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Steven Soderbergh Month: ‘Solaris’ is the director at his most sentimental

Steven Soderbergh Month: ‘Solaris’ is the director at his most sentimental

The central argument within Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is the very argument pitting his film against Stanislav Lem’s original novel: emotion versus logic. 


Soderbergh’s film came out on November 27, 2002 to middling reviews and a commercial drubbing by seasonal box office heavyweights like Die Another Day. To say that his film has acquired a cult fanbase would be an overstatement. It is still largely dismissed in favor of Tarkovsky’s canonical picture and is seen as a curiosity among Soderbergh die-hards. 

Much like Steven Spielberg’s science fiction fable, AI: Artificial Intelligence (released only a year before), the dismissal of Soderbergh’s film primarily stems from critics who either have never seen it or do not understand it. In fact, Solaris and AI are kindred science fiction souls of the early 2000s. Both films were produced by auteurs at the height of their prominence (Soderbergh was still coming off his one-two prestige punch of Traffic and Erin Brockovich). Both films were adopted by these directors from arguably bigger names (Soderbergh from James Cameron, and Spielberg from the late Stanley Kubrick). And both films challenged its viewers with love stories that, on the surface, would seem to diminish the entire sci-fi genre into schmaltz. 

Ah, yes…love. The very word chills the already icy hearts of hard sci-fi lovers. Ask any reader of Stanislav Lem or aficionado of Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001 is still the pinnacle of technical sci-fi for many, and they’ll balk at a love story set in space. If Tarkovsky’s Lem adaptation was a refutation of Kubrick’s classic, which he found bereft of humanity, then Soderbergh’s is an extension of Tarkovsky’s film, an exercise in turning technical logos into dramatic pathos. This is where the critics get it wrong: the 2002 Solaris is neither a remake of Tarkovsky’s version nor of Lem’s novel; it is a reinterpretation of an idea. 

That idea: what if you could bring someone back?

It’s deceptive in its simplicity and fruitful in narrative possibility. But why limit such a lofty concept to the confines of science fiction, a genre that requires more reason than emotion and already asks its viewers to suspend so much disbelief? The answer undoubtedly belongs to Lem, who intended his novel as a juxtaposition of man against a natural force that not even technology can understand. The more intriguing question, however, is what attracted Soderbergh to translate his sensibilities to such an idea. 

For Tarkovsky, his Christian influences weighed heavily on his translation of the concept. His Solaris is ultimately a story about how “man needs man.” The sentient ocean planet becomes less an opportunity for science to prevail and more an affirmation of man’s inherent selfishness. As Dr. Snaut argues, “We don’t want other worlds. We want a mirror.”

In Soderbergh’s version, that mirror is held up to psychologist Chris Kelvin, who sees in his resurrected wife a reflection of his grief, his regret, and his suffering. George Clooney’s Kelvin is the most haunted version of the character in any interpretation. First seen sitting anxiously on his bed, the gentle patter of the rain ironically underscoring his tension as his dead wife’s words echo through his head, Clooney plays him as a man whose life hasn’t been broken so much as his routine has been realigned. Rheya (played with eerie calm by Natasha McElhone) was his psychological tether to stability and to Earth itself. We see him schedule meetings, conduct sessions, and cook dinner with the mundane pain of absence. This is a man who needs ghosts. 

Tarkovsky's Solaris planet

Tarkovsky’s Solaris planet

While the idea of a psychologist losing his grip on structure and order could seem pat, Soderbergh sidesteps this irony through the Solaris planet, which is no less elemental than Tarkovsky’s, albeit in a more abstract way. Tarvkosky’s Solaris is a whirlpool of conscious liquid that roars outside the space station window. His water, a colorful counterpart to the drizzle of rain or the flow of a pond on Earth, is ultimate knowledge: water beyond purity and a stark reminder of man’s inferiority in the face of attaining true knowledge. Soderbergh’s Solaris is all electricity: impulses and nerve endings and chemical reactions. It throbs and glows and even grows in size, almost like a giant brain, changing colors like a planetary mood ring. 

Soderbergh's Solaris planet

Soderbergh’s Solaris planet

Contrast these with the Solaris of Lem’s book, which is more structural, solid in some areas, and able to generate physical shapes. Tarkovsky and Soderbergh’s emphasis lies in taking the structure out of the planet. Soderbergh’s becomes a stand-in for each character’s corporeal tether. Chris has his love for Rheya. Gibarian has his love for his son. For Snow, it is his love for himself. And Gordon has her love for science and reason, which manifests itself in her skepticism. Soderbergh’s planet is never really concerned with physical manifestations. This becomes apparent at the end when Chris chooses to stay behind as the space station is consumed by the planet; his calming vision is not of his wife, but of Gibarian’s son. The physical is a comforting human construct for the vulnerable “victims” of Solaris. Notice how Gordon, who never explicitly receives a visitor, is the only character to be extricated from the planet’s spell.  Chris’ “return” to Earth prompts the return of his routine, which becomes just as foreign as his time on the space station. “The rhythm of the world where I used to live” is no longer tantamount to the alien touch of his “wife,” or, more abstractly, the nostalgic promise made flesh that she represents. 

If this is sentimental Soderbergh, it is only because his oeuvre is replete with cool customers who hide their insecurities (think of Clooney’s slick criminals in Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven, or James Spader’s voyeur in Sex, Lies, and Videotape). In some ways, Solaris is part of a trilogy with Erin Brockovich and Traffic, three films where the characters understand their helplessness up against forces more powerful than themselves. Julia Roberts’ scrappy Erin Brockovich picks a fight with Big Electric. Traffic‘s triptych of drug stories has Michael Douglas’ feckless drug czar, Don Cheadle’s FBI agent who is always one step behind, and Benicio Del Toro’s outmatched Mexican cop. And Solaris has a Soderbergh protagonist up against the greatest of odds: an alien intelligence.


Therein rests the greatest criticism of Solaris: it is anti-modern sci-fi. That is to say, in its genre purity–neglecting warring spacecrafts and little green men–it dares to connect humans with the unknown. Chris goes up against a life force that is terrifying not because of its threat to his body, but to the answers it provides him (or the choices, as Gibarian says). It is wish fulfillment from the ultimate mirror as well as, to put it romantically, the stuff dreams are made of. It rejects the cold logic of Gordon (“It’s inhuman, and I’m threatened by that”) for an embrace of emotional intelligence, just as it rejects Lem’s condemnation of Tarkovsky’s film for concerning itself with “the erotic problems of people in outer space.” Lem is right when he says that his idea “cannot be reduced to human concepts,” but he neglects that such ideas can only be viewed through the human lens, flawed however it may be. Soderbergh, in a much more earnest fashion than Tarkovsky, celebrates the refrain of Rheya at the end: “We don’t have to think like that anymore.” His filmic answer is reconciliation: emotion is logical.

— Shane Ramirez