not advocating any viewpoint or belief system here (least of all regarding belief in God), merely noting that The Poseidon Adventure reflects its time, and accordingly puts forward a philosophy or way of commenting on that epoch.

Think about that time just a little more: December, 1972. American pillars like faith in government were beginning to fall, in part because of the Watergate Scandal. The first convictions in that crime came just weeks after The Poseidon Adventure’s theatrical release. 

Also, America was sharply divided by issues such as the Vietnam War, which it appeared to be losing...badly. The old ways of seeing and living just weren’t working anymore. In short, We all seemed to be trapped on a capsized ship, one that was sinking fast.  

The Poseidon Adventure’s answer  to that dilemma was simple but ultimately empowering on a personal level: When things are falling apart, look to yourself. Summon the best part of yourself to respond.

In the film, Scott’s superior in the Church, also on the Poseidon, laments that Scott “speaks only for the strong,” but I think he’s off-base in that assertion. I believe that the message of Scott’s sermon is that we all  carry the spark of the divine within us, and can access it when we try.  We are all strong, and we must summon that strength if we wish to survive. Again, I’m not advocating for or against anything, including religious belief, merely noting what I saw and heard consistently expressed in this movie.

The entire film can be read, at least metaphorically, as a religious journey. Scott states his philosophy, and some follow it...while others (to their detriment) don't. 

He leads them out of the hall or ballroom, specifically by climbing up a Christmas tree. Certainly, that is a symbolically-important choice.  In 2004, for example Pope John Paul noted that the Christmas tree exalts “the value of life” and related it to Scripture, and the tree of life in Genesis 2:9.  

Note that a key aspect of Scott’s philosophy, as repeated, in hushed tones throughout The Poseidon Adventure is that “life matters very much.”  Life, specifically, involves climbing that Christmas tree and escaping the hall. It is literally a tree of life for those who choose to see it as such.

Moreover, the Christmas tree in the film is topped by a star of sorts, if memory serves, and symbolically speaking, such a Christmas star is supposed to represent the one viewed by the Three Wise Men at the time of Jesus’s birth. Likewise in the film, above and beyond the star is, literally, salvation: an escape from the hell of the bowels of the ship.

Scott’s belief system, that “nobody’s going to save us except ourselves,” is transmitted to the others, including Belle Rosen (Winters). She gives up her life fighting to survive. Had she not chosen to swim into a submerged compartment, Scott would have died then and there, pinned under a sheet of metal, and the others would not have escaped the ship.  Belle Rosen -- whose name means beautiful flower -- "blooms" as a person, and puts into practice the belief of her spiritual leader.  She fights for "others," like her husband, Manny. She has resolved to fight for them, no matter the cost.

Next, of course, in this spiritual reading of the film, we must consider Scott himself. He is either a Moses figure, leading the survivors out of Hell to a promised land, or a Christ figure.  

I tend to prefer the Christ analogy, because -- spoiler alert -- he dies living his principles.  

Above the burning ruins of Poseidon’s Engine Room -- literally a lake of fire in spots -- Scott gives up his life so that others might live. He dies, essentially, for our sins, as Jesus did. Burning steam is being voided into the chamber, and Scott hangs precariously from the valve to close it, and make the way passable.

Although we don’t explicitly get a traditional crucifixion pose here, it is important to note that visually, Scott hangs isolated before the others, dying before their eyes, as he makes his sacrifice.

He dies living out his philosophy, fighting every inch of the way to survive, to fight not just for himself, but “for others.”

The Poseidon Adventure's final scene is particularly Dante-sque, as it sees the survivors escape the Hell of the Engine Room and step out onto the surface, into sunlight and safety.  This moment represents a catharsis, a cleansing. True, it’s not Easter Sunday when these individuals escape (like it was for Dante and Virgil in The Divine Comedy), but it is a day of renewal and re-birth nonetheless: New Year’s Day. 

As readers are aware, I admire tremendously those movies that work on two tracks of meaning simultaneously. 

One can absolutely enjoy The Poseidon Adventure as a straight-up disaster film with some remarkable stunts.

But one can also view the film as a statement of philosophy; as a meaningful comment on spirituality and what it means at this particular junction in history.  Although the film is often criticized for over-acting and some cheesy dialogue, it also manages to craft some beautiful and unforgettable compositions.

For instance, there’s the moment early in The Poseidon Adventure when the hall is flooded, and those without faith in Scott's leadership panic and drown. There is nothing Scott can do to help them once the sea rushes in. 

Downcast, he closes the doors to the hall -- which the doomed will never reach -- his visage disappearing into shadow and darkness. The others have been locked out of Heaven, in a sense, because of their inability to believe in Scott’s philosophy of muscular faith. Visually, this shot  makes us understand how Scott must “close the doors” on those who can’t help themselves, and continue his trek for freedom (and the salvation it brings).

Another moment that lingers in the memory involves Mrs. Rogo’s death. She’s a former prostitute and a crass sort of gal.  She dies just moments before salvation, by falling into the lake of fire. 

This occurs, I believe, because she never came to believe in Scott’s dogma of looking out for herself and others.  She only got to the first part of that equation. In one especially ugly moment, she comments on Mrs. Rosen’s “fat ass,” and getting stuck behind it.  

Her punishment for abandoning her fellow survivors is death by fire. It’s true Mrs. Rosen dies too, but she dies at a moment of courage and nobility, saving others instead of deriding them. I suppose the important question involves how one meets his or her fate, right?

On the surface, The Poseidon Adventure is about a disaster at sea, of course, and those who do and don’t survive that disaster.  That’s to be expected.  

The rewarding quality about this film is that it talks about survival not merely as an end, but, finally, a statement of philosophy and faith.  

There are a lot of good disaster movies out there, but I don't know of many that are as coherent and consistent as The Poseidon Adventure is in terms of messaging and symbolism.

Hell, Upside Down,” is the challenge you face, and if you desire to escape it, you have to do it standing on your own two feet.  

Sunday, December 11, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann

Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982) is a droll and perhaps even inconsequential low-budget time-travel movie from the great year of 1982. Unlike many time travel films, however, this William Dear movie doesn't revolve around the future of humanity or some other Earth-shattering event or crisis.  

Instead, Timerider's approach is notably restrained, even low-key. 

The film -- which opened theatrically in December of 1982 and later became a staple of cable television in the 1980s -- is an almost mellow "fish out of water" Western adventure involving motorcycle racer, Lyle Swann (Fred Ward), as he travels back in time to November 5, 1877, fights some nasty bandits, and beds a super-hot woman, Claire (Belinda Bauer) who turns out to be, well, the "great matriarch" of his own genetic line.   

Timerider is a minor epic at best, perhaps, yet features moments that any aficionado of low-budget cult movies is certain to enjoy and remember with affection.  The movie just kind of rolls along from one situation to the next with humor, even if the whole thing doesn't ever coalesce into being a truly "great" or classic film.

"As far as I'm concerned, this place is history..."

In Timerider, the vaguely sinister corporation "International Computel" plans its sixteenth experiment in time travel, but the first one involving a living life form.  In this case, that life form is a rhesus monkey.   

Unfortunately, Lyle Swann is racing in the Baja 1000 at the same time as these unusual time experiments in the Mexican desert are slated to occur, and is zapped into the year 1877...along with the monkey.  

Once in the past, Swann takes an unusually long time to realize that he has traveled back in time over a century, even though the unwashed locals consider the red-suited rider "El Diablo," and his motorcycle a "fire horse."  

Soon, a gorgeous female adventurer, Claire Cygne, falls for Lyle, and shelters him from a gang of bandits, led by the diabolical Reese (Peter Coyote).  Reese and his partners in crime (played by Tracey Walter and Richard Masur) are bound and determined to steal Lyle's futuristic machine for their own nefarious purposes.

When Claire is captured by the bandits, Lyle joins up with a "padre" (Ed Lauter) and two U.S. marshals to take down Reese and his gang.

"You're the strangest woman I've ever met..."

In some important dramatic sense, Timerider is a quart-low on both anxiety and ambition.  

The film boasts what we would no doubt consider a lackadaisical pace in today's hyper-accelerated media environment.  The first several minutes of Timerider simply showcase Lyle riding his motorcycle in the picturesque desert to vintage 1980s synthesizer music (courtesy of producer Michael Nesmith).

And yet despite the lack of a driving pace, there's ultimately something pretty refreshing about Timerider's laid-back attitude towards, well, everything.  

Timerider doesn't push hard in any sense, and so the movie, at times, plays as extraordinarily funny, especially in the numerous culture clash or "fish out of water" scenes.  The low-key approach means that we discover the film's sense of humor for ourselves, and Timerider feels more rewarding because of that sense of personal discovery.   

Specifically, the director, William Dear, boasts a quirky and dynamic way of dramatizing critical moments.  One composition, involving the after-effects of a bandit's unfortunate encounter with a whirring helicopter propeller, is especially memorable and amusing.  All that remains are the bad guy's (shredded) boots...

In addition, Fred Ward and Belinda Bauer share some electric romantic chemistry in the film, and each time their two characters get together (*ahem*) and stop talking about the plot, the film dramatically picks up.  The relationship between Lyle and Claire represents the heart of the film, and watching these scenes, it's a wonder to me that Bauer was never a bigger star.  It's not just that she's absolutely, drop-dead gorgeous.  It's that Bauer's screen presence conveys a fetching brand of cunning intelligence and individual strength.  

Without a doubt, Claire is the most intriguing and interesting character in Timerider, a woman who, after the Civil War, was left to fend for herself.  She had to decide whether she wanted to "use her body," or "use a gun" to survive the West.  She picked a gun, and in the course of the film, Claire demonstrates her gun-fighting skills by shooting off a bandit's nose.  

But in Bauer's capable hands, Claire is capable, sexy, smart, and more than a little mysterious, especially in her final, almost inscrutable gesture.  That action, in a sense, creates a new world (or at least, sets one in motion...).

If Claire is mysterious, strong, smart, cunning, gorgeous and supremely hot beyond all reckoning, Lyle Swann isn't as carefully presented.  Fred Ward -- in slick long hair and wearing a red jacket that make him look like Michael Jackson in the Thriller video -- is a fine actor, and does a capable job playing Swann.  However, the movie never lets Swann be as smart as he should be.  Basically, until he meets Claire, Swann is given to saying things like "What the hell is the matter with everybody?" and asking if he can use the nearest telephone.  The script plays him as dumb, clueless, and out of it.  The gun holsters, the cowboy hats, the horses, and the general lack of technology all around him never seem to sink in.  In fact, it's unclear during Timerider when precisely Swann realizes he's traveled back in time.  Claire mentions the Civil War, and Swann writes her off as "crazy."

The movie has some difficulties with plausibility too. Swann's motorcycle never runs out of gas until the end of the movie, for one thing, which doesn't make a lot of sense given all the riding he does.  And there are occasional moments of  incompetence to boot. In one close-up shot of considerable duration, for instance, you can clearly see the cameraman's reflection in Swann's motorcycle helmet.  Oops.

In terms of theme, Timerider plays lightly (and again, almost casually) with the notion of a motorcycle showing up in the Old West and shocking the hell out of folks.  The locals react in fear and horror to the noises and lights of the 20th century vehicle, and in one of the film's funnier moments (played absolutely straight, again), an old bandit dies from fright when Lyle Swann shines a flashlight upon him.  Other culture clash moments are equally amusing (and underplayed), such as the instance wherein Swann offers a U.S. marshal (Chris Mulkey) an energy bar to perk him up.

I suppose the quality that most distinguishes Timerider is the cast.  Here, we've got Fred Ward, Belinda Bauer, Ed Lauter, Chris Mulkey, Peter Coyote (E.T.), Richard Masur (John Carpenter's The Thing), Tracey Walter (Blade Runner) L.Q. Jones, and in a small role, Miguel Sandoval.  Talk about a great B-movie assortment of actors, huh?   They are all well-directed here, because every performer underplays perfectly, so that the film's sense of humor emerges naturally, rather than feeling as though it was extruded by committee decision-making.

I had planned to also write  here about the ways that Timerider is a variation on Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name films, explicitly involving a "stranger" who rides into town, battles the bad guys, metes justice, and sets things right. 

That broad story is certainly a template for this film, but Timerider perpetually and purposefully de-mythologizes the tale.  Lyle is just a "dude" on a bike, not an enigmatic hero, and he never really seems to get a good sense of what's happening around him, or even why it is happening. I believe that this almost anti-heroic approach was intentional: a kind of deconstruction of the Western myth that reveals, perhaps, how circumstances make the man, not how a hero uses his innate qualities to achieve a positive outcome.  In other words, Timerider appears an early (but notable) inversion of the Campbell Monomyth or heroic journey.  Here, Swann may be destined for an heroic quest, but he's more like an innocent bystander on his own journey, rather than a deliberate mover and shaker.  He's a timer-ider, not a time-driver, if you get my drift.

If Timerider deliberately de-mythologizes the Western format, it does likewise for time travel movies.  Part of the common time travel aesthetic is "not changing the past" so as to "ensure the sanctity of the present."  Timerider takes the alternate point of view that instances of time travel are already factored into our existing history.  Lyle had to go back in time to bed Claire Cygne and therefore his assure his own birth.  Had he not gone back, he wouldn't exist.  To put it another way, Lyle doesn't change history by his presence.  His presence is already part of the established equation.  His journey, though seemingly accidental, is pre-destined.

The film's final revelation, that Claire is actually both Lyle's ancestor and also the mother-to-be of his child (!) is a bit weird, I'll readily admit, but it also exposes Timerider's ethos regarding time travel.  Essentially, the film is a re-iteration of the old canard about going back in time and accidentally marrying your grandmother or killing your grandfather.  Timerider plays the joke -- like just about everything else in the film -- as a long, shaggy dog story. 

Time travel fans will also note that Lyle's good luck charm -- a necklace -- represents a paradox (like Kirk's glasses in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). Lyle travels back in time and Claire takes the necklace from him.  She then passes it onto her children, who pass it on to young Lyle, their descendants.  Given this "loop," where did the necklace originate? Or rather, who made it?  Another question: why do so many time travel movies select the date of November 5th for temporal adventuring?   Timerider shares this date in common with Time After Time (1979) and Back to the Future (1985) apparently. 

I don't think that Timerider has the answer to those questions, or any other important question about time travel, frankly.  Instead, what the movie suggests is that -- through dumb luck and fate -- we sometimes ride ride right into...our destiny. Nothing wrong with that idea, and Timerider never takes itself, or its ideas too seriously. In fact, this genre flick from 1982 is like a nice, cool breeze blowing by you in the desert. 

Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann is a pretty enjoyable - if ephemeral -- experience.

Friday, December 09, 2022

20 Years Ago: Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

A “generation’s final journey” begins in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), the film that finally took the crown of “worst” (and lowest grossing…) Star Trek film away from The Final Frontier (1989).  

And much like that fifth franchise film, Nemesis is a movie that saw some severe post-production cuts and tinkering. Fifty-minutes have been excised from the Stuart Baird film, and many fans to this day feel that those missing fifty minutes could make a huge difference in terms of the film’s quality, not to mention reception.

The theatrical release of Nemesis, however, fails to please for a variety of reasons.  

First, the film veers wildly from irrelevant fan service (pleasing the base demographic) to head-scratching discontinuities within the existing Star Trek universe. The film ping-pongs between these disparate poles, and, roughly, pleases almost no demographic whatsoever.  

On top of that enormous deficit, the film’s photography is relentlessly, woefully dark. And I don’t mean the film’s tone, either. I refer to the underwhelming, uninspiring visual palette. We go from one dimly-lit chamber to another, to another, ad infinitum -- even aboard the Enterprise -- and the result is a subconscious feeling of fatigue, or even emotional oppression.  

The familiar story-beats from The Wrath of Khan don’t help Nemesis succeed, either. Been there, done that.

Here, another deadly villain who is a mirror image of our hero (literally, this time…) attempts to use a weapon of mass destruction. In stopping this terrorist, a beloved Enterprise crew member is killed…and the seeds are planted for an emotional resurrection.

Overall, Star Trek: Nemesis feels, well, worn-out and exhausted. And this impression arises despite the herculean efforts of lead actor Patrick Stewart, who connects with the Picard character again on a very human, almost world-weary level. He delivers a fine, thoughtful performance, in Nemesis – one of his finest, actually -- and he almost succeeds in anchoring the movie.

Following the wedding ceremony of Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) on Earth, the Enterprise-E crew heads to outer space to ferry the happy couple to Betazed.  En route, however, “positronic” readings are discovered on the world of Kolarus III, near the Romulan Neutral Zone.

Upon investigation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), Commander Data (Brent Spiner) and Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) discover a disassembled android prototype on the planet, a dead ringer for Data.  The android’s name is B-4 (Brent Spiner), and he is a less-sophisticated machine, but one that Data nonetheless accepts immediately as a brother.

After leaving Kolarus III, the Enterprise is re-routed by orders from Admiral Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). A coup has occurred on the planet Romulus, and a mysterious new leader, Shinzon (Tom Hardy) has swept away the old government with the help of his loyal Reman shock-troopers. Now, Shinzon apparently desires peace…

Upon meeting Shinzon, Picard learns that he is human…and a clone of Picard, one originally designed for espionage. He was created some years earlier to infiltrate Starfleet Command and replace the real Picard, but the plot was abandoned and Shinzon was consigned to the Dilithium Mines on Remus. Now, an angry, revenge-driven Shinzon has delivered his vengeance upon Romulus, and Earth is next in line for the same treatment.

To that end, Shinzon has developed a powerful “Thalaron” weapon which can decimate living cells on a colossal scale, and even render a planet lifeless.  

A grim Picard commits the Enterprise to a battle against Shinzon’s super vessel, the Scimitar, but in the process must put his own life on the line, as well as the life of one of his dearest friends…

Before I enumerate this film’s flaws, I should comment on its virtues. Because, hating to the contrary, they do exist.  

First, Nemesis stands virtually alone among the Next Generation films in the way that it confronts time’s inevitable passage. 

One persistent glory of the feature films featuring the original cast members is that they acknowledge the reality for the characters’ mortality.  

People age.  

They grow old, they grow apart, and they move on with their lives. Chekov changed jobs for The Motion Picture (1979), took a posting on Reliant in The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Sulu assumed command of the Excelsior in The Undiscovered Country, for example. The universe didn’t remain static, like a TV show...which hopes never to end.

Nemesis works really hard to get to the same place of “reality” for the characters, and should be commended for the attempt. 

The film’s opening wedding scene -- while generally horrendous in terms of dialogue, tone, editing and overall execution -- reminds us that we have known these characters for fifteen years, and that the times are indeed changing. Riker and Troi are finally getting married, and Riker is headed off to command the Titan…after a decade-and-a-half serving in Picard's shadow. Data is moving up to the role of first officer.  Worf is just visiting (conveniently, again…). 

Secondly, Nemesis ambitiously attempts to shed “TV thinking” by allowing its characters to experience -- how shall I say this? -- sexual impulses.Here, there is a scene involving Riker and Troi in bed, making love. I certainly appreciate the scene in concept, revealing a more grown-up side to the characters, but again, bad execution scuttles a move towards character realism. For one thing, Jonathan Frakes is in no shape to do a love scene at this point in his career, and for another the fact that the scene ends in a weird rape/dream ruins the intent of showing normal love and sex in the future. What should have been a good character moment become, instead, icky and sort of embarrassing.

Much of Nemesis plays like this, like a good idea gone horribly south in the vetting, and the result is a remarkably schizophrenic film of a few ambitious highs and many incredible lows.  

The film’s first action scene is a prime example of the latter. Captain Picard, Data and Worf visit the planet surface of Kolarus III and immediately go out driving the harsh terrain in not-at-all-advanced-looking vehicle called the Argo. It looks like a kitted up dune buggy, and runs on…wheels.  

Fucking wheels?

Certainly, by the 24th century, cars would be out-of-fashion, and wheels wouldn’t be employed when a hover-craft would so, so this vehicle looks and feels terribly out-of-place in terms of the franchise continuity and history.

Secondly, we already know from Star Trek history (“A Piece of the Action”) and Star Trek: The Next Generation history (“The Big Goodbye”) that automobiles are relics of another, bygone age. In fact, in the aforementioned TNG episode, Worf can’t even pronounce the word “automobile” correctly.  

The result is that the Argo sticks out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, the Starfleet officers tool around in their new…car, and end up fighting the inexplicably hostile life-forms of Kolarus III, a pre-warp planet.  

Disregarding the Prime Directive entirely, Picard, Data and Worf utilize their advanced phaser technology to fight back, and also deploy their advanced shuttle craft. The scene evokes the Road Warrior (1982) in a kind of bad way, but primarily raises so many questions. Why does Picard ignore the Prime Directive? Why are the inhabitants hostile to our heroes? If Data can scan for positronic life signs, why can’t he also scan for the aliens ahead of time, and avoid contact with them? Why can't the Enterprise just beam everyone (and all the tech...) up quickly, and minimize the cultural interference? 

This whole interlude exists in Nemesis for only one contrived reason, to introduce B4.  

Yet it is never explained in the film how Shinzon found the android, or why he chose to drop him off on a hostile planet for Picard to find, or even why he felt the need to dissect B4 into his component parts.  

If Shinzon had wanted to bring the Enterprise and Picard to Romulus for peace negotiations, he would have had to merely request Picard and his ship. He is now a recognized Head of State, after all. He can pretty much negotiate with anyone he chooses. Instead, the excuse seems to be that Picard was in the area (Kolarus III), and thus the closest ship available for peace talks. It’s all terribly trite and poorly-written, and worse, unnecessarily trite and poorly-written.

The terminally-conflicted Nemesis continues in this vein. It reveals a young bald Captain Picard, when the TV series established that he was not yet bald when he entered Starfleet (“Tapestry.”)   

It makes another Data-type android a major plot-point, but doesn’t once bring up Lore (“Datalore,” “Brothers,” “Descent.”)

It is set on 24th century Romulus, but doesn't make even a passing comment about Amabassador Spock and his unification movement, which we remember from the series.

At one point in the narrative Data also mentions that he feels "nothing," and yet no notation is made of his emotion chip, which enables this android character to feel emotions, and which played a crucial role in Generations (1994) and First Contact (1996), and even got a passing mention in Insurrection (1998).  So has Data elected not to use it anymore? Was it destroyed? A major character issue is just dropped like a hot potato.

All these inconsistencies contrast mightily with moments of extreme “fan service” in Nemesis, such as the appearance of Spot, Data's cat, a mention of a Kirk Maneuver, a nod to Enterprise’s Captain Archer, and so forth. The film simply can’t decide if it wants to break free of franchise history or wallow relentlessly in it, a fact which validates J.J. Abrams’ alternate Kelvin universe approach to the new films starting in 2009.

As for Shinzon, he is an interesting enough villain, thanks mostly to the efforts of a very young (but also very impressive) Tom Hardy. Unfortunately, the film’s conceit that Shinzon is actually a younger version of Picard simply doesn’t work. It doesn't past muster in terms of our lying eyes.  

In the scene during which Picard and Shinzon meet for the first time, there is no psychic shock as Shinzon makes his revelation of identity. Even with prosthetics and a bald head, Hardy does not resemble Patrick Stewart very much. The gulf between years is simply too great to bridge with our eyes, and so the visuals can’t inform us that Picard and Shinzon are indeed one-and-the-same person. Thus one of the major beats of the movie simply doesn’t work successfully.

Shinzon’s motives don’t bear close examination, either. 

I can understand why he would seek revenge against the Romulans, of course. They created him for their own purposes, and then they enslaved him. He is their “son,” their Frankenstein monster, essentially.

But why should Shinzon lash out at the Federation in general, and the Earth in particular? What grudge do his Reman soldiers have against Earth? The Viceroy (Ron Perlman) is constantly pushing Shinzon to attack Earth. What the hell?

Because these questions are not answered, or adequately addressed for that matter, the film’s central threat falls flat. It’s fine that Shinzon is dying of an illness and needs Picard’s blood to survive, but that point doesn’t explain the character’s desire to destroy Earth.

These are all considerable problems, but the film’s desire to repeat, almost verbatim, the story beats of Wrath of Khan diminishes the final product even more. Insurrection took the same route. Shinzon gets the jump on Picard, like Khan did with Kirk, and then Data helps Picard get the jump on Shinzon (as Spock did in TWOK). Then, there’s the final battle of starships, with use of a WMD at stake, and – finally – the death of a major character. Here, Data dies, but not before transferring his katra -- I mean “data engrams” -- to the conveniently-located B4. 

I know plenty of people love The Next Generation, and rightly so, but it is absolutely the wrong approach to shoehorn the people and places of TNG into the mold established by the Original Series and its characters.  

The interactions are different, the storytelling-modes are different, and the feelings we have about each crew are also different. The reason most of The Next Generation movies are not very strong is that the producers and writers keep trying to make TNG characters as jaunty, colorful and funny as the Original Series characters, and the fact of the matter is…they never were. They were different, and had other strengths worth featuring. Picard’s thoughtfulness is certainly one of them, and it is to Stewart’s credit that he still projects that intelligence and thoughtfulness…even in as lame a vehicle as Nemesis.  

To ape Wrath of Khan is bad enough, but to do it badly, and with a short attention span, is worse.  

In 1982, fans had to wait for two whole years for Spock’s return in The Search for Spock. There was no instant gratification at all in that case. By the end of Nemesis, B4 is already whistling Irving Berlin tunes, and there is no doubt that Data lives. This short-period of mourning manages to take away from Data’s noble sacrifice. We have a replacement right here, for the beloved crew member who died...

Nemesis’s intellectual terrain involves “family.” Data is connected with a brother (or double), B4, that is untrustworthy. This journey is reflected in Picard’s experience with Shinzon, a clone and brother/son figure.  

The point, showcased via Data’s sacrifice is that sometimes the brothers and sisters we choose (siblings like Riker, La Forge, Worf, Crusher, and Troi) become more important or significant to us than those boasting a biological connection.  

This is a strong idea, and one that augments the relationships between the crew. Yet the idea fails somewhat because the film’s form doesn’t reflect the narrative's conclusions about the brothers and sisters "you chose." Nemesis focuses on Picard and Data to the exclusion of almost all other characters. Though Troi gets a larger role than usual here, Riker, Worf, Crusher, and La Forge all feel like after-thoughts. A chubby, Shatner-esque Riker battling the Viceroy mano-e-mano is hardly a substitute for meaningful time spent with the character.

I should also add that Nemesis is very 2002, either by design or happenstance. The film was released in November 2002 just as George Bush 2 (the sequel) and his administration were making their big marketing push to invade Iraq and take down the regime of Saddam Hussein. The reason behind that invasion of Iraq (which ultimately came four months later…) was Hussein’s (believed) possession of WMD. The plot line of Nemesis reflects this reality because it is the tale of the Enterprise battling a tyrant who has just such horrible weapons in his possession, and the will to use them.   

Of course, reality and fiction differ rather drastically. Saddam Hussein actually had no such weapons, whereas Shinzon clearly did. Picard made the right choice to commit resources to destroy him. Unlike real life, movies can tread in absolute certainties, and it’s easy to pick out the bad guys and the right "battle" to undertake. This movie reflects none of the complexity of the real life issue.  

Twenty years on, I wish there were more positive things to write about Star Trek: Nemesis, but it is abundantly a case of the echo (Nemesis) over the real voice (The Wrath of Khan), to roughly-quote Shinzon. I’m all for a new release of the film featuring the excised footage, and restoring some moments that would have made the Next Generation’s last voyage a bit more successful. 

I hasten to add, it would have been a letdown to end the original cast films after the failure of The Final FrontierThe Undiscovered Country righted the franchise ship, and gave that beloved crew a proper send-off.  

Today, the Next Generation crew is arguably just as beloved as the original crew, and it deserves a proper send-off too. Nemesis just isn’t that movie.  

Not by half-a-galaxy.

So...I guess in 2023 we get Picard Season 3 to finish the task that Nemesis began? Let's hope they get it right.

Monday, December 05, 2022

Enter The House Between Novellas #1 and #2 NOW FOR SALE


For longtime fans of this blog and my writing, my 2007-2009 web-series The House Between (which was nominated for Sy-Fy Portal Awards back in the day....), is on the verge of an exciting new re-birth in the weeks and months ahead.

A new audio drama series is due to premiere in Spring of 2023 with original stories (more info to come), and Powys Media is publishing novellas based on the original program as well

The first two novellas, "Arrived" and "Settled" are now available for purchase at the Powys Media web-site!

Now available to order here. 

Saturday, December 03, 2022

MOVIES MADE ME: Book Review: Horror Films of 2000-2009

MOVIES MADE ME: Book Review: Horror Films of 2000-2009:    

"Back in the mid-90s, John Kenneth Muir staked out ground as a film critic willing to take horror cinema more seriously than most. Buoyed by the success of his early books about iconic directors like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper, he launched a series of mammoth studies of American horror films organized by decade. The nearly 700-page Horror Films of the 1970s came out in 2002, followed by the 800+ page Horror Films of the 1980s in 2007, and the comparatively slim Horror Films of the 1990s in 2011. Now he ventures into a new century with Horror Films of 2000-2009, a 900-page exploration of what Muir characterizes as the triumphant return of the great American horror film. “Bad times make for good horror films,” he declares, and the cultural turmoil of post-9/11 America helped filmmakers—and critics and scholars—rediscover the genre’s “voice and purpose." 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

20 Years Ago Today: Solaris (2002)

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: solitude, hardship, exhaustion, death. We're proud of ourselves. But when you think about it, our enthusiasm's a sham. We don't want other worlds; we want mirrors.

-       Solaris (2002).

It’s unusual that a contemporary Hollywood remake of 1970s Russian science-fiction film should succeed so dramatically on its own terms.  

Yet that’s precisely the case with Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris (2002) starring George Clooney.  Although this remake diverges from both the Stanislaw Lem novel and the 1972 Tarkovsky film, the director’s post-millennial iteration of the tale nonetheless succeeds as a consistent and imaginative work of art.

This artistic success hinges in large part on Soderbergh’s splendid visualization of the story, and his creative decision to eschew the bells-and-whistles of the modern sci-fi cinema.  This is a film about the nature of the universe, and more trenchantly, how mankind views that nature and his place in it.  But it is vetted, surprisingly, through the excavation of a very human relationship.

Thus Solaris is resolutely not a film of action, or set-pieces, or special effects. There’s a significant segment of the population that, simply put, won’t exhibit much patience for it. Writing for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote: “Put George Clooney in a space-suit and you expect Star Wars heroics, aliens, massive FX. Get over it.” 

That’s excellent advice.  

Where most outer space films are determinedly “epic” in nature, Solaris appear painfully and resolutely intimate.  The film concerns, primarily, the concepts of grief, guilt, and God.  Furthermore, it is a meditation on human identity, and the ways that such identity precludes an honest reckoning with a life form that is authentically “alien” in nature.

Soderbergh’s Solaris -- as J. Hoberman noted at The Village Voice – “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.”

The film qualifies as uncompromising because it doesn’t bow to commercial influences above artistic ones, and because Soderbergh deploys symbolic imagery and canny compositions to characterize both the protagonists’ lonely life on Earth and his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make, essentially, a “leap of faith.” 

Thematically, Solaris can be interpreted on two tracks.  

On one track, the film is strictly a religious treatise, one affirming an important tenet of Christianity as set down by Paul in Romans.  It is about, simply, assurance of salvation.  

On a deeper and ultimately more rewarding level, Solaris functions admirably as a complex psychological mirror, one that reflects the lead character’s perhaps subconscious desire to believe in a cosmic order beyond secular science.

Accordingly, the film’s protagonist finds in the planet Solaris a sentient life form that accommodates and manifests his buried desire to “believe” in God and therefore in a religious hierarchy to the universe.  The planet’s manifestation of an eternal “after life” for this character in the film’s denouement makes one ask the question: is there any meaningful difference between “God” and a life form that acts as if it is God?  This interrogative parallels the movie’s other big question mark: is there any substantive difference between a human and a Solaris-generated “Visitor” who appears human?

No matter how one interprets it, Solaris (2002) qualifies as a masterpiece of the science fiction cinema, a very impressive achievement” and one that “measures up” to Tarkovsky’s brilliant cinematic progenitor.

We are in a situation that is beyond morality.”

In the near future, mourning widower and renowned psychologist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) is sent by the DBA Corporation to investigate a dangerous situation on Space Station Prometheus, a facility orbiting the mysterious world called Solaris.  

A video message from one of the scientists stationed on Prometheus, Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) reveals that the crew is being overcome by…something.  Kelvin soon heads to the station in a capsule called Athena to arrange “the safe return of the crew.”

When Kelvin reaches Prometheus, he finds that Gibarian has committed suicide, Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis) has locked herself in her room, and Snow (Jeremy Davies) has apparently lost his mind.  After he sleeps for the first time on the station, Kelvin finally begins to understand the nature of the crisis.  His dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) appears in his quarters...apparently created from Solaris and from his very memories.

Kelvin learns that each of the other scientists also met important “Visitors” from their pasts.  At first he is terrified of Rheya and sends her away on a pod.  But when Rheya re-appears (following another period of slumber), Kelvin realizes that he boasts a “second chance” to be with his beloved wife.  All the guilt he feels over her suicide can now be repaired, he feels, and they can start again.

While Gordon masterminds a plan to obliterate the Visitors created by Solaris using an Anti-Higgs ray, Kelvin and Rheya grow closer.  Unfortunately, Rheya seems pre-programmed for suicide, a reflection of the true Rheya’s disturbed psyche…at least as Kelvin remembers it.

When the anti-Higgs ray affects Solaris…causing the planet to swell and grow in mass, Kelvin must make a fatal decision about his destiny.  

Should he return to an empty life on Earth? Or face absorption by Solaris, the seeming “entity” which brought (a version) of his wife back to him?  What awaits Chris in a symbiosis with the mysterious planet?

“Are we alive or dead?  We don’t have to think like that anymore…”

Unlike the source material created by Stanislaw Lem, the 2002 version of Solaris --- at least from a certain perspective -- offers something of a religious, Christian parable.  

The film tells the tale of a scientist -- Kelvin’s “nihilist psychologist,” as the dialogue terms him -- who takes a “leap of faith” and chooses “belief” rather than a return to the (lonely) reality he knows and deplores. Instead of going back to the “secular,” “real” Earth, Kelvin chooses to believe that there is another option: an eternal afterlife created by Solaris.

Kelvin’s favorite poem, quoted often in the film, is Dylan Thomas’s (1914-1953) “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” (1936).  The poem’s title comes from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in the New Testament.  This epistle concerns, among other things, man’s assurance of “salvation” through the act of faith.  According to this work, man can join forever with Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven and find freedom from sin there.

In the film, we witness a flashback sequence wherein Kelvin, Gibarian, and Rhea share dinner and Kelvin self-righteously adopts an atheist or nihilist standpoint.  He claims that human existence is just one of a billion mathematical possibilities, and therefore random.  

The whole idea of God was dreamed up by man,” Kelvin and his friends assert.  Both Kelvin and Gibarian tease Rheya mercilessly about her belief in “God,” belief in that magical man with the “white beard” that listens to and answers human prayers.  

Although clearly a troubled soul, Rhea rejects this nihilist view of existence. She sees purpose and meaning in the cosmos. She is a believer. 

In the face of the apparent miracles Kelvin witnesses on the Prometheus space station, he is asked, ultimately, to believe in something too.  If not a Christian God, necessarily, than in the powers of Solaris to reunite him with Rheya, the wife he lost.  

He stills feel guilty about her death, and that continuing burden of guilt leads Kelvin to the precipice of a spiritual awakening, as he reveals in voice over narration.  Kelvin notes that he is “haunted by the idea” that he remembered Rheya wrong, and that if he could be so wrong about someone he loved so deeply, he could be “wrong about everything.”

Everything” in this context means the existence of God. And perhaps even the very nature of the universe.  In other words, the nihilist Kelvin opens up his world view, just a crack, to accept the possibility of miracles, of real spirituality. Of all those things determinedly not incorporated into his carefully-selected, secular philosophy.

As Stephen Holden wrote in his review of Solaris Chris's tears aren't the warm, cathartic sobs of a grieving Rhett Butler softened by one too many brandies, but the tremors of a man who thought he had all the answers suddenly confronting a scary metaphysical conundrum.”

So to resolve that scary metaphysical conundrum, Kelvin makes a leap of faith, and decides to remain on Prometheus, even as the planet’s mass threatens to consume the facility.  As that act of planetary absorption occurs, Kelvin falls to the floor of one particular corridor, where he is greeted unexpectedly by a “Visitor” who takes a form of pure innocence: Gibarian’s young son.   

This boy -- a Christ or God figure -- offers an outstretched hand of support. In response, Kelvin stretches to reach the boy’s hand.  And for a moment here, Soderbergh cuts to a close-up image of the two hands in close-proximity, grasping for one other. 

The Hand of God

The Hand of God?

The Hand of God

The Hand of God?

As you can see, this particular shot selection eerily echoes Michaelangelo’s “Hand of God” imagery in the Sistine Chapel.  In that Catholic venue, this image represents God giving life to Adam, the first man.   Here, the image suggests that Solaris (or Christ…) forgives and accepts Kelvin, and grants him an eternal after life.

Ensconced in that afterlife, Kelvin soon finds himself back in his apartment on Earth.  But he is not alone this time.  He is with Rheya…forever.  And his guilt over her death is now assuaged.  For her part, Rheya informs Chris that this is a place of eternal peace: 

Everything we’ve done is forgiven,” she asserts, harking back to Paul’s assurance of salvation in Romans, and the specific line from Kelvin’s favorite poem.  Death shall have no dominion…at least for believers.

The spiritual and religious aspects of Solaris are consistently applied throughout the film, with Gordon – another scientist – fearing the planet’s “resurrections” (a term which also recalls the story of Jesus), and Rheya coming to interact with the planet as something akin to God; something which has set her down a specific path and which “wants” certain things from her.  In one scene, we witness Rheya talking to an invisible presence, asking, specifically, what it wants of her.  It is the stance of someone trying to discern the word of God.  And in one image (in a mirror), the figure she seems to be talking to is no longer invisible but, again, the Gibarian child.

Even the explicit discussion of a “place where” Kelvin and Rheya “can live” together in their “feelings of love” harks back to a Christian interpretation of the film.  That place of unending love can only exist when Kelvin takes a leap of faith; when Kelvin believes in something beyond science.

The irony of Solaris’s viewpoint if you subscribe to this interpretation is that it absolutely conforms to Gibarian’s damning line that “we don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors.”  

In other words, Solaris depicts the tale of man in space, and finds that in this frontier he must reckon with the Face of God Himself.  And here God conforms -- through the Michelangelo symbolism, the Dylan quotation (from Paul, originally), and the apotheosis of an after-life of “forgiveness” -- with pre-existing Earth beliefs, or specifically, Christian beliefs.   

Therefore, Lem’s original idea from the novel is indeed sacrificed. 

This movie is not about Lem’s notion of countenancing something truly alien or incomprehensible, but rather about countenancing a “mirror” that re-affirms Earthly beliefs. In that vein, one can argue that Solaris takes man to the frontier of knowledge and finds there but a mirror reflecting earthbound, Western traditions of faith and spirituality.

There is another way to understand the film, however, and frankly, I prefer this second interpretation.  

Chris Kelvin is an avowed secularist (“the nihilist psychologist,” remember) and yet something in his soul connects emotionally and meaningfully to the works of the Dylan Thomas, particularly that poem about “death having no dominion,” and love lasting forever.  

Kelvin is already open, then, in some buried sense – perhaps even a subconscious sense – to the idea of an afterlife, to the idea of forgiveness, and even to the concept of God.  The planet Solaris – a vibrating, coruscating membrane, and, perhaps, a mirror – thus creates for him the very (religious) imagery his mind seizes upon at the point of his death.  Chris wants to “believe,” and Solaris accommodates that desire, making his belief a “real” dimension, a real afterlife.

Solaris is thus not God, and the afterlife we witness in the film's climax is not Heaven, at least not in the Biblical sense.  Instead, just as the Visitors are not exactly human, but rather representations of human, the after-life is a manifestation of Kelvin’s desire to find peace in Heaven, but not actually Heaven itself. Got it?  Just as Kelvin asserts in the flashback that man has "dreamed up" God, he, in the film's finale, dreams up (a version of) Heaven.

It seems even Kelvin’s name embodies his philosophical stance in Solaris.  On the Kelvin Scale of Belief, he seems to be on a consciously-applied "absolute zero," at least until he interfaces with Solaris and his repressed beliefs come to the surface.  I believe Kelvin boasts the repressed desire to believe in something beyond proven science because he feels guilty about Rheya, and can’t forgive himself for her death.  Science can't provide forgiveness.  Even behavioral psychology can't, really. So his mind creates a world – and Solaris manifests that world – where he can find that peace and forgiveness.

But that world is no more Heaven than the Visitor Rheya is actually the real Rheya.  

The forgiveness that Solaris grants Kelvin -- the very afterlife it manifests for him -- are thus but mirrors of what his conflicted mind seems to desire: a place where he can dwell forever in that feeling of love with the woman he cares about.

“How are you here? Where do you think you are?”

At the heart of Solaris is this crucial character, the nihilist, Chris Kelvin.  He goes on a mission that makes him re-examine his beliefs and feelings, and runs square up against the human concept of identity.  He comes to realize that the Visitor version of “Rheya” is created exclusively from his memory, from his mind.  

Accordingly, she can act only as he expects her to act; only within the confines of his established mental “definition” of her.  This realization proves incredibly troubling to Rheya.  She can’t deal with the fact that she is not “herself,” but rather a creation of Rheya vetted through the lens of Kelvin’s eyes.

What Solaris truly hints at, then, is the notion that no one can truly know anybody else. That our identities are fragile, self-constructed puzzles of deep layers and many facets. 

No one else – not even our spouses, our children, our parents or our best friends – can fully understand the complexity of the inner, personal self.  Throughout the film, characters respond in fear and anger to the visitors because they don’t know “why” they have appeared, or “who made them.”

Well, why are we here?  And who, outside our parents, created us, the human race itself? 

It’s completely hypocritical that Gordon and Kelvin, at least to an extent, ask existential questions of Rheya, Snow and Gibarian’s son that they can’t truly answer about themselves or human nature.  This is why the final revelation about Snow is so important.  Others accept him at face value, believing him to be human, when in fact he is a "Visitor."  For a person on the outside looking in, it's impossible to detect the difference.  That's the point.  

Soderbergh excavates this concept -- the ultimate un-know-ability of other people -- through a carefully selected visual approach.  In particular, there are an abundance of compositions in the film which reveal to us Chris Kelvin…but only from the back.  

These shots aren’t like the fast-moving, “intrusion” tracking shots of Black Swan that I pointed out last week, although they may resemble them from the screen grabs (which can't alas, accommodate motion or movement).  Instead, these are (mostly) still frames in which Kelvin’s back is deliberately facing the camera.  The image suggests that something important is being denied us.

This composition could be a visual prophecy of Kelvin’s approaching death, or a sign of the character’s alienation and isolation from the world.  He has literally turned his back on it (and to the camera).  

Or, if one chooses to consider the image symbolically, these composition choices represent Soderbergh’s reminder that even Kelvin – our protagonist – is a man of layers and contradictions.  Ultimately, we can’t understand more of his identity than what he reveals to us.  This interpretation fits in with the notion I described above, of Kelvin as both firm nihilist/atheist and Kelvin as secret “believer” (or want-to-be-believer, if you will).  Can we really know him?  Can he really know himself?

What's denied us in this image?

Trapped in the prison (notice the bars?) of his own beliefs?

Separated from the world outside.

Lost in a blur of unimportant faces.

Finally, Unknowable.

How can we know anybody, in fact, if “nobody can even agree [about] what’s happening” as one character describes the central mystery in the film.  The issue: We are all victims of and slaves to our own unique perspectives. 

Another intriguing composition that Soderbergh deploys repeatedly in the film involves a strange, inscrutable view of Rheya’s face.  She is universally in the middle of the frame during these moments, staring at the camera; staring at us.  This oddly serene and yet significant posture forces us to consider: who is looking at us from behind those wide eyes?  Is it Rheya?  Is it Solaris?  Is it God?

Who is looking at us from behind those eyes?


An imitation?




The irony, of course, is that when we meet strangers and they look at us, we don’t understand everything behind their eyes, either.  Are we immediately suspicious and paranoid of them too?  Or do they get a pass because we assume they were born on Earth, and are therefore human?  Once that assumption disappears, however, do we face the unknown – even familiar faces -- with fear and paranoia?

In some sense, what Solaris concerns is the idea that we all see the world through our own individual lens.  We interpret the identities of other people through that lens, which includes, in many cases, a life time of memories.  Yet, in our memory, we get to control everything, explaining perhaps why we form judgments of people that are biased or wrong, or narrow, or ill-considered.  What we are really judging is not another person’s true interior “self,” but our perception of that self.

What I enjoy and admire about this remake of Solaris is that it is internally consistent, even if it is not faithful in terms of theme to the Stanislaw Lem original novel.  Soderbergh’s Solaris asks us to consider identity, and to consider the idea that mankind – even when broaching other worlds – will never be able to see anything other than mirrors.  The lens with which we view other people (and other realities?) is an individual, personal one, unable to reckon with something truly alien on its own terms.

The mystery of the planet Solaris can’t be resolved, because human beings can’t relate objectively – outside themselves and outside the mirrors of perception – to something truly otherworldly.  Instead, they see only shades of themselves and their own lives.  How can we assess something in terms of human characteristics, if it possesses no human characteristics to begin with?

If you keep thinking there’s a solution, you’ll die here,” one character warns Kelvin in the film.   “There are no answers, only choices,” Gibarian tells him, on another occasion. 

No answers, only choices?  That’s the crux of our human existence right here on Earth, isn’t it?  Again, Solaris uses the “alien” mirror to show us, in fact, our very reflection.

We can make choices about what we want to believe, of course.  But part of our questing human nature must involve the admission that there are no answers, except the ones we craft for ourselves, about our identity, and about how we choose to view the universe.  The human race has made God (or transformed God…), into an image we find acceptable, a reflection of our modern world and its value system.

When we face the idea of God, we don’t really want to see the Divine at all, do we?  We’re hoping, instead, for a mirror....

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...