Solaris, Appleseed, women, humans.



Some slight ponderings over a weekend double feature: Solaris (the 2002 Soderbergh remake) and Appleseed (2004).  Both sci fi movies set in the future, centrally concerned with the nature of consciousness and humanity.  (Warning: plot spoilers for both movies below.)

Solaris pokes at humanity by asking:  what are we made of?  What matters about us?  Is it our subatomic make-up–our particles and energy fields–or our memories and consciousness?  And how far do we have to probe before we can’t clearly define any of those categories, or see what difference there might be between them?  Can a loved one return from the dead–and if she does, how do we know it’s her?  At what point do we stop caring, and just want her back?

Appleseed takes a different tack, asking whether we’re still human if we surrender disruptive emotion and reproduction.  Are we human if we have metal bodies?  And if we’re not willing to change our fundamentally destructive natures, if we know our continued existence dooms the planet, should we allow ourselves to die out?

There are flaws with both movies, as well as pleasing and surprising strengths.  Appleseed has long, kind of boring stretches of exposition in between its terrific action sequences.  Solaris creeps along, and sometimes starts to feel tiresome and overwrought.  But the animation in Appleseed is gorgeous, fluid and kinetic.  Solaris is thoughtful and sophisticated and beautifully crafted.  One nice detail I noticed this time around:  Soderbergh repeatedly lets dialogue overlap from one scene to another before the visuals change, which plays up the movie’s ideas about memory, time, and characters’ inability to unequivocally locate themselves.

It’s interesting to watch these two films in close sequence.  There are all kinds of things to say about them, but what bubbles to the surface for me right now is just this:  I think Appleseed is a more feminist movie.

From one point of view, Appleseed is a sci fi actioner–so it’s a little surprising that all its main characters (except one) are women.  The soldier protagonist is a woman.  The scientist who developed the key formula that sets events in motion: a woman.  The political leaders: women.  The protagonist’s best friend: a woman.  The only major male character is the protagonist’s partner and former love interest, and his role is clearly defined as supporting hers.  There’s a secondary male character who heads up the Army, and he’s clearly framed as an aggressive, hot-button, reactionary d-bag.

Solaris has two strong female characters, neither of them the protagonist.  There’s Gordon, the pragmatic physicist hired to examine Solaris for commercial potential.  And there’s Rheya, the protagonist’s wife, who committed suicide but who returns as a mysterious admixture of Solaris’s energy and the protagonist’s memories.

So what differences are there between the movies’ many women? Interestingly, I think they lie in how well the story creators could imagine (or were interested in imagining) women as human beings.

Deunen Knute, the soldier hero of Appleseed, does work.  She has skills and expertise, she has an emotional life.  She gets frustrated, sad, and angry.  And in an interesting turn on our culture’s fascination with the relationship between father and son, and our tendency to privilege it and build stories around it, the plot reveal here is that it was Deunen’s mother who created the formula needed to, well, save the world.

By contast, Solaris falls back on some very old, received notions about women as symbols, objects, and actuated ideas of men.  Rheya literally isn’t human, but this isn’t what bothers me about the movie.  The central question Solaris asks is, what makes us human? and I’m perfectly satisfied to see this investigation played out through a female character.

What bothers me is that Rheya didn’t start out fully human.  Her life on Earth (the real life of the real Rheya) is a series of  cocktail parties, dinners out, weepy fights at home, and lovemaking.  These things are part of most lives, but it bothers me that Rheya’s life seems to go no farther.  She doesn’t work.  She doesn’t have friends.  She’s half-formed, a beautiful tragic figure without any of the blemishes of daily life.  The protagonist, on the other hand, works as a psychiatrist and has friendships.  He chops vegetables for dinner, rides a commuter train, manages his schedule.  We see all this human detail as part of his character establishment, right off the bat.  Rheya does none of this.  Rheya is static and lovely, a seductive figure seen across the room at a cocktail party–and then she’s mad and sad and dead.  She’s stylized right out of existence, like a model airbrushed to nothingness.

Solaris is a very smart, thought-provoking film, and it problematizes questions about existence six ways to Sunday.  At one point Solaris-Rheya tells the protagonist that she’s only what he remembers, that all of her qualities come from his memory of her, even if he remembers her wrong.  This is true for us, the audience, as well–we only see what he remembers.  In objective fact (whatever that is) Rheya may have worked as a gallery owner or a professor of Antarctic studies or a chemist studying the formation of sugar crystals in genetically modified cranberries–but if he doesn’t think about that part of her life, we don’t see it.  Likewise, she might have had friends, family members, favorite recipes, a ritualistic way of opening her mail.  The question is, if we don’t ever see it, does it exist?  Does it matter?  What we have on the screen is a lovely phantasm, both on Earth and in space.  Unlike Deunen, Rheya has no substance.

Neither movie is perfect, and for the record, I liked them both.  It may not make sense to compare such different films–but on the other hand, they’re both part of our shared and circulated culture, part of the greater story we keep telling and retelling ourselves about who we are and what’s worth talking about.


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