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and Ron Clements
Back around the time of Schindler’s List, when Steven Spielberg was inching his way toward more serious themes, he told an interviewer that he was representative of a new generation of ambidextrous Hollywood filmmakers who could make a mainstream action movie and then follow it with Red Desert. Ultimately, of course, Spielberg attached himself not to such masters of pensive art-house slo-mo as Red Desert’s Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky, but to Stanley Kubrick, whose dilatory tendencies were usually tempered by reliable commercial instincts. Another American director, however, has come to exemplify Spielberg’s argument: Steven Soderbergh.
Soderbergh’s breadth is demonstrated by the films he’s released in barely a year’s time: Traffic, a problem drama in the form of an edgy soap opera; Ocean’s Eleven, a flat but glitzy box-office hit; Full Frontal, a self-indulgent yet thrifty digital-video lark; and now Solaris, a meditation on memory, love, loss, and identity that comes dressed in a spacesuit. Like Traffic, it’s a remake, and this time Soderbergh is tangling with an art-house icon. The original Solaris, adapted from a Stanislaw Lem novel, was directed 30 years ago by Tarkovsky.
As a formal accomplishment, Soderbergh’s Solaris is impressive. The director has managed to tell approximately the same story in 95 minutes, more than an hour less than it took Tarkovsky, while only moderately accelerating the original’s lost-in-space pace. (For detractors of the first Solaris, of course, this is a dubious achievement.) The opening sequence, which doesn’t even pause for credits, demonstrates the film’s efficiency: In a few quick scenes, the writer-director establishes that Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a psychiatrist, that he’s haunted by memories of dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), and that—by the way—he lives in the future. Soon, Chris has been recruited by videogram to help an old friend, so he departs for a spaceship orbiting a lava lamp of a planet, Solaris.
Upon reaching the craft, he learns that his friend has killed himself. Officially, there are only two people left alive on board: Gordon (Viola Davis), who’s locked herself in her chamber, and Snow (Jeremy Davies), a meandering, mind-blown crewman who could be called a space case. Chris quickly realizes, however, that there are other creatures on the ship. He’s not sure who or what these “visitors” are, and is even more bewildered when—after dreaming of his initial introduction to the mercurial Rheya—he awakes to find her there with him.
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The new Rheya is equally confused by her presence on the spaceship, and flashbacks gradually reveal that the late Rheya was also inclined toward perplexity. The giddiness of the couple’s initial romance turned into a struggle to keep the suicidal woman alive—a battle Chris eventually lost. Orbiting Solaris, however, Chris seems to have been given another chance to prove the truth of the Dylan Thomas line he quoted to impress Rheya early in their courtship: “And death shall have no dominion.” But maybe your desire for your dead wife turning into a seemingly flesh-and-blood being is just too creepy. At least that’s what Gordon thinks, and she devises the only apparent technique for permanently dispatching the wish-fulfillment creatures.
Although he substituted Thomas’ poetry for the original film’s Ukrainian verse, Soderbergh has retained the Tarkovsky trademark of near-perpetual rain (now underscored by the metallophone ripplings of Cliff Martinez’s Reichian score). He’s replaced the Russian’s portentous vagueness, however, with undergrad-level chatter about love and God. (Chris believes in the first, not the second.) The director once promised that his Solaris would be part Last Tango in Paris, but the few shots of Clooney and McElhone lounging in the buff—with the former’s butt prominently featured—are more cozy than erotic. Indeed, the only Soderbergh additions that really work are the humorous touches: Davies, who’s generally insufferable, is quite funny here, as is the notion of the reconstituted Rheya as a neurotic phantasm. She may be the first succubus in history to need a shrink.
Ultimately, both Soderbergh and Tarkovsky’s versions of Lem’s book play like overblown Twilight Zone episodes, with alternate but equally underwhelming twist endings. The choice is between Tarkovsky’s cosmic languor, which some have found transporting but didn’t take me anywhere, and Soderbergh’s more pragmatically American approach to the ineffable. The latter seems somehow less appropriate to the story, but it has yielded a meditative intergalactic parable that, if less striking than Red Desert, is more fun than Ocean’s Eleven.
Treasure Planet writer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements extrapolate wildly from their source, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but they don’t weigh down their tale with philosophical or theological concepts. This animated Disney space-pirate saga is still a Victorian-era boy’s adventure story, faithful in spirit and many plot details to the original.
Fatherless 15-year-old Jim Hawkins (the voice of Joseph
Gordon-Levitt) has become a handful for his mother: He’s regularly picked up by the local robocops for reckless sky-surfing. So when a space-pirate treasure map happens to arrive at the family’s Benbow Inn, Mom reluctantly agrees to allow Jim to join family friend Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) on a quest for cyberdoubloons—or whatever it is that semifuturistic buccaneers hoard. Doppler engages a sailing-ship-like spaceship commanded by part-feline Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), who’s unaware that her crew is a pack of pirates loyal to a semicyborg, John Silver (Brian Murray), posing as the ship’s cook.
As cabin boy, Jim becomes friendly with Silver, a freebooter with glimmers of decency and a sort of Cockney-Jamaican accent. Then Jim hears the pirates planning to mutiny and find the treasure for themselves. Doppler’s not much help, but in the course of his adventures, Jim does make two new friends: Morph (Dane A. Davis), a shape-shifting pink blob with a puppylike personality, and the robotic B.E.N., who is basically C-3PO with the voice of Martin Short.
Musker and Clement, whose previous credits include The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, most recently made the arch and highly stylized Hercules. Treasure Planet, however, is unapologetically motley, combining pirate yarn with space opera, cel animation with computer graphics, and Disney ‘toonmanship with Japanimation-style creatures and physiognomies. Rather than emphasize a single gimmick or star turn, the movie throws extreme sports, low humor, Star Wars and Star Trek homages, and even a couple of songs by Goo Goo Doll John Rzeznik at the screen—and doesn’t hang around to see what sticks. Credit Stevenson’s original tale or Musker and Clements’ devotion to it, but the end result is surprisingly coherent and reasonably swashbuckling. CP