Planet Hollywood

Film - Philip Kerr wonders why remakes so often fail to live up to the original

Nothing, wrote the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, can be created from nothing. Nothing in Rome, anyway; and very little, it seems, in Hollywood. Many films that get made in Hollywood are based on others first made elsewhere. Doctor Johnson tells us, when the original is well chosen and judiciously copied, the imitator often arrives at excellence. But it is a very different story when the original is Solaris, a film made back in 1972 by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky.

Some of those old film critics must have been a little trippy when they were writing about movies back in the 1970s. Because quite a few critics greeted Solaris as Russia's answer to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a space odyssey and, no doubt under the influence of some mind-expanding drugs, pronounced the film a masterpiece. Solaris was never short on ideas. The film was about the inhabitants of a space station in orbit around a mysterious new planet called Solaris, whose sole, organic life form is a vast colloidal ocean that responds to human exploration probes by sending out a few probes of its own: into the darkest recesses of the human subconscious.

But what the film lacked were production values and, even in its day, it never looked better than an average episode of Doctor Who. Somehow Tarkovsky managed also to render the sci-fi part of his story almost redundant and the three-hour-long film collapsed in upon itself in an enormous black hole of dodgy psychology, cod metaphysics and cinematic onanism. For example, the film contains a three-minute shot of Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow, forgivable in Madrid's Prado, where the picture is exhibited, but not in a movie. For my money, Tarkovsky's Solaris is rivalled for boredom only by the four-hour version of Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse.

Quite why the producer James Cameron and the writer/director Steven Soderbergh should have chosen Solaris for the Hollywood treatment is a mystery to me. Unbelievably, this version, starring George Clooney wearing a variety of hairstyles, is even more boring than the original (mercifully, it is much shorter). To understand the reasons for this lamentable remake, you would have to probe the vast colloidal ocean that is the Mind of Hollywood and risk making the uncomfortable discovery that it might have something to do with a realisation on the part of the producers that Tarkovsky's critically acclaimed but almost forgotten movie might be exploited for the simple purpose of making lots of money. Recommended only for those who have trouble sleeping.

The director of Moonlight Mile, Brad Silberling, is himself no stranger to the process of turning a pretentious European film (Wings of Desire) into a piece of Hollywood schlock (City of Angels). This time, however, he tries to do something original, which proves almost as bad. Moonlight Mile is one of those talky American movies with a pet dog that disgraces itself - only not as much as the eccentric mother - and where everyone gets to utter a tearful little speech that gives them a shot at an Oscar nomination. (To win an Oscar, you have to learn to cry on tap - not just in the movie, but also when collecting the statuette.)

Set in 1972, the same year as Solaris (although not noticeably so), this film has less period atmosphere than a Richard Burbage production of Julius Caesar. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon, it's the one-burp-and-it's-gone story of Joe Nast, affianced to Diane Floss, who has been shot and killed in one of those everyday shootings that give any meal in a small town American diner that Tarantino-ish edge. After the funeral, Joe (Gyllenhaal) stays on with Diane's parents (Hoffman and Sarandon) in an effort to help them cope with their grief, and finds himself drawn into Ben's real-estate business and a new relationship that threatens to alienate this grieving family. The film has its moments, most of them Sarandon's, but, sadly, it's the kind of thing you've seen many times before, only better, in movies such as The Ice Storm and even (hush my mouth) Ordinary People.

Another Hollywood remake on release is The Ring, based on Hideo Nakata's 1998 cult Japanese smash, Ringu. This one is certainly worth the price of admission, although even this is hardly a patch on the original. Starring the Mulholland Drive babe Naomi Watts, it's a Cronenberg-influenced story (cf Videodrome) about a cursed videotape that causes all who see it to die within seven days. Despite this naff premise, it's the creepiest film I've seen in a long time, with a few genuinely heart-stopping moments. See it if you dare. Better still, buy the Japanese version on DVD and send it to Tony Blair. You never know . . .

Solaris (12a), Moonlight Mile (15) and The Ring (15) are all on general release