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Seen: 2002.11.20   ¶   Reviewed: 2002.12.31

Every second Soderbergh film is a good one. Usually flat-out great. Is there a single thing wrong with The Limey? Doesn’t it swagger with breathtaking braggodocio through cinematic history, casting Terence Stamp and using footage from a previous film of his as the character’s previous life?

I saw the original Solaris. I borrowed both its tapes from the library and fast-forwarded through three-quarters of their length. It’s flat-out boring. You’re not supposed to admit that, of course, particularly since the recent reissue was “much anticipated.” (Even the Captions, Inc. subtitling job was ready to go, and then... it all stopped in its tracks!) Tarkovsky is a “master.”

Not really. Not if viewed fairly. Not with Solaris.

Apropos the current Solaris, I am never too proud to quote Ebert: “The movie needs science fiction to supply the planet and the space station, which furnish the premise and concentrate the action, but it is essentially a psychological drama.” (The shocking and materially untrue Times review I will not take time to denounce.) The Soderbergh Solaris combines two mythic tales of omniscient overseers – the sentient planet of 2001, with its psychogenic invisible rays, and the Star Trek pilot episode’s alien species, who implant pleasing phantasms in their prisoners.

(It pains me to note that the Times was able to spot the latter echo and Ebert was not.)

The planet Solaris causes tangible hallucinations of loved ones to appear. They act exactly like the real people they represent, except that their entire being is limited to what you knew about them. (The logical consequences are not entirely explored: Are you sure Solaris got their footprints right?) You get a chance to undo whatever you did with them.

The gestalt mythology that Solaris presents is of an unforeseen second chance with unforeseen consequences. So there’s a third echo: After Life, where, after your death, you must select a single memory that will accompany you to the afterlife to the exclusion of all else.

The film is dreamlike, with the Soderberghian trademark of defocused objects in the foreground and a rather challenging mix of present-day and flashback scenes. Screenplay structure absolutists will be mapping this one out for a while. (There’s only one book worth reading on screenwriting structure, by the way: Screenwriting Updated by Linda Aronson. She’s published one of the only two credible explications of Pulp Fiction.)

And I’m not sure dialogue is really necessary in any scene between Chris and Rheya, save for their sole pivotal quarrel. Solaris is effectively a silent film during those times, again echoing 2001, however ironically. It’s meant to be experienced non-rationally. You’re expected to realize what’s going on much later, as hints accumulate. Hints are difficult to remember verbatim; the details don’t matter, only the meaning. Hence I scarcely noticed at all when George Clooney and Natasha McElhone were standing around naked. The presentation is too diffuse – diffused, really – to notice details.

(Actually, a lesson seems to have been learned from Good Will Hunting, home to the love scene that permanently raised the bar and made everything else obsolete. A gay director could never have made that work with two guys, and a lesbian’s attempt would have come off too laboured or political. In Good Will Hunting, all I can remember are unfocused images and ongoing talk with a loving feel. I get the same memory from Solaris.)

And if only the film had trusted its instincts to remain silent when Gordon is prepping the shuttlecraft for the return to Earth. She’s not even in frame, or at least her face isn’t; she yammers through a checklist when she should just shut up and let Clooney’s own final slow realization unfold visually.

A pedant’s note: “Solaris” is pronounced both possible ways by different actors. Canadians would tend to rhyme it with Harris, Americans with harness. (In fact, I have a whole test strip of æ vs a: words I could run you through.) A DVD rewatching session will permit an enjoyably arcane tabulation of who uses which pronunciation.

Sign-in today required surrendering my ID and their jotting details down in their perennial loose-leaf binder. Why do both?

Also, not one but two wheelchair users in the house today, an exceptional number.

Caption quality

Well, we had yet another technical problem. The only place in town showing Solaris with MoPix was Scarborough Town Centre. I schlepped out there. The caption display was missing the bottom row of pixels from each line of text. I thought it was very odd that only those dots would be deactivated. Still, I reported it on the way out (having to explain it twice to the manageress, who called over a manager, to whom I had to explain it twice more).

The manager is one of those genuinely helpful sorts. They really do exist. As with sweeties and people persons, they’re a different species entirely, and I marvel at their existence on the same planet as me; I wonder what it would be like to live that kind of life, rather like imagining what it would be like to be black (that is, have dark skin and short hair). He’s also way younger than me, and taller. So we reëntered the cinema and, after a great deal of staring and thinking out loud, concluded that nothing was wrong with the display; it was simply leaned back too far so that the ridge surrounding each line of text was obscuring the bottom row of pixels.

Something else to go wrong, apparently.

Because of the elliptical handling of time in the script, with ample disembodied speech, it is in fact necessary to add (voice-over) the umpteen times the Caption Center actually did.

Description quality

It’s Miles Neff again, reliably.

Now, I am going to admit up front here that the movie really cannot be properly understood from the description DVS gave us. Soderbergh uses a recurring device of silent close-ups of actors interspersed with distant or close shots of Solaris and its many solar flares. The visual effect is a cumulative feel rather than montage or opposition, but a plain-English recitation submerges that effect.

Does this mean someone else could have done it better, given more time? Arguably.

The shuttlecraft Athena is not named as such when we first see it. The ship’s name is clearly visible on the hull. While it was happening the first time I thought “They need to tell us that,” and lo and behold they did need to – something like “lock me in here real tight and take the Athena back” comes up in the dialogue much later; the line relies on your having seen the shuttle’s name.

“Chris looks the escape pod pathway up and down”: No, left and right!

“Gridded ceiling panels” are mentioned twice in reference to two different ceilings. I’d say it really applied only to one.

“A dark-skinned woman with short hair glares out”: Oh, for fuck sakes. She’s black. She is a black woman. Don’t be giving us microdetailed descriptions of racial characteristics. (You forgot her flat nose and the different colours on the hands and feet.) WGBH has got to get its damned shit together in handling race.

Watch out with the damned sex scenes, too. (Sorry, love scenes.) “Fingers gently scratch up and down along the furrow of his back.” No, his leg! What is this, the only straight guy in the entire world of description typing at the keyboard?

“They raise their drinks and each drain a shot glass”: Drains, not drain. “A row of red-lit panels embedded in the wall radiate a soft glow”: No, radiates, not radiate. (A row radiates. Panels don’t.)

Someone walks into a room and turns on a “light.” No, he turns on the room light. The description made it sound like a flashlight.

A young boy named Michael is named as such in description, but credited as Shane’s Son in the ending scroll.


Chris is “Chris” in description and KELVIN: in captions.

Exit interview

I reported the caption-display problem.

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