Saturday, 26 April 2014

Solaris: An Intriguingly Surreal Science Fiction Film

I've spoken at length about my stance on the two best-known adaptations of Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris. I've already explained that many preferred the 1972 Andrei Tarkvosky treatment, and I'm in the small minority of people that actually liked the 2002 Steven Soderbergh  adaptation. Furthermore I've also made the unusual argument that the 2002 version is the better of the two films (as I have not yet seen it I'm not including the 1968 TV movie), but what about the movie itself. I've done extensive comparisons between both versions, but I think it's time I shifted focus towards one specifically.

For those of you who have not seen the movie and/or stumbled here through a Google search or otherwise have not seen my two previous articles on this subject, let me start with a basic overview of the plot. George Clooney plays the role of Chris Kelvin, a respected psychiatrist who is struggling to cope with the recent loss of his wife. He receives a request from an old friend to come to a space station orbiting a distant planet known as "Solaris" to investigate the strange behavior of the crew and decide if they need to leave.

At the station, he finds only two surviving crew members. One of them, Dr. Snow, played by Jeremy Davies, is very laid back and not very helpful. The other, Dr. Gordon, played by Viola Davis, is extremely reclusive and paranoid, convinced that something terrifying is happening. Both refer to strange things happening but refuse to elaborate. Matters are further complicated when Kelvin is visited by some form of replication of his wife Rheya, played by Natasha McElholne. confusion arises as Kelvin tries to understand the nature of the "visitors" to the station, created by the planet itself.

The film has a very fascinating sort of atmosphere. There are some great effects but most of the time we are treated to a very minimalist environment, one which helps to emphasize the isolation of the characters and creates a claustrophobic atmosphere suitable for the tension that grows between them, particularly Kelvin and Dr. Gordon. That said, while the effects are more sparsely laid out, they are put to good use. Solaris itself looks great, for instance, with a very appropriate alien quality.

The pacing in this film is definitely better than the in the 1972 version, as I've pointed out before. The movie does provide enough information to set up the character of Chris, along with the flashbacks we see detailing what happened between him and Rheya, but it also gets the plot moving quickly. No unnecessary 10-minute shots of random automobiles driving down various roads or extended scenes of people sitting around talking about the planet this time, and you don't have to wait a full hour just for Kelvin to get into space. 

The scenes themselves manage to keep to a reasonable length. The movie does gain a somewhat surreal quality as the story progresses but it never becomes impossible to follow. If anything, the surreal aspects coming in may help to emphasize the confusion felt by its characters. On the one hand, Kelvin becomes optimistic, trying to make amends for a mistake he made before Rheya died, while Gordon is convinced the planet is malevolent and a threat to humanity. Neither one is necessarily presented as right or wrong in their stance, and in the end there is no way to determine for certain.

The relationships between Kelvin and the three other major characters are reasonably well-defined. With Gordon there is the tension in figuring out just what is up with the planet, and Snow has a weird sort of relationship to Kelvin. The focus is primarily on Kelvin and Rheya, who also have an interesting relationship that ties back to the themes of uncertainty. Rheya is unsure of what is happening, gradually becoming uncertain of who she is while Kelvin grows increasingly attached to her. It actually gets quite touching.

I would certainly recommend Solaris to any science fiction fan interested in seeing an unusual contribution to the genre. It is so simple, yet surreal and subjective, with some great visuals and decent performances. There is a compelling story to go along with it, and a sense of haunting unsolvable mystery.

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