SOLARIS

Director:  Steven Soderbergh

Starring:  George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies

Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of Polish author Stanislaw Lem's seminal 1961 science fiction novel Solaris is an atypical Hollywood remake of a classic foreign movie (the 1972 adaptation directed by Andrei Tarkovsky). The remake is certainly punchier than the original movie, but many of the core ideas - Lem's thought-provoking concepts - survive. It's not surprising, then, that the film made back about a third of its $50m budget during its domestic release.

Soderbergh's film, about a man (Clooney, broadening his range) who is sent to a remote space station to investigate a communications breakdown, and the disappearance of a rescue mission, is about one third a hardcore science fiction (somewhat similar in tone to Event Horizon), and two-thirds traditional boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl romance. Actually, there's one genre it falls into almost perfectly, but it's not one that's acknowledged by the filmmakers (at least, not on the DVD). Solaris is a classic ghost story, very much in the grand tradition of M.R. James.

The film is faithful to the essentials of Lem's book, and takes what it needs from Tarkovsky's film version, but is still unmistakably has work if the same director as The Limey and Out of Sight. It also continues the fine tradition of bold science fiction projects tackled by 20th Century Fox, whose credits include Star Wars, Alien, The Abyss, Planet of the Apes, Zardoz and Fantastic Voyage.

Fox's Region 2 DVD presents the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic ratio, with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound (at 448kbps). The average bitrate is 5.96Mb/s. Picture quality is generally fine, although there are frequent signs of edge enhancement. The lighting is generally low-level (even on the space ship - this isn't 2001: A Space Odyssey), which naturally leads to slight graininess, but it's well within normal levels. Colour balance is conceptually unnatural, but flesh tones usually look fine, given the lighting conditions.

The film's audio mix is very subtle, and expertly crafted. There's little action, but this isn't a mix that needs to be boisterous. Sound is used sparingly, and often very effectively (a "white noise" sequence near the end of the film, for example). Special mention should be made of Cliff Martinez's eerie, penetrating score, which is frequently given prominence in the mix, adds atmosphere and helps the film immeasurably.

The disc comes with a modest array of bonus materials (modest by Fox's standards, anyway). You can't blame the company for being cautious, given the film's dire box office takings, and largely indifferent reviews, but as you listen to the disc's commentary track, you'll quickly realise that you're not being made privy to even a fraction of the whole story.

The commentary track is by Soderbergh (an old hand at these, having contributed them to several discs now) and one of the film's producers, James Cameron. You may have heard of him. The commentary is very rewarding. There's a natural chemistry between the two filmmakers, and the conversation flows very naturally. The rights to the novel were purchased by Cameron, who, presumably, originally intended to direct the film himself. He hadn't counted on Soderbergh, though, who contacted Cameron, and pitched his own ideas for the film. Cameron decided that he'd rather see Soderbergh's version of the film than the one he had in mind, so Soderbergh got the job! Once that decision had been made, it seems that Cameron was very happy to give Soderbergh a free hand to make the film as he wanted, offering advice only where it was requested.

The commentary covers a lot of ground: Soderbergh discusses his general method of working (basically, he keeps trimming material until the film stops working); Cameron regrets the way the film was let down by a rushed marketing campaign that never really got to grips with the film; and both agree that elements of the film are vague enough for viewers to interpret it in ways that weren't intended by the filmmakers. For example, in one scene early in the film Clooney and McElhone's characters briefly meet on a train. Someone decided that McElhone should be carrying something - anything - so Soderbergh sent McElhone to the prop store. She returned with a doorknob, leading some critics to read far more into her choice than was intended. (Soderbergh says he was delighted that the doorknob had a certain degree of resonance with the film's themes, and that it may suggest something to the audience, but basically says that sometimes a doorknob is just a doorknob). 

Although the commentary is in of itself satisfying, viewers may end up disappointed that a lot of time is spent discussing deleted material that's not on the DVD. It seems for every scene an alternate version was planned or was actually shot. They agree that, one day, it would be nice to make some of this material available, but perhaps not just yet: not while their wounds are still raw. If the film had been a blockbuster, no doubt we'd be looking at one of Fox's lavish two-disc Special Editions.

There are two short documentaries on the disc: the HBO Special - Inside Solaris (13m) and Solaris - Behind The Planet (18m). Both documentaries offer the usual mix of behind the scenes footage, on-set interviews and clips. Inside Solaris is marginally better than the usual promotional puff piece (it contains some nice stuff with Clooney goofing around between takes, for example). Behind the Planet is more comprehensive, covering things like the creation of the film's impressive sets. It also includes audition tapes for some of the actors, and a fair bit of material showing the director blocking shots and coaching his actors. 

The disc also contains a late draft of the screenplay, in text format. 

When the disc loads, the first thing the viewer sees is eight minutes of unrelated promotional trailers, for Phone Booth, Antwone Fisher, X-Men 2 and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. These can be skipped, by fast-forwarding, or by using the 'Menu' button, but once you get into the discís animated menus, thereís no way to access them again without re-starting the disc (or accessing them manually).

Fans of the film, or viewers who are interested in trying something more challenging than the average studio fodder, should enjoy the Solaris disc a great deal, especially if they have the time to absorb the supplementary materials. 

Science fiction snobs, especially those who were put off by Clooney's presence, should give Soderbergh's film a try. It may not be the equal of Tarkovsky's two-and-a-half hour masterpiece, but it's a damn good ninety-five minute distillation!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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