Produced by James Cameron and 20th Century Fox
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Steven Soderbergh from Stanislaw Lem’s novel
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Produced by Propaganda Films
Directed by Spike Jonze
Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman from The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is the first film I have seen in decades that portrays the terrifying consequences of abortion. For this, Soderbergh deserves congratulations, although I am not sure why he has dragged us into space to sound the alarm. Perhaps it is too dangerous a thought to share on Earth these days.
Solaris is an adaptation of an adaptation. Soderbergh has taken Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film of the same title, which was itself an adaptation of a 1961 novel by Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. Soderbergh seems to have used Tarkovsky’s film as his template and then cut its 169-minute metaphysical rumination to a 110-minute romance, rendering his Solaris an austere, cryptic meditation on love, its challenges and delusions. While beautifully shot and often moving, it is ultimately too elliptical for its own good. Although Soderbergh’s love story has its basis in the novel, Lem’s interests were much wider. Lem’s novel of ideas considers the nearly hopeless self-infatuation of our species. Tarkovsky’s film is a far-truer rendering of the text and, despite technical limitations, is, in some ways, more visually accomplished. Soderbergh’s version, on the other hand, can boast of its darkly intense color schemes and relentless close-ups that work effectively to pull us inside the characters’ torment.
The new Solaris opens with psychologist Chris Kelvin waking from a troubled dream in which he hears a woman’s voice saying, “I love you so much; don’t you love me, Chris?” Upon rising, he stares morosely out his apartment’s rain-spattered window. We can tell that he’s inconsolable, because he is equipped with George Clooney’s soulful eyes. He is still mourning his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who committed suicide years before. He had walked out on her after discovering that she had aborted their child for fear that the baby might inherit the madness that ran in her family. Falling into despair, she took her life, leaving him guilt-ridden.
When we first meet Kelvin in this future age, he is working as a psychologist specializing in grief management. The officials at Earth’s space administration want to send him to the space station that revolves around the distant planet of Solaris. For reasons unknown, the crew has become distraught. A security detail had been sent out some time ago, but it was never heard from again. Logically, there is no other recourse but to send a lone psychologist to solve the mystery. (It is comforting to learn psychologists will be so competent in the future.)
The trouble on the station stems from Solaris itself. It seems the oceanic planet is actually a thinking organism that has been tampering with the crew’s minds. It has the power to rifle their memories, ferreting out their repressed thoughts and guilty secrets. It specializes in recreating betrayed loved ones. Thus, the first night aboard, Kelvin awakens to find Rheya sleeping next to him. At first unnerved, he realizes that she must be an alien manifestation, even though everything about her seems genuine, especially her feelings for him. She has no memory of the original Rheya’s suicide and wants nothing more than to be his loving wife. Finally, not knowing what else to do, he persuades her to get into a small space shuttle and then jettisons her from the station. Kelvin turns to watch her contorted face silently screaming at him through the shuttle’s porthole as she sails into frigid space. It is a deeply troubling scene—meant, I believe, to echo Rheya’s abortion. It certainly feels like a cold, deliberate rejection of life. From this point, the narrative becomes even more bizarre in ways better left unsaid here.
As does Lem’s novel, the film raises some difficult, if traditional, questions. Do we really know the people we care for? When we fall in love, do we devote ourselves to our partner on her own terms, or are we too solipsistic to go beyond our projection of what we want her to be? (The planet’s name is not idly chosen.) These are fine questions to raise, but,
unlike the novel and Tarkovsky’s film, Soderbergh has decided not to go beyond them. For Lem, Kelvin’s manufactured Rheya was just one more instance of our solipsism. As another character puts it, the astronauts are converting space itself into a mirror of their expectations. Leaving this out, Soderbergh also leaves out most of Lem’s metaphysical meditation on our species’ place in the universe. While philosophical speculation is not the most cinematic of subjects, it is, nevertheless, what gives the earlier works their heft. By comparison, Soderbergh’s film seems thin. It resembles a slightly more sophisticated remake of Between Two Worlds (1944), in which John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, and Sydney Greenstreet found themselves unaccountably aboard a ship making calls at otherworldly ports, such as Heaven and Hell.
Solipsism is also at issue in Adaptation, the second movie by director Spike Jonze (née Steven Spiegle) and writer Charlie Kaufman, after achieving success with Being John Malkovich.
Watching Adaptation, I was reminded of Helen Vendler’s caution regarding Yale’s literary champ, Harold Bloom. Exasperated by Bloom’s tireless self-promotion, she declared that he gave brilliance a bad name. Substitute cleverness for brilliance, and Vendler’s jibe applies with equal warrant to Kaufman and Jonze. These two are endlessly clever in their determination to make themselves look at least as brilliant as Bloom. Their film even contains a Bloomian sneer at the school of deconstruction.
This is not to say that Adaptation is not worth seeing. It is very funny, the performances are exceptional, and, in its own twisted way, it raises some important issues. Nevertheless, as the credits crawled, I was left with a sour aftertaste. This film is too self-regarding and too manipulative to be wholly satisfying—unless, of course, you are a postmodernist. If you are convinced that the subject of art is not the external world but the self and its manifold delusions about what lurks outside its mental precincts, this is your movie.
The premise is this: Coming off his surprise Malkovich hit, Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) is hired by a Hollywood studio to adapt The Orchid Thief, by New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). (Of course, they want him to spark this horticultural study with a little sex and violence lamentably missing from its pages.) When he finds himself neurotically stymied by the project, he takes to writing a script about himself trying to write the script, which then becomes the movie we are watching.
Orlean’s book began as a long New Yorker article focused on a quirky, self-taught Florida horticulturist named John Laroche (superbly played by Chris Cooper). To all appearances, Laroche is a lost soul. With his missing front teeth, his bedraggled hair hanging below his greasy baseball cap, and his penchant for telling people, “I’m the smartest person I know,” he seems more than eccentric—he could be dangerous. When Orlean first meets him, he goes into a well-practiced spiel about orchids and his harvesting of them from the state preserve, despite their endangered-species status. He has been sending Seminole tribesmen in to poach the orchids. This, he contends, is quite legal, because the Indians are exempt from the environmental regulations that hamper white interlopers. (The scene in which Laroche eloquently explains this to a perplexed park ranger is worth at least half the admission price.) Besides, Laroche continues, he should be hailed an environmental hero. After all, his purpose is to grow tens of thousands of these orchids, thus rendering them unendangered. At first, Orlean thinks he is suffering from delusions of grandeur; the more she learns, however, the more Laroche’s ramblings seem plausible.
Fascinated by Laroche’s passion for orchids, Orlean makes him her portal into the hothouse world of these prized flowers, their evolution, and their economics. Picking up Laroche’s musings, she writes of the orchid’s evolutionary intelligence. In the different regions in which it thrives, it has adapted itself by taking on the appearance of the local insects, thus drawing them to itself so they will pick up and disperse its seeds. It could even be said that orchids have developed their strange beauty to seduce humans into housing and breeding them.
Orlean finds Laroche’s passion captivating, ruefully reflecting that she has never experienced anything like it. In her Upper Westside milieu, she and her colleagues are too sophisticated to surrender to full, overmastering enthusiasms. Almost on principle, they see the world through a filter of bemused irony. With Laroche as her guide, Orlean concludes that her circle’s knowing detachment is emotionally crippling. After hearing Laroche say, “When you find your flower, you have to go for it,” she writes—and Kaufman quotes her in his script twice—“I suppose I have one unembarrassed passion. I want to find something to feel passionate about.” It is a would-be intellectual’s cri de coeur, however muted. (Notice her “suppose.” Even her revelation is couched in the commitment-phobic subjunctive.) After this, her book becomes as much a self-exploration as an investigation into orchids. It’s also more than a little self-indulgent, and this is Kaufman’s cue.
We watch the sweating Kaufman reading and rereading Orlean’s book, as he sinks hopelessly into her musings. He is stuck as surely as if he were sunk up to his eyeballs in the Fakahatchee swamp where Orlean did much of her research. He cannot deal with this “sprawling New Yorker s–t,” as he calls it. Finally, he seizes on the one thing that resonates with him—Orlean’s self-indulgence—and decides to turn his screenplay into a study of himself. Excitedly, he snatches his handheld tape recorder and dictates: “We open with Charles Kaufman, fat, balding, ugly, repulsive,” but soon stops short. “I’ve written myself into my own screenplay,” he sobs. “It’s solipsistic, pathetic, self-indulgent. I’m a loser.” This is the standard Woody Allen ploy: Disarm criticism by first confessing your neurosis and then mocking it. We are supposed to laugh. While the conceit is funny up to a point, this self-flagellating shtick soon becomes tedious.
To make things worse for Kaufman, his dimwitted twin, Donald, shows up at his dingy L.A. apartment, asking for lodging. (Kaufman’s dark, crummy living quarters seem devised to discourage aspiring screenwriters. After a career in television and film, including writing the successful Malkovich, is this all he’s got?) Donald wants advice on how to write a screenplay about a serial killer who has kidnapped a young woman and the police investigator who falls in love with the hostage, sight unseen. In no time at all, he has set up shop and is typing faster than his cliché-ridden mind can think. Meanwhile, Charlie stews in the next room, hunched over a page unsullied by type. (Since Kaufman does not have a twin, we can take Donald to be the ebullient Hyde lurking within his hand-wringing Jekyll.) Guess who sells his script to the studio first—and for seven figures?
Soon, Charlie has no choice. Like the orchids, he must adapt or perish. His script abruptly mutates from the story of his writer’s block to a Donaldesque thriller, in which he enters directly into Orlean’s world. There, he encounters all the sex and violence that the studio had been urging him to include in the first place. As Charlie says, his story has become a snake swallowing its own tail—or is that tale? Clever, yes. But brilliant? The call is yours.