Though a relatively lean 204 pages, Stanislaw Lem's landmark 1961 science fiction novel Solaris throws down a multitude of obstacles for the filmmaker bold (or fool) enough to consider himself up to the task of adapting it. On the surface, it is a rather inviting challenge, with its fairly clearly delineated story that only veers off into uncomfortable ambiguity in its last few chapters thus inviting the artist to fill in the blanks with a personal interpretation. The great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky gave it a go back in 1972, only to slash the science out of the picture, turning it into a quasi-religious parable concerning man's inherent isolation, situated in a metaphor for Russia's malfunctioning communist experiment. In other words, it wasn't just the denouement Tarkovsky was looking to alter; it was the whole damn work. At close to three hours, the film collapsed under its dirge-like weight, and subsequently bombed (though it has since been rediscovered and lauded rather speciously as a smarter counterpoint to Kubrick's 2001). Three decades later, Lem's novel was still awaiting a proper adaptation. After a brief flirtation with the material by James Cameron, it fell to Steven Soderbergh, who, with Cameron serving as a producer, went forward with what he averred would be a cross between Last Tango in Paris and 2001. This is the script that he wrote (brilliantly, one might add), and could very well be what he initially shot. It is not, however, the 99-minute film he ended up with, which, given its squandered potential, ranks as one of the most dispiriting artistic compromises in recent memory. Though alterations are plentiful, Soderbergh did stick with the basic Lem paradigm: The psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is sent to a troubled space station orbiting the mysterious titular planet and finds that the crew are being plagued with "visitors," which are flesh manifestations of subconscious tumult and suppressed grief created by the sentient planet for reasons unknown. For the ship's commander, Gibarian who committed suicide before Kelvin's arrival it was his deceased son. For the twitchy Snow (Jeremy Davies), it's his brother. For Kelvin, it will be his late wife Rheya (Natasha McElhone). Upon her first appearance, a spooked Kelvin jettisons her off in a space capsule rather than deal with what, to his rigidly logical mind, cannot possibly be. However, when she turns up again the next day, he recognizes that, no matter how improbable, she is real. But he does not take this opportunity to plumb the depths of their tragically failed relationship; instead, the minute she begins displaying symptoms of the mental illness that apparently plagued her back on Earth, Kelvin, viewing her as an impediment to dealing with the pressing issues of the mission's status, simply begins medicating her as he attempts to communicate with the station's other inhabitant, the reclusive and accusatory Gordon (Viola Davis), so that he can return home. However, the longer he is with Rheya, the more Kelvin becomes reattached, falling in love with her all over again, which creates an acrimonious conflict when Gordon finally reemerges from her solitude with a tangible, and quite final, solution to the problem of the visitors, provoking arguments over the intent of the planet, and whether or not it is pernicious or benevolent.
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Lem's novel, while brief, did indulge in long discussions of the planet's history, which had been discovered a century prior to Kelvin's sojourn to the space station. It also placed its dramatis personae smack dab on the surface of the planet's homeostatic ocean, which lent a blunt immediacy to the proceedings. In Soderbergh's film, the director keeps the characters distanced from the planet, but in the script (a later draft of which appears on this DVD) he seemed to be placing a special emphasis on the names of the various spacecraft e.g. "The Athena" and "The Prometheus" that, along with some other significantly brainy flourishes, promised there would be metaphorical underpinnings to his interpretation of Lem's pregnant philosophical inquiry. Whether these embellishments were intentional or incidental is irrelevant now; they've been excised almost entirely from the finished cut of the movie, which is now a frustratingly pat meditation on forgiveness of others and of oneself. One can't begrudge Soderbergh his noble attempt to pare down and focus on a manageable number of Lem's voluminous ideas, but that he gives them such intellectual short-shrift suggests that he gave up on the desire to do justice to the demanding text in favor of concentrating only on what he can completely understand with as little ambiguity as possible. This surrender gives way to a supremely dishonest final ten minutes in which Soderbergh jarringly resorts to clichéd imagery (the child reaching down to the helpless man) and a closing exhortation from Rheya that claims "Everything we've done is forgiven." Everything except remaking Ghost and having the temerity to call it Solaris.
Fox presents the 2002 Solaris in a flawless anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The big-ticket extra on the disc is the commentary from Soderbergh and Cameron, which, despite their satisfaction with the underwhelming finished project, is peppered with a good deal of interesting technical insights into the nature of film editing that makes it more than worthwhile even for those not taken with the movie. It's also fun to hear these two wildly different filmmakers, occupying the opposite ends of brevity and bloat, express affection for each others' work while acknowledging the validity of their disparate philosophies. The track's most entertaining tidbit is how Soderbergh tried timing out the protracted docking scene to the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" and Beck's "Round the Bend" before settling on Cliff Martinez's magnificent score, which is invaluable for the way it sets the somber tone early on. Other extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette entitled "Behind the Planet" (17 min.) that's interesting despite the bizarre decision to score it to club music, the always-useless HBO "making-of" special, "Inside Solaris" (13 min.), and a few theatrical trailers. Keep-case.