Remakes are tough to get right and almost impossible when the film being remade is a flat-out masterpiece—as in the case of Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi head-trip Solaris (1972). Amazingly, Soderbergh’s version is a pretty remarkable film in its own right; it doesn’t have the sheer blinding poetry of Tarkovsky’s, but it’s just as mysterious and haunting and perhaps even more elegant to look at (and not only because of the presence of George Clooney). Soderbergh’s film tells basically the same story—that of a grieving widower who travels to outer space and encounters a simulacrum of his late wife—and it’s just as devastating and poignant this time around; Soderbergh even lifts some of Tarkovsky’s more mind-bending visuals. But the whole thing is given a slightly different sheen. It’s the best possible kind of remake: one that, like a cover of a classic standard, hits the same notes but offers different shadings and colors. Not all of it works; Jeremy Davies’ performance is too jittery and affected. Clooney’s acting, on the other hand, is rich and subdued here, and in certain shots (see above) he even almost looks like Donatas Banionis from the original, with his slack, sad, heavy face.
Two political films by master filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Jean-Luc Godard present a different set of problems. Kiarostami’s riveting Iranian drama Ten (2003)—which, interestingly, has the kind of cinema verite vibe that calls to mind Godard’s early work—is an example of how a film can take up political and social issues, but in such a way that we’re still given access to, you know, characters and plot and good dialogue and all of that good stuff. Ten is structured as a series of interpersonal encounters, all taking place within the car of the main character, a modern-day Iranian woman (Mania Akbari, wonderful): she takes her son to the park, runs an errand with her sister, and even impulsively decides to pick up a female prostitute (she wants to know why this woman does what she does, and how she feels about it). Kiarostami manages to give us a kind of mosaic of modern Iranian women’s experience, but he does so with such effortlessness and such simplicity that we never feel like the politics are, um, driving the film.
Godard’s Notre Musique (2004) is another matter, a ponderous meditation on war, violence, and politics. It’s a haphazard stringing together of ideas—there are quotes from postmodern theorists like Maurice Blanchot, and characters are given philosophy-speech rather than real dialogue (see screengrab, below). Granted, Godard was (is?) one of the great intellectual filmmakers in the history of cinema, an artist who radically eschewed the notion of “easy” entertainment. Even his best films are difficult. But that difficulty was often tempered with a kind of exuberant energy, wit, and impeccable stylishness, all of which are missing here. Notre Musique is subtitled “An Essay,” and it’s a chore to read.