Red Corner/Blue Corner – Solaris v Solaris

This regular feature puts original films in the ring against their remakes and lets them slug it out over 5 rounds. Feel free to disagree with the ref’s decision and leave your comments at the end.

They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. If that’s the case than Stephen Soderburgh has a bit of a crush on Andrei Tarkovsky. In the world of cinema I’m sure he’s not alone in feeling this way. Tarkovsky is a giant of the arts. This series is called Red Corner/Blue corner so I may as well start with the boxing similes early, Tarkovsky is a true heavyweight filmmaker. I felt almost bad putting Soderburgh up against him here, like a referee with blood on his hands who feels responsibility for a death in the ring. But sometimes underdogs win, so let’s put their respective films head to head and see how they fare.

Solaris was Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem novel which Stephen Soderburgh remade in 2002. The story centres around an astronaut who is sent to a space station to investigate mysterious goings on, occurrences which seem to be influenced by the moon named Solaris which the station is orbiting. This moon seems to feed on the painful memories of those aboard the station and replicates the people and events within their subconscious. Their internal torment is visualised externally. These replications are beyond hallucination and raise deep and troubling questions on the very nature of reality and the morality of accepting a false actuality. Those few lines of explanation are a ridiculously simplistic distillation of a profound and confusing tale. Like the conundrum of where does the sky end or Escher’s visually impossible waterfall drawing, the questions asked within it are unfathomable.

In the Red Corner…Solaris (1972)

It’s only correct that Tarkovsky takes the red corner. This Soviet bloc of a director made his films pre Glasnost, when Russia was only part of a wider union of communist states. His works may have at times taken shots at the Soviet system, below their ever present radar of censorship of course, but he did also send out a calling card to the rest of the world that the USSR housed world class artists in the realm of film. Some argue that political repression spurs the artist on; it creates a pressure cooker of bridled creativity which eventually explodes into something majestic. That’s debatable. What’s true in relation to Tarkovsky’s situation is that he did not need to worry about dollars, cents or audience approval. The only endorsement he needed was the Politburo’s. Like the huge and imposing architecture of Communist societies such as China and Russia the great director was able to forge titanic monuments to cinema with little care of return on investment. The desired return for the Soviet leaders was to communicate superiority, for Tarkovsky I can only imagine it was to create stunning art; and he achieved this.

Solaris was his answer to Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, not so much returning the ball to the American director’s side of the court, more forehand smashing it out of touch. His complaint was that Kubrick focused on machines and technology, humanity was ignored. He sought to correct this with his haunting and perplexing 1972 epic, which although set in space focuses firmly on human memory and emotion.

In the Blue Corner…Solaris (2002)

Solaris may be a confusing film to follow but the back catalogue of director Steven Soderburgh is equally baffling. His CV reads like the screen on a heart monitor, rapidly alternating highs and lows. The theory is that he takes a ‘one for me, one for the studio’ approach. Essentially his megahit studio successes pay for his less profitable and more personal films. For every Out of Sight there’s an Ocean’s Eleven. <The purists may see this as the path of a sell out but that label can hardly be attached to the man who created a four and a half hour, Spanish language double epic on the life of Che Guevara. A film which was almost unsellable in the USA so was hardly a commercial venture. This was truly a labour of love, much as Solaris must have been. The question is why did he feel it necessary? Did Soderbergh believe that he could improve on the original, or add to it? Did he feel that his contemporary production could bring the story to a whole new audience? In my own snooty opinion, if an audience is too lazy or unwilling to tackle the barriers of age or language and watch the original, then they are undeserving of the film. The answer he gives is fairly ambiguous. The film came up in conversation and it was noted that James Cameron had the rights to a remake. As a fan of the original, Soderbergh approached him and was given the OK to make it. He may just have saved us from the 3D version, rightly or wrongly.

Now that we’ve been introduced to both versions let’s put them head to head.

Round 1 – Star Power

Clooney - big hitter

This is a bit of a mute point to be honest. Solaris is not and should not be concerned with movie stars. Big blockbuster names are like light pollution, they blind us to the narrative of the film and sap believability from it. Thankfully both directors realised this. Soderbergh went with his regular leading man George Clooney, admittedly as big as stars come. His co-star is Natascha McElhone, a fairly fresh name at this stage of her career. Those aside no other names ring out, actors were chosen rather than stars. Tarkovsky’s cast are largely unknown to western audiences. The Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis is perfectly cast as square jawed lead man Kris Kelvin while Russian actress Natalya Bondarchuk is suitably otherworldly as the replication of his wife. So, Clooney lands the first punch for the 2002 version, but will his movie star baggage slow it down in future rounds?

Round 2 – Performances

The full cast of Tarkovsky’s 1972 version are exceptional. Bondarchuk is a beautiful, ethereal presence and communicates perfectly the anguish and confusion of an entity coming to terms with the fact she isn’t real. Like Sean Young in Bladerunner she is tormented by the realisation she is only a reflection of another’s memories. McElhone looks the part also and is a fine actress but somehow can’t convey the same peculiarity and danger as her Russian counterpart. Banionis adds real gravitas and weight as Kris Kelvin, a outwardly confident and collected man who is in fact crippled by painful memories. To see him crumble in the face of his self inflicted torment is a harrowing experience. Clooney grows into the role and conveys the hurt well but his performance is less of a journey. Of the supporting casts Jeremy Davies goes a little over the top in his overly affected interpretation of mad scientist Snow. Anatoly Solynitsyn manages to look believably insane in the same role.

Round 3 – Story

a reflection of reality

A great novel means that there’s a strong blueprint to follow. Tarkovsky’s version is the more interpretive and its open ended questions actually make the film far more expansive. It’s like a dry sponge which expands in the mind as its puzzles rattle around in there. Soderbergh cuts the film down to 94 minutes from the originals 169. He loses no narrative, only scenes of brooding looks, bewildering conversation or meditative silence. But due to this we understand more than the characters. Tarkovsky leaves us in their place, unaware of the truth. He refuses to spoon feed his audience and his surreal flashbacks (normally a cinematic device for explanation) only confuse us further. Like waking up from a blurred dream with its remnants slowly slipping from memory, those scenes are excruciating in their ambiguity. Both films follow a similar narrative, Sodebergh’s is a far tighter version but when you can create scenes as beautiful and fascinating as Tarkovsky it’s far more interesting to take the long road.

Round 4 – Cinematography

This is an area where age can play its part. Technology can give those behind the lens a little foot up, but then again some people don’t need it. Tarkosky always managed to conjure up staggering images using the power of the imagination. Like in another of his masterworks Stalker, the audience are encouraged to believe. Special effects are not required. In the 1972 version we see earth then the space station, never space. We need to imagine. The scenes set in the station are haunting but it’s actually his take on earth which looks most unearthly. Tarkovsky has always managed to make the natural seem alien. One section which is unusual without explanation is the journey through Tokyo. The Japanese backdrop was used without effect as a futuristic world. To Soviet audiences of the time it seemed as such. Soderbergh doesn’t overuse special effects. His film is neat and attractive but sensibly character centred. In one scene the reflected lights in Clooney’s visor almost look like his confused thoughts orbiting his mind. Overall it’s more professional but less artistic than Tarkovsky’s vision.

Round 5 – Direction
As initially mentioned this is a bit of an uneven battle. Steven Soderbergh is a talented and interesting director but Tarkovsky is a visionary, rightfully hailed as a true master of cinema. In Solaris he uses outer space as a laboratory to study humanity and the horrific potential of memory. Soderbergh attempts the same but whether from his or the studio’s insistence he tries to answer questions which are beyond human comprehension. His version is an interesting story, Tarkovsky’s is a piece of art, a new and influential step in cinema. Overlong films are often the sign of a director who is either unsure of his work or supremely egotistical. For Tarkovsky this is not the case and for any piece of his film to end up on the cutting room floor would have been a crime. His biggest strength is the understanding that his subject matter is incomprehensible. Next to this Soderbergh’s direction is adequate, naive in the belief that he can trimly tie up the ending.

Result

Soderbergh’s version of the story is a light cigarette, the hard stuff is filtered out before it troubles you. In comparison Tarkovsky’s film is like inhaling a cigar, it leaves you confused and disorientated, shaking your head. Although Clooney gets in an early jab in the first round the Russians pummel the American film from then on. It’s a mismatch, not so much a reflection of Soderbergh’s production being weak, just that Tarkovsky is an all time great.

As always feel free to disagree in the comments section below.

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