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SOLARIS (director/writer/cinematographer/editor: Steven Soderbergh; screenwriter: based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem; music: Cliff Martinez; cast: George Clooney (Chris Kelvin), Natascha McElhone (Rheya Kelvin), Jeremy Davies (Snow), Viola Davis (Helen Gordon), Ulrich Tukur (Gibarian); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Rae Sanchini/Jon Landau/James Cameron; 20th Century Fox; 2002)
“Those looking for the usual science fiction adventure doings here, will find they got on the wrong rocket flight.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Solaris is the eclectic director Steven Soderbergh’s (“Ocean’s Eleven“/”Traffic“/”Full Frontal“) remake of the classic science-fiction film directed by the late great Soviet genius filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, which is based on the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s cultish 1962 novel. Tarkovsky considered this film his least successful venture, though many film critics and Tarkovsky buffs would beg to differ. Surprisingly, this abbreviated 95 minute version as compared to the original’s 165 minutes, loses hardly anything in the story by lopping off 70 minutes and in fact it avoids much of the earlier film’s muddled struggles between reality and fantasy. The science fiction element in Tarkovsky’s film was too prominent and became a distraction for its trying psychological story about scientists lost in the Cosmos who, whether they wanted to or not, were pressured to gain one more piece of knowledge about life needed for survival before going home. The characters in Solaris were beaten down by disappointments, and the way out Tarkovsky offered them was illusory. It lay in dreams, in the opportunity to recognize their own roots–those roots which for ever link man to the Earth which bore him. But even those links had already become unreal for them. The whole ‘adventure’ in space is regarded skeptically by the director. Tarkovsky’s film seemed to say that our destiny is on this planet or nowhere.

The lonely and anguished psychologist and religious skeptic Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) while at home in futuristic Los Angeles broods over his lost chance at love and contemplates why his sensitive and misunderstood wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) committed suicide. He receives a video tape from his mission commander friend Gibarian (Tukur) to help him convince the surviving crew to return home. They have started to act strangely after two astronauts have died in space.

Kelvin goes to the space station in an automatically-piloted rocket that lands on the space platform hovering above Solaris. Everything is kept Kubrickian and impenetrable. Most of Soderbergh’ film is set in the sterile confines of a space station with pods for passageways, as the station looks like an experimental Bill Gates computer room that’s misplaced in a laundrymat. I guess Soderbergh was too busy working on the space station look to explain much about Solaris, or maybe he was more interested in the psychology of the story rather than the sci-fi part.

Solaris is a strange planet in the form of a sea of liquid gas that intruded itself into the solar system, stationing itself outside the atmosphere but within space-traveling vicinity of the earth. At the space station Kelvin discovers his old friend Gibarian dead in a body bag. He then discovers an almost incoherent and spaced out and giddy Snow (Jeremy Davies), who talks best with jittery hand gestures as he relates that Gibarian committed suicide and that the only other one on board is the physicist Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis). She has become severely depressed and won’t let anyone into her locked cabin room. Both are paranoid and seem to be deeply affected in a negative way by their investigative work, as they both believe they have been visited by invisible forces from Solaris that are up to no good. When Snow’s asked to explain what’s happening, he tells Kelvin: “I can tell you what’s happening, but I don’t know if that would tell you what’s happening.” Dr. Gordon further warns Kelvin: “Until it starts happening to you, there’s really no point in discussing it.” These two comments become the film’s mantra, and its way of explaining everything.

Kelvin is awakened on his first night sleep in the space station, as he dreams about his wife to only find his dead wife resurrected as a flesh-and-blood human being in the same room lying next to him (why not, if the faithful believe Christ could be resurrected!). And, thus begins a long introspection and dialogue to find out if he can relate to her while knowing she’s not human. A favorite poem of his wife is repeated throughout with the refrain: “And death shall have no dominion.” It turns out she was created from his mind and restored in the image of his selective memories of her, but she has free will and can change her personality. Rheya even says at one point that “I’m not the person I remember.” Through this sometimes sensual and sometimes anguished dialogue with his wife and the film’s many flashbacks to their married days and amorous relationship, we discover that Kelvin was bitter that she never told him before they married that she was infertile because of an earlier abortion. Ambiguity and bleakness become the primary vision and mood respectfully of the film, as Kelvin seeks a second chance to love his wife even though he realizes she’s a copy. The other crew members see her as a non-human threat to them and want her destroyed. They believe she was resurrected by an alien force from Solaris. The theme of alien life out there is brought into focus as a reality, which should intrigue the many film fans who believe that’s a very real possibility.

Solaris plays as a slow metaphysical meditation on themes of love, death, identity, reality and illusion. The film is a boon for the lovers of cerebral films. Those looking for the usual science fiction adventure doings here, will find they got on the wrong rocket flight. The film fails to bring warmth to all the chilling details uncovered and this icy tone brings down the romantic scenes and fails to enliven the human beings, while the science fiction scenes never go past the images they project. There’s a seemingly gratuitous shot in imitation of Michelangelo’s God creating man, as here a divine boy reaches out to touch Kelvin in the same manner. But nothing was made of that, except as just another image to feast your eyes on. It all looked good and I respect the film for its honest effort and its ambitions and its uncompromising loyalty to the novel. Though less boring than Tarkovsky’s film, it was nevertheless also less scintillating and stirring. Tarkovsky was intent on showing us the mirror-like interdependence of earth and of space — as being one and the same location — filtered through the human imagination. To Soderbergh’s credit he leaves us with the same vision, but he leaves us with a psychological film that is more challenging than pleasing and one that lacks the same depth as Tarkovsky’s. Clooney does a creditable job of trying to lead the film out of its alien waters, but there’s too much confusion in the deep water.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”