They never fully did. While I could tell the love story was supposed to be moving, I kept feeling the characters' passion struggling against the virtuosity of Soderbergh's direction, which is so tight, so gorgeously lit, so worked that even when he wants scenes to be emotionally incandescent, they wind up detached, even chilly. Unlike Todd Haynes in Far From Heaven (which Soderbergh and Clooney helped produce), he hasn't yet found a way to make his personal projects touch us. This isn't to say Solaris is insincere. Soderbergh has talked in interviews of his personal remoteness, and here you feel him bravely pushing himself toward new levels of personal exposure and artistic ambition.
If he doesn't wholly succeed, this is at least partly due to the profound culture clash at this project's very core. Following his own tastes (think of Kafka), Soderbergh has taken a story that makes perfect sense in romantic, metaphysics-mad Eastern Europe, then—heroically—tried to make it fit within the constraints of Hollywood filmmaking. I watched much of the new Solaris with the sense that something often felt slightly "off" about the characters and their preoccupations. Then during the dinner-party scene, when Kelvin, Rheya and their friends talk, with almost comical maladroitness, about God and the universe, I realized what it was: they seem to have been imported from a foreign movie.
Which, of course, they were. An added dividend of seeing Soderbergh's Solaris is that it sent me back for a second look at Tarkovsky's, which I caught on the spanking-new Criterion DVD, with its ravishing print, elegant introductory essay by critic Philip Lopate and interviews with (among others) Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science-fiction novelist who wrote the 1960 original, considered something of a classic.
This time, I was patient. To appreciate the film, you must give yourself over to its slow rhythms, which eventually enfold you in a profound sense of moral gravity that Soderbergh's faster pace never quite reaches. Doing so, I discovered that the 1972 Solaris is full of pleasures and fascinations, be it the milky-watery evocation of the planet Solaris, the hypnotic five-minute scene of a car driving through the futuristic-looking outskirts of '70s Tokyo (shades of Alphaville), or an exquisite 30 seconds of weightlessness when a floating candelabrum grazes a chandelier, prompting it to shiver. Halfway through Tarkovsky's film, a character declares, "In my opinion, we have lost our sense of the cosmic." For reasons of culture as much as anything else, that loss is felt acutely in Soderbergh's Solaris, which is rooted in American psychologism, not Slavic spirituality. In an interview on the DVD, Lem talks about how Tarkovsky missed the point of his novel by focusing on the metaphysical allure of Russian soil rather than on the excitement of new discoveries on Solaris. He disliked Tarkovsky's movie, and I'd guess that Tarkovsky wouldn't like Soderbergh's, which he would doubtless find vulgar (one pictures him shuddering at the sight of Clooney's bare buns). But who cares? It's fascinating to have so many different interpretations of the same story, and we don't have to see them in opposition. Though I will admit that I was terribly wrong about one thing: Tarkovsky's version is undeniably better—and certainly more visionary—than Gene Roddenberry's.
SOLARIS WAS DIRECTED BY STEVEN SODERBERGH; WRITTEN BY SODERBERGH, FROM THE NOVEL BY STANISLAW LEM; PRODUCED BY JAMES CAMERON, JON LANDAU AND RAE SANCHINI; AND STARS GEORGE CLOONEY AND NATASHA MCELHONE. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.