A/V Room









What is Solaris?

Feature by: Jack Foley

No one knows what it wants, No one knows what it means, No one knows why it’s there;
Yet all are drawn to it, To some it brings joy, To others it causes great pain;
Now, one man has been sent to uncover the mystery.
What is Solaris? You decide.

It is the type of question designed to provoke a response; to challenge and to stimulate, and it ought to be among the more intelligent film debates of the year, given that it is something worth exploring for any true fans of science fiction.

When George Clooney’s heartbroken psychiatrist, Dr Chris Kelvin, is asked to travel to Solaris to investigate the unexplained behaviour of a small group of scientists aboard the space station Prometheus, he is shocked to find that the crew’s captain, Gibarian, has committed suicide, and that the remaining crew members are exhibiting signs of extreme stress and paranoia without being able to properly explain them.

Matters are compounded when Kelvin’s dead wife re-appears, offering him the opportunity to right the wrongs of a previous relationship and realise his love once more - but can past mistakes ever be rectified? Is fate pre-determined? And is Kelvin's dead wife all that she seems?

Given that Solaris is a science fiction movie which marks a collaboration between A-list players such as Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron, it is little wonder that studio bosses at Twentieth Century Fox leapt at the opportunity to make it - yet the question, 'what is Solaris?', proved one that even they were unable to answer.

And speaking at a press conference at London's Claridges Hotel, both Clooney and Soderbergh were given the opportunity to put forward their suggestions.

"I viewed it as a convenient and wonderful metaphor for anything that you don't understand," teased Soderbergh, before Clooney [dosed up on night nurse, due to a head cold] added: "Solaris is not uranus!"

Joking aside, however, Clooney went on to explain further....

"I think it was about questioning pretty much all of the major issues about belief systems, about God, about memories, about love and providing absolutely no answers, except that every single one of your conclusions would be right, so long as you don't force that conclusion on anyone else."

It is a point with which Soderbergh concurs, explaining further: "The motto of the film, for me, was the line that Gibarian says when he comes to Kelvin in the dream: 'There are no answers, only choices'.

"At the end of the day, I guess I don't know that it's even relevant what we believe or what is true; it really comes down to what you do right now, what choice do you make? The whole film, for me, was about a character at the end, surrendering to something that he doesn't understand, that is a total mystery to him, yet he's in the moment and he's making a decision based on what he feels and has let go of the past. He's let go of logic, and he's just surrendering, and I thought I liked that idea; we constructed the entire film to lead to that idea. I thought it was hopeful."

So with this in mind, would it be reasonable to assume that both star and director are religious, and that their beliefs can be found within the movie's construct?

Clooney retorts: "I think the answer to that question, just by design, is alienating, because anything that you say, you know, people have to form an opinion based on their own belief system, and go, 'well I don't believe in God', and another person says, well, 'I do', and immediately you become defensive.

"I believe that, whatever people believe in is real. I believe that it can work as long as you don't force that opinion on anyone else. So it's sort of a difficult answer, cos I know what I think, but I don't really know, and I'm still trying to figure it out. But when I do, I'll sell it on e-bay! I think it's more about the individual, and I believe in the individual."


Soderbergh, meanwhile, explores the idea of belief systems still further: "Since this question came up, which is absolutely legitimate, I've been describing myself as an optimistic aetheist. I like to think that this isn't it; that whatever we're experiencing isn't the beginning and the end of everything that we experience.

"Obviously, I don't have any concrete evidence, or evidence that is concrete enough for me that there is something else, but in the reading that I've done about what we know of how our universe works, I think that the idea that this form of consciousness that we experience in the scheme of things, is actually a pretty limited and small idea; that there are ideas at play in the universe right now that are so large that it makes me think that perhaps we're in some form of being right now that could be a pre-amble to something completely different, that we won't know about until we get there.

"I'm not a nihilist, but I don't know what's going on."

Given that there are no easy answers to emerge from the film, it is little wonder that mainstream audiences felt confused by it. Solaris bombed in America, despite favourable reviews, and could well do the same over here.

Yet both Clooney and Soderbergh maintain that the film was never intended as a money-spinner and appear grateful for being given the opportunity to make it. Likewise, now that the disastrous US marketing campaign is in the past, they also appear to enjoy talking about it, as the concept of 'what is Solaris?', in filmmaking terms, is also one worth exploring.

Clooney explains: "This was a really brave film for Fox to do. We all threw our money into the back end, cos we knew the film was not designed to be a blockbuster. But we were forced into going there quickly, so we weren't able to do what we are able to do overseas, which is talk about it and sell it as the film that it is, so people wouldn't see it as a big action film with naked people in it, which is how it was sold in the States. And that's a problem, cos people thought they were coming to see something different.

"I understand why it happened, but it's unfortunate, because what it forced me to do was three days of junkets in which every question was, 'so did you work out?' And that sort of trivializes everything that Steven wanted to do with the film, and everything that I was trying to do with the film. What we're trying to do is push the envelope a little bit."

So what drew Soderbergh to the project in the first place? What, in filmmaking terms, is Solaris to him, particularly as it had already been made into a film by Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky?

"I'm a big fan of Tarkovsky; I think he's an actual poet, which is very rare in the cinema," he explained. "The fact that he had such an impact with only seven features is a testament to his genius. I love the film.

"I didn't feel his film could be improved upon, and I wasn't trying to take what he did and build on it, I really just had a very different interpretation of the Lehm book, which had a lot of ideas in it, I think enough to generate a couple more films.

"What I did try and appropriate from the Tarkovsky film was the really intense sense of isolation, both that it created with Kelvin, and also between all of the characters.

"This sort of psychological claustrophobia, which I thought was really compelling and, as a result, you can see that our film is very... there are no establishing shots, there aren't a lot exteriors, the camera's held very close to the characters, and I was really trying to imitate that sense of proximity to the characters and to the issues."

Soderbergh also sees Solaris as an opportunity to return to a more intelligent form of science fiction filmmaking - the type of which gave rise to films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, rather than the showy histrionics of Star Wars.

"I certainly think that there was a time when science fiction was used as a way to explore serious ideas. As active as a film like The Matrix is, I think one of the things that made it more successful, and has given it such a huge following, is that there are actual ideas at play, and I hope that this [Solaris] is viewed by filmmakers of my generation, and the one on our heels, as a viable way of exploring characters and human issues.

"There's a beautiful premise here that cuts right to the heart of some issues that we experience every day about projection, and memory, and guilt, and what it means to be human, and it's that conceit that allowed for such an interesting story to be created. It'd be great if people stopped looking at science fiction films as westerns."

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