Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 28, 2002
Starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. Written and directed by Steven Soderbergh, based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel. Rated PG-13.
2002: A Space Odyssey

A planet plays funny tricks on us in the disorienting sci-fi romance Solaris.


Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is a fairly good film that a lot of people won’t like. Why not? To begin with, even though it’s a science fiction movie that takes place mostly in a futuristic space station, it doesn’t have a traditional sci-fi film’s bells and whistles — no cool gadgets, no battles with aliens, no superheroes and supervillains. Instead of building to any conventional kind of climax, this slow-rolling film largely concerns itself with philosophical questions. This doesn’t sound too strange, since science fiction is uniquely equipped to deal with hypothetical situations and ethical debate. The thing is, this movie doesn’t take up the technological issues that have dominated the more thoughtful sci-fi films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix. It’s about the afterlife and the persistence of memory rather than the boundary between humanity and technology, a move that risks alienating science fiction fans.

Soderbergh’s style might also pose some problems. In contrast to the straightforward linear stories of his Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven, this movie has a complicated structure full of ellipses, flashbacks, and flash-forwards, similar to what Soderbergh did in his 1999 crime thriller The Limey. Whether you’re familiar with Solaris’ story or not, the disorienting approach will keep you guessing as to which game the filmmaker’s playing, even after the movie’s over. You have to admire Soderbergh for continuing to make experimental films after becoming Mr. Big-Time A-List Hollywood Director (though his last experiment, Full Frontal, was supremely awful). Still, the movie’s emotions are buried by its objective tone until its latter half, and it requires a bit of patience to get there.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that other people have been here before. The story comes from a novel by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, which was first made into a film in 1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky, a highly esteemed Soviet filmmaker whose fans regard him with a cult-like devotion for his difficult, long, fiercely cerebral films that wrestle with fundamental questions of human existence. Not surprisingly, his followers are an uncompromising crowd, and they won’t like the idea of anyone coming in and remaking one of his films. Still less will they like Soderbergh’s conclusion to the film (different from both Lem’s and Tarkovsky’s), his non-Russian Orthodox religious outlook, or the fact that his film runs only 102 minutes, roughly half that of Tarkovsky’s version.

Like Lem and Tarkovsky, Soderbergh begins with a video message received by psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney). It’s a vague request for help from Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), a patient who’s an astronaut in a space station orbiting the ocean world of Solaris. When Chris reaches the station, he discovers several crew members dead — including Gibarian — and the two surviving scientists, Dr. Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis), exhibiting a tenuous grip on reality.

He soon finds out why, when he receives what the other crew members call a “visitor” — his beloved wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who killed herself years earlier. She’s not a ghost; the others on the ship can see her, touch her, and speak to her. She’s initially convinced that she’s a live human being, and she behaves that way, but subsequent events prove that she isn’t. Exactly what she is is one of several mysteries that we and Chris are left to unravel.

The intellectualism threatens to dry out the film too much, but Soderbergh’s way with romance keeps that from happening. (So does some odd comic relief from Snow, despite Davies’ irritatingly mannered performance. He’s on hand to puncture the philosophizing — apropos of nothing, he looks at Rheya and says, “I wonder if she can get pregnant.”) Lyrical interludes detailing Chris and Rheya’s relationship on Earth are cleverly interspersed with the mystery aboard the space station. Photographing under his cinematographer alias of Peter Andrews, Soderbergh uses warm colors for Earth and cool ones for the station, and the color scheme’s understatement prevents it from becoming obvious.

All this would count for little if it weren’t for the actors. Too many romantic leads think the job stops at being good-looking and charming and funny, but George Clooney recognizes the importance of playing well off his partner. He has adjusted his act to fit personalities as distinct as Jennifer Lopez and Julia Roberts, but his melancholy-tinged work here with the much less extroverted McElhone cements his reputation as a great romantic lead, possibly the greatest we’ve seen since Cary Grant. For her part, McElhone, an unassuming English actress who has knocked around Hollywood for a while without finding a niche, makes Rheya a radiant, mercurial presence who’s in some way unknowable, but who has a certain strength despite her fragility. A great deal of this film hangs on its romance, and that’s where it’s most successful. You might or might not think the romance pulls it together, but you’ll probably find this uncommonly intellectual film fascinating.

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