Solaris
review by Elias Savada, 20 December 2002

Most part-time film critics don't have the opportunity, or the luxury (you try watching 300 movies a year AND earning a living), to watch a film twice before writing a review. Granted when I spout out 800 words per film I tend to spend more time writing about a film that I spent enraptured, bored, or otherwise entertained by it. Among critics, I'm in the minority, as I like to take notes during screenings. My writing process generally works better when I scramble through my scrawl and find an important phrase, nuance, etc. worth mentioned.

So much for this meandering introduction. Why, you're now wondering, did I even extrapolate? Well, the first time I caught Solaris, Steven Soderbergh's solemn update to the thirty-year-old Russian epic by celebrated Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, based on Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem's 1961 philosophical novel, I forgot it was on my review schedule. I thought it plodding, boring, and dull. George Clooney moons at the sterile camera and barely emotes. If this film were a mood ring, it would register as black leader.

A second viewing, armed with my trusty light-pen and a wife who hadn't seen it yet, brought her the same feeling I had the first go-round. As for me, Solaris was still a deliberately, glacially paced extra-terrestrial journey, but my admiration for this high-gloss art-house project, produced by Mr. Titanic, James Cameron, was elevated by some audacious determination by the filmmakers to tackle such a difficult remake and attempting to deliver to the masses a psychological exploration of mankind's inner depths in outer space.

Soderbergh's version is a compressed vision, by half, of the nearly three-hour Tarkovsky edition (recently released on DVD), but often feels twice at long. It runs just ninety-five minutes. Yet everything is designed to draw this time-defying illusion. A bleak, intimate landscape; lingering views of a fractally luminescent planet; claustrophobic camera shots; truth-seeking dialogue that races along at the speed of a turtle. Add in an existential, time/thought-jumping plot, which apparently sticks fairly close to Lem's themes, a too barren touch of mystery, and it's no wonder this film, despite such popular box office names attached to it, will challenge any normal audience.

That's the problem. Soderbergh's made his thirteenth feature (I hope he's not superstitious) as another experimental, pet project. That's two in a row. You've already forgotten (I have) his digitally shot Full Frontal, an experience that caused a far worse stampede for the handful of exasperated souls who attended a nearby multiplex second-week screening.

Fans of Lem's most popular book, especially those who read the original language version, will undoubtedly wax fantastic on the film. My sci-fi leanings have been toward Robert Heinlein, and I suspect most audiences going to a George Clooney and/or Steven Soderbergh and/or James Cameron film will not savor the somewhat obscure literary background that so enamored these three individuals to make this adaptation.

Let's talk plotline. Chris Kelvin (Clooney) is a dreary, workaholic psychologist hiding well his daily dysfunction, caused by what we eventually determine to be the death of his doting, doe-eyed wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). His association with the NASA-turned-commercial space program examining the strange, swirling world of Solaris makes him the primary choice to single-handedly rendezvous with an exploratory mission that has gone inexplicably awry. Upon arrival he is warned by the cryptic Snow (Saving Private Ryan's Jeremy Davis) and a determined-to-overcome science officer Gordon (Viola Davis) of strange, unearthly happenings. Kelvin's friend, Commander Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), took his own life sometime after sending out the original distress call.

As Kelvin tries to unravel the Solarian shenanigans on a purely psychological level, he, like the rest of the real or not-so-real members of the crew, the ghost of Gibarian, and a wife apparently back from the dead, all get confused about life's ultimate meaning.

If you can get past all the esoteric baggage littering the runway, there's a visually stunning film created by Soderbergh, who photographed it under the pseudonym Peter Andrews. With the help of production designer Philip Messina, there are obvious 2001 markings. Even the monolith makes a brief appearance in the guise of the seemingly indestructible manifestation of Rheya. Soderbergh also borrows some technical tools from Traffic, its multiple stories delimited by color-filtered cinematography. In Solaris he opts to differentiate the haunting dream-thought recollections of Kelvin (and Rheya) using a slight desaturation and a hand-held camera. Think of it as the equivalent of italicized subtitles on a foreign film that often indicate inner-mind voiceovers.

Solaris fades to a less than satisfying conclusion, where its blending of space, time, reality, remorse, redemption, and George Clooney's naked butt might even have Albert Einstein pinching himself to see if he's still with us. He is, right?

Written and
Directed by:

Steven Soderbergh

Starring:
George Clooney
Natascha McElhone
Jeremy Davies
Viola Davis
Ulrich Tukur
Morgan Rusler

Rating:
PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may
not be appropriate 
for children
.

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