Soderbergh’s Solaris

Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is an impressive film, if not a successful one. Soderbergh set himself a difficult task in making Solaris, since he was competing against two undoubted masterpieces: not only Stanislaw Lem’s original novel, but also Andrei Tarkovsky’s earlier film version. The power of Soderbergh’s version comes from its claustrophobic visual style: harsh, quite dark lighting, mostly shades of blue and black; minimal, oppressive interiors; isolation of faces or bodes in the frame; brooding pace, with lots of waiting between the lines of dialog, slow pans, and painfully juxtaposed montages of past and present; and overall an emotional coldness, which was probably the main reason the film did poorly at the box office, but which is perfectly articulated and precisely right, for this story of failed connections and impossible confrontations with incomprehensible otherness.
The film ultimately fails, however, on metaphysical grounds. Where Lem’s novel was a meditation on the limits of knowledge and of human capacity, and where Tarkovsky’s film (much to Lem’s chagrin) was a spiritual meditation on loss and (heavily qualified) resurrection, Soderbergh ends up with a thoroughly unconvincing affirmation that love conquers all. The sense of otherness that is the main point (in different ways) of both Lem’s and Tarkovsky’s versions is evident in the early parts of Soderbergh’s films, but as the movie proceeds it drains away, without offering anything of similar weight in its place; the story is eventually diminished both intellectually and affectively. You might say that Soderbergh remains unimaginatively “humanist” where Lem and Tarkovsky both question the limits of humanism and the human (albeit from very different directions – Lem from an ironic socialist sensibility, and Tarkovsky from a deeply Christian one).
One thing, though: I don’t want to be misunderstood here. Soderbergh’s relative failure is emphatically not because he would have substituted a crassly American Hollywood mentality for a refined, reflective European one. I think it is almost the reverse: Soderbergh’s failure of nerve, his inability to push the story beyond human limits, as it were, so that he falls back on humanist banality, is precisely the result of his determination to make a pure “art film” rather than a crassly commercial one. I can’t help thinking that, if he had been willing to be less tasteful and more sensationalistic, he might have arrived at a powerful pulp-fictional American interpretation of Solaris, rather than, in effect, falling back on the mere external form of European art cinema without its philosophical depth.

One Response to “Soderbergh’s Solaris”

  1. Soderbergh’s Solaris

    I’ve delayed watching Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (IMDB) for a few months because I had originally planned to revisit both Stanislaw Lem’s novel and Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting film, but I decided to watch it tonight. Like Steven Shaviro, I enjoyed the…