Audio commentary - Steven Soderbergh & James Cameron
20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 95 mins .
M15+ . PAL
In hindsight, we should have picked it right from the start of his career; Steven Soderbergh is a filmmaker with a unique approach to his craft. Known for years as “the guy who made Sex, Lies and Videotape”, he then promptly confused the hell out of his new-found fans with his second feature film - the marvellously surreal Kafka, a veritable tribute to expressionist cinema shot largely in black-and-white. Following that was King of the Hill, a gentle drama set during the great depression. Quite clearly, this man was not about to make the same film twice.
These days, everyone’s gotten used to the fact that Steven Soderbergh does whatever he likes, oblivious to the demands of the marketplace and unfazed by the commercial success or failure of whatever he did last time. Now known as “the Academy Award winning director of Traffic”, he’s just as much at home shooting low-budget experiments on digital video (Full Frontal) as he is doing big-budget crowd-pleasers like Ocean’s Eleven. Heavily influenced by the history of modern cinema but writing his own rules along the way, Soderbergh is perhaps the only director on the planet who could have gotten away with Solaris at this level.
Based on the novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem - which was previously turned into a movie in 1972 by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky - Solaris was optioned by James Cameron for production under his Lightstorm Entertainment banner. Cameron had a general direction for this new version of the story very firmly in mind, but that was about to change; the second Soderbergh heard about plans to make a new Solaris, he contacted Cameron and asked for the job. And what he’s come up with, in the midst of this era of blockbuster action, in-your-face visual effects and dumb-as-a-dodo scripts, is a kind of science fiction film that simply never gets made any more. Back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, science fiction could be taken seriously on screen and throw up unanswered questions about existence, mortality, and the state of things; they could leave the audience to work out an interpretation of events safe in the knowledge that the audience would make the effort. Sci-fi movies don’t do that much these days - hey, we can’t have the audience actually thinking, now, can we? But here’s the thing about Solaris: if you saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and either yawned or left the cinema going “huh?” then this one’s most definitely not for you. If you’re going to spend time with Solaris, bring your brain, and ask your imagination along while you’re at it. You’ll need them.
Lights on. Nobody home.
Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is asked, via a cryptic video message from an old friend, to travel to the space station that’s orbiting around Solaris, a gaseous body in the depths of space. Something strange is happening aboard the space station, and his friend Gibarian (German actor Ulrich Tukur) is convinced that Kelvin is the right person to deal with it. Upon arrival, though, Kelvin discovers that all is quiet - a bit too quiet. The only crew members remaining are Dr Gordon (Viola Davis) - who’s locked herself in her cabin in fear - and the impossibly out-there Snow (Jeremy Davies); Gibarian has committed suicide. Not much explanation is forthcoming from either of the two remaining crew, but Kelvin soon finds out first-hand what’s happening. Dreaming of his late wife Rheya (Natasha McElhone) he awakens to discover her in the bed with him. This is, of course, impossible - on Earth.
Quite obviously taking cues from Kubrick - some of the earliest shots as Kelvin approaches the space station and looks around inside are heavily reminiscent of 2001 - Soderbergh gently and deliberately lets this understated story unfold without the slightest hint of histrionics. The core of this story is not technological, nor is it alien - rather, it’s very human, a kind of muted tale of love and regret set in a fascinating, believable future world. Much is left to the viewer to interpret and understand, and that probably won’t play well to those who are used to being spoon-fed every detail. Indeed, there are long sequences with no dialogue at all, only Cliff Martinez’s astonishing music score, which was in part inspired by the work of out-there classical composer Ligeti (another 2001 influence there) but which also recalls the gentle electronics of Tangerine Dream.
In the commentary track, producer James Cameron describes Solaris as “a wildly passionate film told in dispassionate terms”, and in a way he’s right; passion and longing are at the centre of this film, despite its decidedly un-Hollywood minimalism and subtlety. Clooney is superb here, and obviously understands the material well; initial impressions are that McElhone is an unconventional choice for Rheya, but she’s actually spot-on for the unique demands of the character. And while Jeremy Davies’ intensely eccentric performance seems a little over-flamboyant, there’s a good reason for that. If there’s one complaint to be made, it’s that the emotional elements of the story are very much muted by the meditative style in which it’s been filmed; there’s not much here in the way of visceral emotion. What you take away from it on that level will depend on where your interpretation of the unfolding events takes you.
Soderbergh's Helvetica revival begins.
Beautifully rendered on screen, Solaris is a visual treat. But it’s also an absolutely masterful piece of filmmaking, thoughtfully and intelligently crafted from start to finish, with a marvellous sense of economy (the running time is less than 90 minutes - not including the credits, which all appear at the end). Soderbergh can take credit for an unusually large slice of this film - as well as directing, he wrote the screenplay, did the stunning Panavision cinematography (under his usual pseudonym Peter Andrews) and did the editing (under a new pseudonym, Mary Ann Bernard). This is undeniably Soderbergh’s vision from start to finish (and we mean that literally - the giganto-Helvetica typeface in the credits was his doing as well), and one occasion when James Cameron’s name on the credits most certainly does not mean that you’re in for a Cameron-influenced experience.
Solaris is even more rewarding on subsequent viewings; while it might not have set the box office on fire, it will surely find a large and appreciative audience on DVD.
An absolutely terrific video transfer awaits fans of the film on this DVD, naturally in the full theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 and of course 16:9 enhanced. This one was shot using anamorphic lenses by Andr… err, Soderbergh, and consequently the only way to properly watch this film is in widescreen on DVD. We got the chance to take a peek at the pan-and-scan transfer that’ll be used on VHS copies of the film, and the difference was astonishing - entire scenes were ruined by the need to pan from one side of the image to the other, and many shots become overwhelmingly claustrophobic and stifling in a 4:3 frame. Soderbergh has used the full Panavision frame extensively; don’t short-change the movie by watching it anywhere else but on DVD (or, of course, in the cinema, if you get lucky!)
Kelvin does the unthinkable...
This transfer is immensely detailed and richly textured throughout, capturing the fine points of some key shots without any hint of a problem. Soderbergh’s sometimes extreme exposures are also handled flawlessly, and the crucial use of colour - or the absence of it - is rendered magnificently here. There is some very visible film grain on occasion, but fear not - that’s the way it’s supposed to look. Sceptics need only glance at some of the all-CG effects shots to see just how superlative this transfer really is.
The layer change would have been a hard call for the disc authors, but they’ve stuck it in a reasonably unobtrusive place and few will be bothered by it. Compression problems are, typically, non-existent.
The theatrical sound mix on Solaris might have been Dolby Digital 5.1 (or SDDS 7.1, if you lived near one of the handful of suitably-equipped cinemas!) but don’t be expecting big audio fireworks here - it’s not that kind of movie. This is a very quiet, gentle soundtrack for the most part, with the dialogue anchored to the centre channel (and verging on clipping during a couple of rare loud scenes, something that probably happened on the source recording) while the music score spaciously spreads across the front speakers with breathtaking fidelity. The surrounds are used for atmospheric enhancement, but not much else. The LFE channel, meanwhile, is rarely used at all - indeed, the music score’s bass is supplied entirely through the main speakers. It’s an intelligent mix that doesn’t rely on “big audio” to get attention; nevertheless, it does sound a lot more warm and natural when heard in full 5.1, rather than downmixed to stereo or surround (there is no separate two-channel track supplied).
Rheya - or is it?
There’s not much here in the extras department (though exploring the bonus features is worth your time for the commentary alone); the animated main menu is reasonably well done, and all that’s missing on this PAL version compared to the US release is a bunch of trailers, sadly including two for Solaris itself. Presumably when the need arose to remove trailers for other Fox movies from the disc for overseas release, someone just figured it’d be easier to drop the trailers menu entirely.
Audio Commentary: Okay, now this is the good stuff, and the reason is simple - they’ve put two intelligent, innovative and very different filmmakers who get along well with each other into a room and let them loose on a commentary about the film they created. The result is compelling from start to finish, as Soderbergh and Cameron chat non-stop about the film, the ideas and philosophies behind it, and the occasional bit of technical or practical information. It’s one of those commentaries that actually enhances your enjoyment of the film, and it’s engrossing for the entire 94 minutes. A definite contender for best DVD commentary of the year, and a must-hear for anyone interested in the thought processes behind a movie. The score for the extras is almost entirely for this single item.
HBO Special: A 13-minute hype piece that manages to include some interesting interview snippets - not bad for its kind, but still probably a once-only viewing.
Solaris - Behind the Planet: Running just under 18 minutes, this is also a commercially-minded featurette, but a far better proposition than the HBO offering, mainly because of its use of behind-the-scenes footage. Some of the same interview clips used in the HBO effort are used here as well. Incidentally, in these featurettes James Cameron refers to “another actor” who was being considered for the role before Clooney came on board, but never names him; in case you were wondering, that actor was Daniel Day-Lewis.
Screenplay: The shooting script for Solaris, presented in the usual Fox fashion - as a series of still-frame chapters in a video stream. This makes for rather clunky navigation between pages, but it’s here if you’ve got the patience. We’d really have liked to see this screenplay included as a text, HTML or PDF file on DVD-ROM. By the way, it’s interesting to note that despite the repeated claims in the commentary and by the interviewees in the featurettes that Soderbergh’s Solaris was based on the book and not the earlier film, the screenplay reproduced here credits both the book and the 1972 movie script as inspirations.
Solaris wakes up...
A return to the days when science fiction was something that made you think rather than merely react, Solaris isn’t for everyone. But if you’ve been yearning for some intelligence to go with your space hardware or some genuine emotion to go with your romance (or if you’ve tired of sci-fi character names with inexplicable apostrophes in them!) then you’ll find Soderbergh’s take on Solaris entrancing. Just be sure you see it on DVD - in its full widescreen ratio, and with a superb commentary track as a bonus.