Monday, December 22, 2014


Originally published at Cinema Knife Fight, December 22, 2014.

After the movie glory of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaption of J.R.R Tolkien’s epic novel series, THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001 – 2003) fans clamored for the director and his crew to put the smaller prequel, The Hobbit, onto the big screen. After 9 years, he did, expanding the original story using snippets of other Tolkien works and adding new plotlines himself, with wife and co-writer Fran Walsh, along with Phillippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro.

Was it too much, using three two-and-a-half hour films to tell a story from a novel that was probably half the length of LOTR’s first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring?

Yes, a little. Admittedly, when Part One – THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPETED JOURNEY (2012) was released, I felt every geek’s excitement at the chance to return to Middle Earth and a story I enjoyed myself as a teenager. By the end of the second film, THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013), I was nodding, thinking, That was pretty good. Not perfect, but good.

Halfway through this third and final chapter, I was pretty tired. Granted, THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014) is an exhausting film. When I originally read The Hobbit, I was impressed that this interesting, winding story of Bilbo Baggins and his traveling Dwarf companions was coming to a climax with such a wonderfully huge, epic battle between five armies: Humans, Dwarves, Elves and, in the book, the Goblin-ruled Orcs (but in the movie it was just Orcs driven by, I guess, the emerging presence of Sauron…. I think. Got a bit muddled and my 3D glasses were making me all watery-eyed). The fifth army came later, as they do in these stories, but no sense giving it all away here.

The majority of the film, as I suppose the title should imply, is battle itself – at least, it seemed to be. Unlike the two climactic battle scenes in RETURN OF THE KING (2003), this one just didn’t have the same sense of peril. It should have, but even with some decent character development in the beginning, it more felt like this was the last hurrah for Jackson and so they were trying to pull out all the stops. All the stops weren’t pulled out, however, not in comparison to RETURN OF THE KING. The shortfalls came mostly in the special effects department, surprisingly.

The second Hobbit film ended with Smaug, the dragon which had occupied the stronghold under the mountain where all of the lost Dwarf treasury and (to them) their identity, had been hoarded for decades, storming out of the fortress in a winged rage intent on destroying the human settlement that lived across the lake.

THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES opens immediately at this point, with Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbach (the British TV series SHERLOCK, and the movie  STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, 2013), bearing down on and decimating the small fishing town. This was not a long scene, surprisingly, but then again once a dragon starts barbequing a town, it doesn’t take long until there isn’t much left to burn. As expected from the previous movie, hapless family man Bard (Luke Evans, DRACULA UNTOLD, 2014) ends up facing off against Smaug in what was a clever bit of man-to-dragon posturing (most of the posturing done by the dragon, of course, any reason to give Cumberbach more lines to speak—seriously, the guy could read a dictionary and it would sound awesome). The face-off was extremely well-done—better than I’d worried it might turn out during the second movie when the script all but screamed “This is how Smaug will be defeated.”

Alas, Smaug’s big-screen presence was soon forgotten, and missed. Although the idea of a cliff-hanger between the second and third films is an age-old go-to device for filmmakers, the final Smaug scene belonged at the end of DESOLATION. I get it, leave a little dragon for the next film to draw people in. Maybe it’s just my geekness showing itself again (we’re never happy) but for continuity’s sake it would have been better, now that I’ve seen it play out at the beginning of BATTLE, if they’d closed the second movie with this part and left the battle of the five armies and the build up to it, for the final curtain call alone.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I was tired and am projecting this onto the actors, but with a few exceptions, most of the cast didn’t have much… how should I put this… newness to them. Even Bilbo, played to perfection especially with his subtle, unspoken gestures, by Martin Freeman (the British SHERLOCK TV Series, the British version of THE OFFICE TV series, and, more recently, the American TV series FARGO on the FX channel), seemed like he was ready to take his furry feet off and head home by the end. More so with Ian McKellan’s Gandalf. The Gray Wizard is always a fan favorite, but he wasn’t the center point of this film. Nor was Bilbo, to be honest. Thorin, king of the Dwarves, was the main character here. Played as in the previous two films with intensity by Richard Armitage  (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, 2011), Thorin spends most of the film under the “Dragon Sickness,” a blinding obsession with the vast treasures beneath the mountain, and which had affected his grandfather, and Smaug. The gold, the uncountable treasure, changes him mentally and emotionally, ala Gollum with the Ring. It got old, though, as the story wore on, to the point they needed to deepen his voice and add an echo to make it different. This is a common theme in Tolkien’s stories, however, from Thorin in The Hobbit, to Sauramon, Denethor and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The most fleshed-out characters in the film—both in performance and writing, —were Bard, who becomes defacto leader of the humans after defeating Smaug, and Kili, the dwarf who took a liking to wood elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, from the LOST TV Series) in the prior film. Their growing love for each other is a plotline added to the story by Jackson and company, not original to Tolkien. However, it’s a decent addition to the plot, without which there would be nothing but clanging swords and howling Orcs. Aiden Turner (BEING HUMAN TV Series) carries this expanded role quite well, as does Lilly.

One aspect of the second Hobbit film I liked was the introduction of Sauron’s growing power and how this is used to connect The Hobbit as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. They bring this part to a quick close with one all-star scene in BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, and it was fun to watch, even if it did feel added-in for the sake of the fans, since nothing else really comes of it. It was oddly edited. For example, one character is strong and healthy one second, then beaten down and exhausted the next—the explanation for which must have been left on the cutting room floor (or put aside for the inevitable expanded DVD edition). Even with Sauron’s appearance, Gandalf makes no connection later between him and the ring Bilbo stole from Gollum. This isn’t the only scene which brings Fellowship elements into THE HOBBIT, though most are at the end of the film as a way of saying goodbye to fans, than actually adding to the story.

Now, the special effects were visually stunning when it came to settings and world building, as we’d expect from Jackson. The director, however, set his own bar very high with the first trilogy of films, using many varieties of effects, CGI included, but also models, trick photography, etc., to trick the eye into believing what we see on the screen. In the three HOBBIT films, this final installment especially, more CGI was used over any other approach. In fact, it was so prevalent, nothing looked all that realistic. Was it better than DRACULA UNTOLD (2014) or the plethora of other computer-imaged fantasy movies of late? Yes. Maybe a little better, as good as them, at least. But a far cry from the marvelous scenes and imagery of THE LORD OF THE RINGS films. Call me picky, or overly critical in my middle age, but I was disappointed in the visual effects for the most part. It looked more video game than epic motion picture. From the battle scenes to the Orcs and their minions, to the obvious de-aging of Orlando Bloom as Legolas.

One thing I like in the first film but missing in the other two, is the music. When Bilbo meets the dwarves in AN INEXPECTED JOURNEY, they sing the song from the book about dwarves and dinner and it was quite well done. Even in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, some songs found their way into the final versions, sung by the actors. But the dinner song and the lament of the dwarves, which came soon after this scene, were the only two in all three HOBBIT films. Seeing how well they were done, having more of these peppered throughout would have added to the more innocent feel of the original HOBBIT story. Instead, the films became progressively darker and toneless.

Not that The Hobbit—the novel—didn’t also become quite dark by the time the Battle ends. Without giving away any spoilers, I’d forgotten that certain characters died in the book. They also die in the film, not exactly the same ways as in the book, but close enough. Having these specific characters kick off makes sense, in both mediums, since, with a battle of that size and range, it added at least some “realism” than would allowing all the good guys to survive.

As a side note, if you’re curious to see a film rendition of The Hobbit with nothing extra added into the pot, and all the songs, I strongly suggest the Arthur Rankin, Jr. animated film THE HOBBIT (1977). It was extremely well-done and, until Peter Jackson came along, the best rendition of any Tolkien work to date. Granted, it was a cartoon, which might put some folks off. But we took what we could get back in the day.

In the end, as a lifelong fan of The Hobbit, THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, and the two prior HOBBIT films, were a long-awaited treat for me. Were they perfect? No, and they seemed to be less so as the films wore on, but they would not have been done nearly as well in anyone else’s hands.

But speaking on this final film alone, I can only give it two and a half knives. Worth seeing if you’re a fan, but not as good as the first installment.

But I give Mr. Jackson a special 4-star nod, simply for making the films in the first place.

© Copyright 2014 by Daniel G. Keohane

Monday, June 30, 2014


I'd promised to review this one solo because a couple of years back I did the previous Transformers movie with Michael Arruda. Of course, by the time I needed to go see this one I was exhausted and malnourished. Long story.

I talk about it below in my rather entertaining slam of a film that probably didn't deserv... well, never mind It probably did. :)

Originally published at Cinema Knife Fight, June 29, 2014.

 OK, so next time a Transformers™  movie comes out and it looks like I’m about to volunteer to review it, someone please shove a Hasbro® toy into my mouth.

My eyes hurt. They were watering when I left the 3D showing of TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION (2014). The girls working the counter were looking at me like I was some weirdo who gets all emotional at massive-budget fighting-toy movies. I don’t, not normally, but at times it did feel like I was going blind. Pixelated shapes are still dancing around the edges of my vision—Michael Bay’s mechanical mayhem is burned into my retinas.

I went to the 3D showing only because it was earlier than the 2D, and since it was before six o’clock in the evening the price wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Did I enjoy the movie? No. I had many other things I wish I’d been getting done like cutting the grass and finally opening the pool. But I’m old, and those things thrill me. However, will someone who has enjoyed the Transformers® movie franchise thus far enjoy this movie?

Yes, without a doubt.

In much the same way I enjoy every minute of a well-made Marvel super-hero film, fans of Optimus Prime™ will revel in this orgy of explosions, transformational sequences gone wild, and pretty girls in short-shorts screaming for help… the usual formula for this sort of thing. In this film’s case, throw in talking alien robot thingies which somehow seem to be modeled after various races here on earth, even though they were made in some distant galaxy, and you’ve got a testosterone- and oil-filled recipe for success.

Unlike when Michal Arruda and I reviewed TRANSFORMERS: SOMETHING ABOUT THE MOON (2011), where every scene featuring the Transformers© themselves made me cringe—except Bumble Bee, I like Bumble Bee, because he talks using his radio and he’s funny —this time around I wasn’t as turned off by them. One reason is simply that I’m more used to them (being just a slight too old to have been a fan of the Transformers™ cartoon or comic in its Prime (pun intended). And yes, I’m using the ™ and ® symbols just to be annoying. I’ll stop now.

However, the storyline with Optimus Prime and his buddies was a little better this time around. There was more backstory as to who, or what, these shape-shifting soldiers of salvation are. A highly advanced race created them, for an unstated purpose, and Optimus Prime is one of an elite group of Knights, who went rogue a long, long time ago. Something like that. Maybe current fans of the series know this already, but it was new to me. Also, though they are manufactured, they are also alive, partly from the core material they are built from, a programmable matter which is alluded to in the cool opening scene of the film and explained better later, and partly from their core, or soul, which is their life source. (This latter part I actually learned when I reviewed the previous movie, TRANSFORMERS: GOODNIGHT MOON, 2012).

Now, AGE OF EXTINCTION takes place five years after the events of the previous film, and the world is reeling from the climactic battle which decimated Chicago. Pieces of the destroyed Autotrons (the good Transformers, like Optimus Prime) and Decepticons (the bad ones) are being sold on the black market. One company, headed by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci – THE HUNGER GAMES, 2012, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, 2011) is trying to harness their technology to develop its own brand of Transformer. In the meantime, a CIA Black Ops organization, headed by a former high-ranking official, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer—from the FRASIER TV Series and X-MEN THE LAST STAND, 2006), is methodically hunting down the remaining Decepticons and Autotrons with the help of a new transformer-like creature named Lockdown. Lockdown is working with the CIA to find Optimus Prime and return him to their planet so he may again serve their mysterious creator. The CIA is also in cahoots with Joyce’s company to build an army of robots, and the Autobots are in hiding until they understand why the humans are hunting them. Optimus Prime joins forces with a new human ally, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg – THE FIGHTER, 2010, LONE SURVIVOR, 2013), who is a struggling robotics inventor trying to raise a daughter alone and keep their home from being foreclosed on, hoping in the meantime to find that one, big invention. Well, the “one big invention,” Optimus Prime, ends up in his barn and…

…this is a long way of saying this movie has a lot of running storylines.

Which is probably why it takes two and a half hours to neatly wrap up each thread in Ehren Kruger’s screenplay, after which we’ve blinked through our nineteenth destruction-laden fight scene and mourned for the roughly 40,000 human casualties (still less than MAN OF STEEL (2013), however).

Personally, it was too much show and bang, and very little depth. Maybe I look for a little something more in the films I watch, but you do not walk away any richer mentally or emotionally for having seen this movie. It’s really expensive (to make) junk food. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what its intent is. As I write this review, I hadn’t eaten much all day—no time to—and what I did eat was nutrition-free: a Burger King croissant breakfast sandwich at 8:00 am, then nothing until 1:00 pm when I had a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of macaroni and cheese. Yes, mostly cheese with pasta and bread to help gravity pull it down my esophagus. Then a bag of popcorn and Twizzlers at the theater. That’s it. Bad eating day. The point I’m making is that I ate the equivalent of TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, and I’m going to pay for it tomorrow.

I think Mark Wahlberg was a good choice to replace social media’s latest mob lynching, Shia Labeouf. I’ve enjoyed Wahlberg’s work, and he does add an everyman dimension to the film. The storyline with his daughter and later-discovered boyfriend was kept fairly shallow. However, the fact that his daughter had a secret boyfriend was just as troubling to him as certain death from the government trying to kill his family and all the explosions and alien missiles fired at him, was a nice touch. A father would react this way in most cases, I’d think. This is an ongoing bit between him and the boyfriend played by Irish actor—and Chris Pratt lookalike—Jack Reynor (DELIVERY MAN, 2013).

The effects, especially in 3D, are as good as DARK OF THE MOON (yes, I really do know the title of the previous film). Though we’ve seen these effects in many other films since said movie, it’s still stunning how they can incorporate actual places and buildings and insert monsters and destruction and blend them together seamlessly. In this case, aside from Texas highways and a couple of other American cities, we’re talking the protracted latter scenes in Hong Kong. I imagine if you know these cities, it must be wild to see what Bay’s folks do to them on the big screen.

Like I’ve said, fans of the man’s earlier films—and the franchise itself—will very likely be blown away by the movie. It is slightly better than the previous film, which was itself quite popular. Wahlberg does well taking up the mantle of leading man in this film, and Kelsey Grammer is spot-on as the quietly evil black ops government leader. He plays him with such intensity he chews up any scene he is in, which unfortunately isn’t enough (since they needed to make room for yet another battle scene). Grammer does Bad Guy quite well, and I’m glad he was there to add a wee bit of depth to it all. Tucci’s character began as an ambitious, and slightly evil scientist, but as time went on he became the comic relief—so much so in the latter half that it was a put-off. Unless you introduce a character in this way early, don’t push his comedic side midway through—it seems unrealistic. Not that some of the humor wasn’t funny—it was—but didn’t always fit with how he’d been played earlier.

One character who I would have enjoyed in more scenes is Tucci’s assistant Su Yueming (Bingbing Li – RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION, 2012). A martial arts expert (you know, Hollywood, just because you introduce a culturally-Japanese character you don’t have to make them martial arts experts!), she’s apparently not just his assistant but secret bodyguard and eventual love-interest. She did well with what she had, and I feel she could have done more if given the chance.

Now I know the Transformers themselves are a constant here, so there’s no need to complain that a supposedly alien race are designed to appear and behave with various human ethnicities… specifically John Goodman (ARGO, 2012, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, 2013) voicing the bearded, hillbilly Autotron, and Ken Watanabe (GODZILLA, 2014,  INCEPTION, 2010)  voicing Drift, who speaks and looks like an ancient samurai warrior… but I will complain about one minor technicality which irked me in the previous film. Transformers, as far as I can tell, don’t breathe. So when they fight, or are mad, there is no need to have them exhale in gassy breaths through their “nostrils.” Unless they do breathe, and I’m just ignorant of their anatomy. Someone enlighten me in the comments section?

So, in conclusion, TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION is an ambitious, action-packed addition to Hasbro’s story of the Autotrons, and if you are a fan, you’ll enjoy this. If you’re like me—someone who really hasn’t been into them too much—save your money and see something with a little more (healthy) meat to it, and maybe a side of veggies.

For me, I give it 1.5 Knives.

For any Transformer fan out there, I’ll allow 3 Knives.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

SOLARIS (2002)

Originally published at Cinema Knife Fight, June 19, 2014.

Last time, we talked about the 1972 Russian science fiction film SOLARIS, as well as the 1961 novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, on which it was based. I’ll be referring back to them from time to time, so if you haven’t read the review, scroll down a little and read that one first. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Thirty years after the release of Andrei Tarkovsky’s ambitious film, Steven Soderbergh (OCEANS 11, 2001, CONTAGION, 2011) wrote and directed his own version of SOLARIS (2002). I almost added the adjective “modern” but, in fact, SOLARIS keeps itself fairly close to the original material, both novel and film (without the flowing reeds and extended shots of Japanese cities).  This 2002 remake, however, has some stark, but mostly effective differences.

I won’t recap the plot, as SOLARIS is very much the same basic story—Doctor Kelvin is sent to Solaris Station at the behest of old friend and scientist Gibarian (whose name has been Americanized), and finds him dead from suicide and has to deal with the two remaining, half-psychotic scientists struggling to cope with visitors from their past lives created by the planet below them for some mysterious reason. Kelvin is soon visited by his late wife (now named Rheya instead of Hari) and struggles to face old and painful feelings of guilt and remorse for her past suicide. Ok, I guess I did recap the plot.

Basically, the underlying storyline is the same. For someone who has just read the original novel, watched the 1972 film for the second time, and spent hours writing a rather long review of said movie, these similarities bring an inherent joy with them, like old friends coming to visit.

But the differences also make the 2002 SOLARIS fascinating to watch. Not everything in this movie works, but much of it does. Let’s be half-full today and start with what worked.

First of all, the actors. Thirty years earlier, Donatas Banionis played psychologist Kris Kelvin to sad perfection, both in dialogue and though his silences, expressing an inner turmoil through diverted gazes and subtle gestures. After reading the novel, I appreciated how much he became Kelvin, until watching George Clooney (GRAVITY 2013, THE MONUMENTS MEN, 2014) take the role. Clooney’s often called an “actor’s actor” for good reason: he can do as much with his screen presence and controlled expressiveness as when he recites lines of dialogue (which he does in an honest, genuine way). He is Chris Kelvin (his first name was also Americanized) in this film, a man haunted by his past and given a second chance via this nightmarish but oddly beautiful situation. Kelvin says as little here as he does in the novel and prior film, so having Clooney in the role is a definite plus.

This lack of conversational skills in every character is also a minus, in both films and the novel. On arriving at Solaris Station to find his friend dead, a normal person would not put up with so many half-answers tossed his way by the surviving team members. He would press hard for facts and details about what the hell happened. I give director Soderbergh credit for making his Kelvin more pissed off than the original, and Clooney relays his eventual acquiescence to everyone’s silences a little more convincingly. There are blood stains everywhere, implying more ingredients of fear in his eventual decision to wait these people out.

The first person Kelvin meets on the station, Snaut, is called Snow in the remake, and I enjoyed Jeremy Davies’ (the LOST TV Series, IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, 2010) portrayal as the borderline insane, twitchy scientist. Granted, he plays him much the same as Daniel Faraday in LOST, dreamily speaking in half-completed sentences. But it works for Snaut/Snow in this situation. He claims his visitor was his brother, who has not returned since the last time he’d “removed” him, but the effects of those visits have had their toll. There is a clever revelation at the end which gives much insight into why his emotional gears have slipped so badly.

Dr. Sartorious, the other remaining resident of the station, is in this film a woman named Dr. Gordon, played by the estimable Viola Davis (ENDER’S GAME, 2013, THE HELP, 2011). As in the original, we do not see whom she is hiding in her room. Sartorius was calm, cool, and a little nuts, whereas Gordon is tense, wired, and also a little nuts. Both are fiercely intelligent and determined to find a way to rid the station of these visitors, a thwart to Kelvin who, as the story progresses, is more and more insistent that his wife’s copy be allowed to return to Earth with him.

Although the original film does deal primarily with Kelvin and his wife, this version makes their relationship its single focus, especially through the backstory of their life on Earth. Their initial meeting on the subway, to their courtship, marriage, her dealings with depression and eventual suicide are shown via extended flashbacks and dream sequences. These scenes show the progression of her depression, and the reasons for the couple’s breakup (which triggered her eventual suicide). This was a flaw, if minor, in the original SOLARIS, which did not explain as completely what had pushed them to that state (aside from her clinical depression). The novel, in fact, never gave a reason.

As a side note, some folks might enjoy these flashbacks for no other reason than the two nude scenes: that would be Clooney naked, and not his wife (played by Natascha McElhone of THE TRUMAN SHOW, 1998, and CALIFORNICATION TV Series). This is worth mentioning simply because it breaks stereotype and gives the eye candy to the other sex for a change.

Although I enjoyed Natalya Bondarchuk as Hari in the original film, here McElhone is intense and, like Clooney, able to relay much with little dialogue. Her Rheya is far more real a “person.” More so, in fact, because a number of later flashbacks are from her perspective, the copy remembering a life that is not her own. There is a line spoken to Kelvin midway through the story which encapsulates this particular film’s theme.

“How do you know you’re not the puppet,” he is asked. “…like all puppets, you dream of being human.”

Rheya struggles to accept who, or what, she is. Though this is a theme in the original movie and novel, the primary message of these latter two is that the human race is less interested in discovering extraterrestrial life than finding new mirrors to hold up to themselves. That deep of a message is not attempted here. Both films do, also, have a running undercurrent dealing with the emotional infection of guilt and remorse, but this remake has more hope, more optimism in the long run.

Before I get to one significant character, the planet itself, let’s get a few of the flaws out of the way because, as a standalone movie, SOLARIS is hurt by them.

During their first encounter, the twitchy scientist Snow explains there were two other people onboard before Kelvin arrived. One died when security forces boarded the station and shot a hole through his escape pod (why he was trying to escape is not known), and the other simply disappeared. If there were security forces, why didn’t they take Snow and Gordon back to Earth with them, and why aren’t they still onboard—especially considering a civilian has arrived? The idea that their goal was to quarantine the station to prevent any possible contaminant spreading to Earth hadn’t occurred to me until I write this, but that reasoning is never said and leaves some distracting questions.

As to Kelvin being a civilian, this is a small change with subtle impact to plausibility. It’s implied in the novel, and the original film, that he is a psychologist working for the space agency. In the remake, Clooney’s character is a private civilian with his own practice. Gibarian sends a message asking for him specifically, insisting only he can figure out what is happening. For some reason, the “agency” agrees to send Kelvin alone (look for actor John Cho (STAR TREK, 2009) in a small role as one of the agents coming to get him). In the book, there’s a larger ship remaining in orbit for a time, presumably with reinforcements, but here he is sent alone, a civilian to research this delicate issue on the station. It sounds a little improbable. Again, this could be for quarantine reasons, but if so, say so, because that would have added an interesting dimension.

One similar moment in the two films does not work in the later one. After Kelvin first encounters Rheya in his room, he quickly puts her in an escape pod and sends her off-station, presumably to her death. In the original, this occurs only after he spends time trying to figure this creature out. It only took Clooney’s psychiatrist a few minutes to send her packing. I would think he’d be at least a little more interested in studying her, find out what kind of creature she was. SOLARIS is short, compared to its original (an hour and forty minutes versus two hours and twenty-five), so his quick decision to destroy this person could have come from the editing room floor.

Overall, SOLARIS is a beautiful and clever film to watch. I appreciated the fact that in all scenes on Earth, it’s raining. No mention as to why; perhaps there’s climate change in the future, but it isn’t revealed. The rain serves as a subtle mood setting—who isn’t a little melancholy when it rains for extended periods of time? I considered this also as a possible nod towards the theme of water carried throughout the original film.

On that note: one major character from the novel and 1972 film is noticeably absent this time around. There is no living ocean on Solaris, at least none referenced. Instead, the life form is the planet itself and its ethereal, glowing atmosphere. When it interacts mentally and emotionally with Dr. Kelvin as he sleeps, Solaris’ swirling clouds streak through with glowing tendrils. They connect with each other, break free, like thoughts soaring between massive synapses in the alien world’s brain.

Accompanying this and, in fact, running as undercurrent through every scene, is Cliff Martinez’ score. It’s quiet and beautiful, setting a reflective, surreal tone. Martinez also composed the soundtrack for the 2011 film DRIVE, where music plays as much a character as the actors themselves. Conversely, I don’t remember if there was any music playing in the original SOLARIS. There might have been, but since I do not remember if this was so, it was not as significant a component to that film (where silence set the mood).

I liked how this movie ended. Similar to its predecessor, it went a step further than the novel, but unlike the 1972 film, this one closed on a far more optimistic note (but be warned, its overall meaning could be received as either incoherent, or brilliant, depending on your state of mind at the time… let’s just say it’s brilliantly incoherent, which is still a step up from a certain 1968 movie I promise not to reference in yet another review).

Even though the 2002 film moves along at a much faster pace than its predecessor, it is not a fast-paced film. It’s contemplative, with beautiful imagery and sets, but is in no hurry to make its point. Like the original, it is probably not everyone’s cup of tea. However, if you enjoyed the Russian SOLARIS, with all its low-tech and politically-charge foibles, you will appreciate Soderbergh’s remake. Most of all, it pays fine homage to a classic, if obscure, science fiction film while making its own stamp on the many themes and questions brought to life in Stanislaw Lem’s novel.

© Copyright 2014 by Daniel G. Keohane

Friday, June 13, 2014

SOLARIS (1972)

Originally published at Cinema Knife Fight, June 14, 2014

Have you ever watched a movie, then later read the book on which it was based, and decided to see the movie again? The first time this happened for me was after seeing the 1968 film 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY on TV. As a teenager, I was mesmerized by this Stanley Kubrick opus (I’m probably not using that word right), that is, until the final scene where astronaut David Bowmen was… well, something happened to him. I had no idea. After reading the novel (written by Arthur C. Clarke in parallel with his and Kubrick’s screenplay), the story made more sense. The film was no clearer, and I remain annoyed to this day how the director made his ending that obscure. Someday I’ll write a review of 2001, considering how often it comes up in this column.

A few weeks ago, I picked up the 1961 science fiction novel Solaris, by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. I had seen the Soviet film SOLARIS (1972), based on his novel, a decade and a half earlier and, as with Kubrick’s film, was enthralled—even if it was a bit vague in meaning and took a couple of rentals to finish this two-and-a-half hour behemoth of a movie. After finishing the novel, I went back and re-watched SOLARIS. As before, it took me more than one sitting to watch because, well, read on….

Let’s start from the beginning.

In the late 1990’s, I rented an intriguing science fiction film out of the USSR (Russia’s official name back when it was communist and called The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The movie was long, and



but I was fascinated. Maybe because foreign films are always so unique when compared to our usual American fare. You never know what will happen next. Usually nothing, but you never know.

SOLARIS tells the future story of a distant, ocean-covered planet. Over the decades, human scientists have determined this ocean is a sentient life form. All attempts to communicate with it have failed, as have attempts to understand the complex, seemingly-deliberate structural formations growing from it like organic sculptures. One report described human-like creatures being shaped out of the ocean, only to fall and crumble later (as all of the constructs eventually do). Weird stuff seems to be happening more frequently, yet funding for “The Solaris Project” is slowly, inexorably, being cut.

The center of all research on the planet, such as it has become, is a massive scientific station hovering at varying altitudes over the ocean surface. Since support has been waning, the station is manned by only three scientists.

The novel opens with psychologist Kris Kelvin arriving at the station to investigate bizarre communications from the scientists. The movie gets to this point eventually, but not before a forty-minute prelude, which we’ll talk about in a moment. No one greets him on his arrival, not even Kelvin’s long-time friend Dr. Gribaryan. As he wanders the station, Kelvin is dismayed by the complete disarray around him. After learning Gribaryan has committed suicide, he discovers that neither remaining scientist, Doctors Snaut and Sartorius, seem concerned. They have enough of their own problems, which they keep hidden away in their respective cabins. Snaut tells Kelvin that if he tried to explain what was happening, he would not believe him. He will see for himself soon enough.

And Kelvin does, after waking up the next day to find his long-dead wife standing over his bed.

Solaris the novel oscillates between what happens between Kelvin and his seemingly-resurrected wife, and the author’s detailed history of research on the ocean. These latter sections are framed under the auspices of the main character reading one book after another in order to understand what is happening now. I usually wander mentally when authors get too thick with exposition, but somehow Lem, who is fascinated with his own material, makes what could be overlong diversions about an utterly alien world, and mankind’s response to its incomprehensible resident, an interesting read… most of the time. Halfway through this short novel I found myself skimming parts.

Neither the novel, nor the 1972 film, explain whom the other two scientists are hiding in their rooms. But we do get glimpses (mostly in the film): Snaut’s visitor is a child – whether his or someone else’s isn’t specified; Sartorius has… well, a dwarf, I think, at least in the movie. We get no information from the narrative except he has more than one visitor. Whoever they are, their presences have turned these men into emotional wrecks. The nature of these “visitors,” and their painful, past relationships to the scientists is enough to convince them the ocean is responsible for these appearances, trying to retaliate for a recent experiment bombarding the ocean with intense x-rays.

What is Kelvin’s late wife Hari’s story? Years earlier, on Earth, Hari (played by Natalya Bondarchuk in the film) killed herself, and Kelvin has blamed himself ever since. Now, an unspecified number of light years away, she is back. Culled, Kelvin feels, from his deepest feelings of guilt. His theory is confirmed by Snaut and Sortorius. Their dead comrade Gribaryan’s visitor is a woman who, since his death, has purposelessly wandered the halls of Solaris Station. Interestingly, the book describes her as a heavy black woman. The movie changes her into someone younger and Caucasian. Maybe (because of the times?) the filmmakers had decided a white man could not have had a relationship with a black woman, guilt-ridden or not.

Though the book opens at the station, SOLARIS the film opens on Earth. Kelvin (played by Donatas Banionis) is staying at his childhood home with father and aunt before leaving on the mission. This long section of the film (forty minutes, roughly) gets the viewer caught up with the history of Solaris research and its flagship station. Kelvin and his father have some lingering (mostly unspoken) issues between them, a detail only briefly touched on in the novel.

Now, much like this review, SOLARIS is a very slow-paced movie. How slow? In many cases, it makes 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY look like THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001 – hey, 2001, funny…). The opening scene focuses on reeds and water plants swaying in the pond beside the Kelvin home. No music, just long stretches (two or three minutes) of reeds, moving back and forth. It’s enough to make any viewer start to go, “Uh, oh…” before anything actually happens. That’s OK, because after the watery plant shots, we get to see Dr. Kelvin standing by the pond and staring, then walking a little more along the shore and staring some more. Finally he returns to the house to speak with a cosmonaut named Berton, who had been to Solaris and seen the strange, human-like structures coming from the ocean.

One could watch this film, or try to, and decide it’s wasting celluloid with extended shots of people staring pointlessly into the distance, or down at their shoes. If you’re lucky (but also careful because this could be a very melancholy film if you’re not) you can let yourself be pulled into a thick, choking atmosphere which director Andrei Tarkovsky may be trying to project. A claustrophobic world of self-induced isolation, emotional depression so cloying to one’s psyche it becomes a prison.

Depression, guilt, resentment. The devil’s Allspice.

After Kelvin wanders in silence through his father’s homestead, it becomes obvious the guy has a few wires shorted out. The idea of clinical depression being an inherent trait passed from his parents, especially his mother, becomes clear when Kelvin shows his late wife Hari (her Solaris clone, that is) a montage of home movies he’d put together before leaving Earth. Every shot of his mother is one of prolonged staring into the camera, or away into the distance with a long, dropping visage of sadness—think of any photo of author Virginia Wolf, who eventually died of depression (well, she died of suicide, but they blame it on her depression).

Though Banionis’ character says very little in the film, he portrays Kelvin’s inner struggles well through his expressive silences. As does Jüri Järvet in his role as the twitchy Dr. Snaut. Both men share scenes where they speak very little, but connect through looks—or diverted looks—and nervous twitches. Yea, everyone has serious mental issues in this film.

As Hari learns she is a doppelganger created by the ocean below, Kelvin eventually accepts her as his second chance and does not want to lose her.

The story, sets and dialogue are lifted closely from novel, partly because the original novelist was the co-screenwriter. As slow-paced as it is, SOLARIS is a very good film version of the novel.  The visuals aren’t mind-blowing like modern sci-fi, but for a movie funded by the Soviet government, they are decent. The filmmakers don’t try to do more than their budget and technology allow. I especially enjoyed the shots of the swirling, living ocean interspersed between scenes—more so after having read the novel with its longer, detailed descriptions of this character (and it is an active, fascinating character).

This is such a key point to watching a film from a different generation. Remembering what its creators had—and didn’t have—at their disposal for making sets and effects, and the social and economic situation in its country of origin. Knowledge of this sort allows the viewer to reset expectations long-tainted by today’s massive budgets and computerized wizardry.

Allow me to go back to a point about government funding for a moment to relay an amusing anecdote. When I first watched SOLARIS, the videotape had a special feature at the end. Someone involved in the film—I forget who—discussed how hard it was for artists in the USSR to get approval, let alone funding, for their work. Everything had to be approved. After completing principle photography, one scene (intended to be edited to less than a minute) showed Cosmonaut Berton driving home after visiting Kelvin in the first part of the movie. In order to illustrate a Russian city of the future without resorting to miniatures, they were allowed to travel to Japan and film external shots of one of its bustling and very-modern cities. They edited the seven-ish minutes of footage together with shots of Berton driving home with his son. It was a long, unnecessary scene, but they fully intended to edit it down to thirty seconds.

The government, however, decided these external shots illustrated how advanced the Soviet Union would become in the future, and insisted the entire seven-minutes be left in, as-is. The man in the documentary just shrugged and said (I’m paraphrasing here), “It was either leave this painfully long scene, where nothing happens, in the film, or the movie would not be made. We had to accept.”

Knowing why this scene is there makes it far more bearable to watch. You can have fun with it, too, by looking for the highway signs written in Japanese.

This, along with the film’s opening shots of water plants, and a number of long, whispered conversations punctuated with reflective silences between the actors, contribute to the slow pace of the film. There is action, and at times it’s quite good, but they are mere islands of motion in a sea of introspection.

The ending of both film and novel are similar, but have differences. I’m honestly not sure which I like better. Probably the movie, but my understanding of what happens here was enhanced the second time around, having read Lem’s book. Unlike the first viewing, I had a much better appreciation for how well the film represented its source material throughout.

If you’re into foreign, art-house films, but also dig science fiction, I recommend giving SOLARIS a chance. As long as you don’t mind extended shots of reeds flowing in the water. If you’d rather not sit through scenes like this, well, you can always take the time to make popcorn. They’ll still be flowing when you get back.

Come back next Friday, as we take a gander at the 2002 American remake of SOLARIS, starring George Clooney, to see how it measures up to the book and original Russian film.

Until then, try to stay happy.

© Copyright 2014 by Daniel G. Keohane