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Solaris vs. What About Bob?

Scott Cunningham

Solaris’s protagonist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a doctor suffering from one of the diseases he treats, depression. He has lost his wife and blames her death on himself. Flashbacks to their relationship reveal that he treated her more like a patient sometimes than a lover, and when he is miraculously given a second chance with her, on a space station, he’s determined not to question whether it’s just a trick of the mind.In What About Bob?, Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) is the consummate psychiatrist, with a best-selling book, a sprawling Manhattan office, and a picture-perfect family. His foil appears in the person of Bob Wiley (Bill Murray), a career patient, who tracks him down at his New Hampshire vacation home and repeatedly insinuates himself into Leo’s personal life. As Bob charms Leo’s family and associates, the question of “who’s really crazy?” starts to develop, and that’s the question central to both films.”Normalcy” in Solaris is defined as Planet Earth. Kelvin is sent up to a private space station hovering around Solaris, a mysterious planet of moving light, to investigate why the scientists sent before him are dying or going crazy. While contact with Solaris elicits strange mental phenomenon, it’s depicted as a more passionate place than earth, where loved ones pass away and disappear. On the space station near Solaris, Kelvin is re-united with his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). On earth, he’s depressed and alone. Kelvin’s forced to ask himself which is better, even if one is simply a figment of his imagination.Dr. Leo Marvin is highly successful, but also emotionally cold and rigid. Bob Wiley is unquestionably abnormal, but he’s also abnormally vivacious and caring. People, given the choice, would rather spend time with Bob than with Leo, which drives Leo, literally, nuts. His obsession with separating the “crazy” world with the “normal” world becomes a mania that he can’t handle. As it becomes clear that Bob can both be crazy and interact successfully with the normal world, his neat division is shattered; he decides that all the world is crazy; and he becomes crazy himself.Chris Kelvin’s division between crazy and sane shattered with his wife’s death, and after her reappearance in his life, he’s not able to make any more distinctions between the two. The only division that matters is life with Rheya versus life without Rheya. Even if being with her is “crazy,” he’s willing to make that leap because normalcy has offered him no happiness.The best scenes in Solaris, and they make the film worth seeing, are the ones between Kelvin and Rheya. Thankfully, Rheya retains the personality of her character even in ghost form, and the tension between the two figures is much more compelling than Kelvin’s dilemma. Rheya is forced to deal with whether she really exists or not, and her probing into her identity forces Kelvin’s questioning of the nature of his psychology into shallow relief.Soderbergh’s strength as a cinematographer (he shoots almost all of his own films, including Solaris) and as a director, is moments of intimacy. He’s best when taking a potentially epic subject and chopping it down into small interactions between his characters. Erin Brockavich moves when the main character is sitting one on one with her clients, just at Sex, Lies, and Videotape works as just a series of interviews. Soderbergh makes real life feel like cinema as well as anyone.What he’s not as skilled at is blowing small moments up into epic ones, which he does several times in Solaris. The film is a remake of an Andrei Tarkovsky film by the same name, and certain moments have his ultra-serious and theatrical mark on them. Soderbergh’s earthy, blue-collar style doesn’t mesh well with Tarkosvky’s artist-as-god heavy-handedness, and the division between the two is neatly spatially defined. Soderbergh thrives on earth, and then defers to Tarkovsky in space.The ending may leave you wondering about what really happened, but the message of the film is clear throughout. What About Bob? is not so clear-cut. Bob’s ability to switch fluidly from insane to sane could suggest that he’s always faking one or the other. He could very well be a maniacal stalker who uses his manic obsessions to shield his much more severe dementia. Chris Kelvin expels no such mystery. He’s in love.


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