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MR. BEAKS Has A Cosmic O For Soderbergh

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

As I’ve mentioned here already, Mr. Beaks is just moving to Los Angeles. For the last few years, he’s been one of our “go-to” guys in NYC, but a chain of personal events has led him to migrate to my side of the continent. I couldn’t be more pleased. Beaks is a good guy. When he first got to town, I let him roam through the stacks of scripts that clutter the Labs, giant snowdrifts of paper held together with brads, picking and choosing a number of things to read. When he stumbled across one particular script, his eyes lit up and he made little girly sounds. I had no choice but to loan him SOLARIS to read.

Man, I’m glad I did.

Here’s one of the better pieces I’ve been pleased to publish by Beaks so far, a passionate look at a script that seems to have inspired him to a sort of near-religious fervor. I’ll let him explain why:

When Stanislaw Lem pondered Solaris, he found the limits of man’s knowledge on the surface of a homeostatic ocean. When Arndrei Tarkovsky pondered Solaris, he found a parable concerning man’s inherent isolation situated in a metaphor for Russia’s malfunctioning communist experiment. Thirty years later, Steven Soderbergh is pondering Solaris, and, standing on the shoulders of the two previous explorers’ insights, he has found the most intensely personal project of his career.

He is also on the cusp of making the most provocative science-fiction film since 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

SOLARIS is currently set to begin production as soon as George Clooney, who will star along with Natasha McElhone and Jeremy Davies, wraps CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, situating it for release sometime in 2003. Retaining the basic premise of the Lem novel, man confronts incomprehensible “living” planet with god-like powers, Soderbergh has essentially combined the book and the Tarkovsky movie, taken a machete to them, and stitched only the essential pieces back together with a heavy sensual tincture absent from its predecessors. In a very illuminating interview conducted by Chris Gore at Film Threat on the eve of the Oscars in 2001, Soderbergh tellingly stated "...if we do our jobs right it's a combination of 2001 and LAST TANGO IN PARIS". It is precisely that, hold the butter.

Imbuing the heady sci-fi chestnut with a libido is but one of many pre-production triumphs for Soderbergh, and while it may be early to declare SOLARIS a sure-thing (even though I feel it’s as close to being one as I’ve ever encountered in years of script reading), those who’ve made contact with the work in the past (which, to the reader, can seem almost as profound as discovering the planet itself) know what a powder-keg of reality-shattering ideas SOLARIS can be.

My own fascination with SOLARIS began back in 1990, when Tarkovsky’s film – incidentally, the director’s least favorite of his own work – was restored to its full 167-minute running time (the U.S. release ran 132-minutes), which led many critics to rave madly over what they considered a miraculously salvaged masterpiece existing as a Russian counter-point to Kubrick’s 2001. Though I was a mere sixteen at the time, such plaudits made the film impossible to resist, leading me to seek out the film upon its eventual video release (hey, I lived in Northwest Ohio at the time; that was as good as I could do). I wish I could say Tarkovsky’s introspective, dirge-like examination of man’s brutally self-centered nature inspired in me an acute appreciation for Russian cinema, but as a young man high on the hyper-kinetic filmmaking of Sam Raimi, it’s safe to say the director’s thoughtful (i.e. glacial paced) rhythm was lost on me.

Several years later, however, I rediscovered SOLARIS via a brief flirtation with the novels of Lem, and responded to the solipsistic dilemma faced by its protagonist, Kris Kelvin, a cautious, logic-bound psychiatrist teetering on either the brink of madness or the edge of man’s very existence. It’s a fascinating book stuffed-to-bursting with mind-warping, often paradoxical ideas, and the kind of bold theorizing more appealing to the science-impaired portion of the genre’s audience. What’s more, it sent me scrambling back to Tarkovsky’s once-impenetrable work with a renewed vigor; that I once again found the film more of an interesting failure than a masterwork on the level of 2001 does not negate the picture’s many captivating moments, including its unremitting somber tone, a prolonged zero-gravity embrace set to a solemn Bach prelude, and a haunting final shot that grows progressively bleaker as the camera pulls back. And though the film failed to satisfy me as a sustained piece of dramatized philosophizing, it did leave me with the notion that, in the hands of a more conventional storyteller with access to a generous budget, SOLARIS could finally be the groundbreaking piece of science-fiction for which Tarkovsky was striving.

When I heard several years ago that the rights for SOLARIS resided with James Cameron, I wasn’t terribly thrilled; though he’d claimed the mantle of Best Popular Storyteller from Spielberg in the 1980’s, churning out an impressive string of compulsively watchable entertainments, the thematic complexity of his work was always a secondary pleasure – best appreciated when slyly integrated on the fly, but ham-fisted when confronted head-on (most notably in the badly aging T2, which had something to do with the value of human life, if I’m not mistaken). When it was announced, however, that Steven Soderbergh would be directing (with the full weight of Cameron and Lightstorm behind him as producers), the possibilities began to multiply. Having marveled at the off-handed narrative economy of 1998’s OUT OF SIGHT, I thrilled at the thought of Soderbergh’s potential to focus the story into a compelling whole, rather than a compendium of stationary discussions building to a revelatory finale.

I was hopeful. I had no idea.

As a pitch, you could say Soderbergh’s SOLARIS plays more like a cross between 2001 and THE SHINING; an astronaut/psychiatrist, Chris Kelvin, is sent via his Athena 7 space capsule to the Prometheus (the name of every thing or person in this script is of great significance), a ship orbiting the titular planet, which has seen one of its crew members, Gibarian, commit suicide, while the other two, Snow and Sartorius, are clearly well off the rails upon our protagonist’s arrival. Kelvin’s repeated attempts to ascertain what, besides common cabin fever, has caused these men to lose their bearings are met with belligerent accusations from Sartorius and an eerie warning from Snow to barricade his door while he sleeps, which he heeds.

His precautions are futile; that night, Kelvin receives a visitor in the form of his deceased ex-wife, Rheya. She is not a dream, nor a ghost, but a physical manifestation of his memory dredged up by Solaris for reasons at first incomprehensible to Kelvin, and, coincidentally, to his crewmates, who have been confronting their own visitors for several weeks, thus taking an obvious toll on their sanity. Kelvin’s first impulse is to rid himself of Rheya by expelling her in a space pod, but as soon as he falls asleep the next night, he is met by a second manifestation of her, leaving him little choice but to deal with her inexplicable presence in his life as he attempts to assess the sanity of his colleagues and the status of the Solaris expedition, which has just been sold by the government to an anonymous private concern for a substantial sum.

As Kelvin experiences life with Rheya again, they indulge in a furious fit of sexual fervor as gratifying as the quiet moments spent dealing with Rheya’s emotional instability are excruciating. As Soderbergh deftly drops visual clues about the nature of their relationship – encompassing their chance first encounter, Kelvin’s apparent tendency toward emotional neglect (symbolized in the pills he forces on Rheya to quell his own discomfort with her outbursts), and the tragic end of their marriage – he leaves open the possibility that perhaps Kelvin’s chemical solution for Rheya’s anxiety, while effective as a quick fix, only worsened her mental state. The dilemma is deepened by Soderbergh’s wise fleshing out of Rheya’s character, a symbol of benign neglect in the book, and brutally depicted as a kept animal in the Tarkovsky film, where all of the female characters often shared empathetic two-shots with the family dog. By making Rheya the intellectual equal of Kelvin, their doomed life together attains a mournful heft as the thrust of the narrative shifts from the futility of understanding Solaris to our destructively casual misunderstanding of each other.

It’s a concept Lem would likely advocate, and, maybe, would’ve pursued had he not been so keen on lampooning man’s brash, unfocused desire to reach out into the cosmos without knowing his own inherent boundaries. As a bit of a space exploration aficionado, a part of me has always resisted Lem’s thesis, which is why I’m most satisfied with Soderbergh’s slightly less cynical, much more compassionate approach (though so much of my NASA adoration is caught up with those envelope-pushing Mercury astronauts who cracked the earth’s atmosphere as an ineffable gesture of good, old-fashioned American will, I may end up agreeing with Lem one day should we continue to find bupkis out in the final frontier).

Another masterstroke is how succinctly (if differently) Soderbergh contextualizes Solaris into our universe. Gone is the book’s pre-occupation with the 100-plus year old history of Solaris and its Solarists (a branch of hard and theoretical science that becomes dominant in the wake of the planet’s discovery). Instead, Soderbergh places us only ten years into our understanding of Solaris existing in a “higher mathematical dimension superimposed on top of the Universe”, a discovery that has thrown all laws governing Space and Time into upheaval; thus, Kelvin’s inter-planetary jaunt is colored by immediacy rather than the pointlessness of the tale’s two previous incarnations. Even the facile alterations, such as placing Kelvin and his colleagues on the Prometheus, intensify the metaphorical underpinnings of the tale.

As Sartorius and Snow reach the conclusion that the destruction of the planet is the only way to preserve their sanity, and protect the Earth from what could potentially be a malevolent force, Kelvin falls in love with the new Rheya, and contrives for a way to get her off of the ship and back home, but as they grow closer, the very memories of what tore Kelvin and the Earthbound Rheya apart begin to surface, and he is faced with the awful possibility of losing her all over again. At this point, Soderbergh’s script slams home as a cosmic tragedy, with Kelvin reaching out for that never meant to remain in his possession, and forgiveness as his only comfort.

As many times as I’ve read this script, and I’m well over twenty passes by this point, it never loses its power to pulverize in the last twenty pages. Whether or not our explorers have found God, a distinct possibility floated by more than one of the characters, the fate of Kelvin and Rheya always stands at the fore – the human predicament dwarfing the theological and scientific conundrum in ways both surprising and sobering. On the page, Soderbergh’s SOLARIS is a monumental work of science fiction, and though I worry about the potential of humans as much as its author, I couldn’t be more confident of his own capacity to bring his potential masterpiece to fruition.

Since I’m moving to LA, I’m going to need to meet some new friends with which to recreate key moments from the SOLARIS script... over and over and over and over... so write me!! Please!!

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