Starring Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone
Directed by Stephen Soderbergh
Tarkovsky's 1972 adaptation of Polish author Stanislaw Lem's enigmatic sci-fi novel is widely revered as a classic of Soviet cinema, and perhaps rightly so. Certainly it is ambitious, epic in scope (and length) and reflects many of the philosophical ideas evinced in the source material. The story sees widower psychologist Kris Kelvin sent to investigate the crew of a space station orbiting the eponymous planet Solaris, of which the strange, swirling sea seems to possess psychotropic properties. The crew have all experienced disturbing visions of deceased loved ones; not long after his arrival there, Kris begins to see visions - or manifestations - of his wife Hari (named Rheya, in the novel) who committed suicide some years previously. As Kris struggles to understand who or what this entity really is, Hari too struggles with where she came from and why she has no memory of coming into being. Are these visions ghosts, or beings somehow conjured by Solaris itself in an attempt to understand humanity? Could the sea of Solaris be a giant brain?
Natalya Bondarchuk is ethereal and beautiful as the desperately curious Hari, and Donatas Banionis suitably disturbed and conflicted as Kelvin. It's a boldly grandiose film and is often (incorrectly) thought to be something of a riposte to Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey". But for my money, whilst it has some considerable highlights - Kelvin's attempt to "dispatch" Hari is one - for long stages it is somewhat, dare I say it, plodding.
At close to three hours in running time, it's not in any hurry to get where it's going. It takes an absolute age at the start for the film for anything actually to happen - long shots of rain falling into ponds abound, and the "driving through the City of the Future" scene is particularly pointless. Yes, I understand Tarkovsky is implying points about the relationships between man and nature, and man and technology, but it's ladled on too thickly; the driving scene was only left to run so long to justify the expense of sending the film crew on location to Japan.
So, this is an interesting film, for sure, but not quite the masterpiece many people make it out to be.
I've always maintained that when two separate films are adapted from a single source ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", for example) it's not right to label the latter version as a remake of the former. They are two distinct adaptations and interpretations of the original material. As such then, Stephen Soderbergh's 2002 "Solaris" should not be viewed as anything like a remake of Tarkovsky's film. But it is inevitable that they will be compared and contrasted.
The plot this time round is essentially the same as described above, which is to be expected, but stylistically the two films are poles apart. The first thing to notice is that this version is much punchier, cutting straight to the chase. Clooney is summoned to Solaris in a message from his friend and former colleague Gibarian, who is on the station. The next thing we know, Kelvin's craft is approaching the station. Interestingly, the novel also begins with Kelvin's arrival. We are spared the 50-or-so minutes of wandering around the garden in the rain and watching old videos. Kelvin discovers that Gibarian has taken his own life, presumably driven mad by the apparitions.
There are also significant divergences - also to be expected - both in plot and characterisation. Whereas the other scientists on the station in the 1972 version, Doctors Snaut and Sartorius, were older, stiff, and rather dry, here we have a wonderfully vibrant, paranoid turn from Viola Davis as Gordon, and Jeremy Davies doing his unsettling-bonkers-thing as Snow. In the lead role, Clooney bears a wearied sense of melancholy and grief totally missing from the former incarnation, and McElhone exhibits more passionate desperation in her faithfully named take on the character. Both are fantastic performances. A key area where this version has one over the original is in Special Effects. Tarkovsky's film, through no fault of its own, was made in the early 1970s, and it looks every bit like it. On the station the decor looks the same everywhere. The design gives off a very cold feeling. Jump forward 30 years and we are presented with a much more realistic environment. Planet Solaris itself is a mesmerising, swirling, pulsing, neon thing of beauty. It's a shame there aren't more shots of it.
Unfortunately, Soderbergh's take was mis-marketed and / or widely dismissed as simply a love story in space, but it is much more than that, as indeed both films are. Undeniably the love and marriage between the two protagonists is the core of the story, but essentially the themes are mystery, grief and regret. Soderbergh expertly builds up this relationship using his trademark cross-cutting / time-jumping editing, culminating in the tragic reveal of the reason for Rheya's suicide. It can hardly be said that grief and self-doubt make for a feel-good love story - although that's what love sometimes brings. I'm not one to prefer an English language film over a foreign language one simply because it's in English. I genuinely believe that the 2002 film is the better one. It's tighter, more interesting, and more emotionally engaging. Misunderstood, but well worth investigating.