Revisiting Steven Soderbergh's Solaris

By Justin Stoeckel

Justin earned his Bachelor of Arts in English with a concentration in Film Studies from the University of Delaware in December 2002. His studies have included: Surrealism in Film, Film Theory and Criticism, European Film History and American Film History. He has written and directed several short films, plays and performed stand-up comedy at various clubs in Delaware and New York. He continue to write film essays in addition to screenwriting.

Solaris is a beautifully romantic and honestly poetic film. It challenges you. It rewards you. It is a gem sinking in a pile of rot.

However, critics and moviegoers thought differently when the film was first released. For Americans, whose cinema is in a state of stagnation where any film chooses intellect, love or humanity as its subject and therefore bypassing glorified violence, thoughtless sex and gratuitous exposition is spit upon, Solaris was "dreary." But my God, this fascinating film is anything but "dreary" thanks to its creator, Steven Soderbergh.

Soderbergh, who wrote, directed, photographed and edited the film, as it is known, holds an enormous adoration for the young French journalists turned directors in the early sixties, and his films reveal it. Solaris is not an American film. It is a masterpiece left over from la nouvelle vague. One can easily recognize Godard in Soderbergh's photography and cuts; Truffaut in the gentleness and honesty in which he handles his actors; and Astruc in his dissected and innovative storytelling.

How Soderbergh's camera captures life in real time is genius. His shaky handhelds, the raw power of natural light, the warm glow of his orange and coolness of his blues play in perfect harmony. But what's more is how it gives us our ordinary world through extraordinary angles. A flashback scene with Rheya (McElhone) and Chris (Clooney) in an elevator is a perfect example. The two have just left a party where they have finally shared conversation. The camera stays focused on their hands, separate, trembling with nervous excitement. Finally, after several panicky hesitations, their hands find each other and they become one. In one single shot we witness the conception of love between soulmates. It is a perfectly poetic moment that could have only been captured by true poet.

The direction of the actors is so human, so honest, and so confident. We are not watching Clooney or McElhone perform. We are watching a loving couple, ripped apart by tragedy, meeting again. The hurt and confusion radiates in McElhone. Her eyes sparkle and gleam like glass of a snow globe, sheltering a fragile little world inside. Clooney, who is unquestionably today's Cary Grant, is as cool as ever, even in his most delicate and vulnerable role as psychiatrist Chris Kelvin.

Soderbergh is a natural cinèphile; he loves movies, therefore he is the audience too. He doesn't want to be underestimated, bored or patronized, so as a filmmaker he skips the gratuitous exposition, cuts deeply into the meat of the story, to the juiciest element of the story and tells his story to us as if we were sitting inside his head. We ponder his questions. We feel his excitement, his pain, his happiness, his sadness.

Throughout his career Soderbergh has never created a dishonest picture. Rarely is a director's oeuvre entirely spotless. Sure, critics in the past have criticized Soderbergh's early works such as Kafka, The Limey (another surplus masterpiece) and Solaris, claiming these bravely innovative pictures to be "flat", "disorienting", and "tedious", respectively. However, what was failed to be recognized was an utterly selfless ability to invite the audience to partake in the joys of creating and watching each film. The standard for today's directors is either undermining the audience, bogging them down with gratuitous exposition or mindless car chases, refusing to let them think on their own or; bullying the audience with a brutish intellect that refuses to let them participate in the story. Soderbergh, thank goodness, shatters the standard and accepts his audience as an equal. Solaris is by far his best example. Solaris is filmmaking preserved.


                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002