Review: Solaris

By Dan Krovich

November 25, 2002

Clooney tries to figure out what this movie is all about.

Though there are always preconceptions when a classic movie is remade, Steven Soderbergh has more leeway than some because the original Solaris was a Russian film, so it has been comparatively little seen in the United States. The first hint that this is not going to be a literal remake comes from the fact that the running time of Soderbergh's Solaris is only slightly more than half the running time of Tarkovsky's original. That may come as welcome news to those who found the Tarkovsky film ponderous and interminable as Soderbergh distills the source material (the Stanislaw Lem novel) to concentrate mainly on a single theme, resulting in a more focused film.

Still, those looking for science fiction film filled with fancy futuristic gadgets, action, and astounding special effects are likely to be disappointed. Though the effects are diligent, they are not groundbreaking, and they are used sparingly; certainly not a driving force in the film. Instead, the film is a meditative look at love and loss that in many ways could have been set anywhere but just happens to take place on a space station.

That space station where most of the film takes place is Prometheus, which is orbiting the planet Solaris. It was sent to study the planet, which is covered by a vast ocean with some very peculiar properties. However, the situation on the space station has turned dour, and after a rescue mission fails, one of the last three inhabitants of Prometheus, Gibarian, requests that his friend Dr. Chris Kelvin come to the space station. Kelvin is a psychiatrist with an apparently successful practice, but living a lonely life as a widower.

When Kelvin arrives on the space station, he discovers that Gibarian is dead and meets with the eccentric Snow and the freaked out Gordon, who are reluctant to explain what's going on. Kelvin gets his own taste, however, when he goes to sleep only to awake to find his deceased wife, Rheya, alive and well and in his room. Through flashbacks we see their lives together on Earth, from meeting to courting to marriage, as their story while orbiting Solaris plays out. Is this new incarnation a second chance, a cruel trick, a gift from Solaris, or an experiment?

Additionally, is answering these questions even important? That's where Soderbergh may lose some viewers, because he doesn't seem to be interested in answering all the questions he proposes. It seems that he means Solaris to be more of a jumping-off point to provoke post film discussion than to put forth his own views. Of course, that will likely be frustrating to anyone who likes things tied up in a nice, pretty bow. He also warns that we may not even have the language to answer these questions and is critical of our anthropomorphic desire to ascribe human traits to that which transcends them. As heavy as those ideas may be, they are only tangential considerations in Solaris. The main concern is Kelvin's reaction to his second chance with Rheya. Is it possible to fix the mistakes of the past and to get rid of the pain, and is this substitute a temporary fix or a lasting solution? Ultimately, what is he willing to give up?

As Kelvin, George Clooney's performance is nothing short of revelatory. This is perhaps the first time he is required to act without a hint of swagger and minus that mischievous glint in his eye, and he is able to pull it off remarkably well. The contrast is more apparent when comparing the Kelvin in the flashbacks to the one in the present. Speaking of eyes, perhaps because there is a significant amount of the film without dialogue, eyes take on an increased importance and are particularly prominent, from the deadness behind Clooney's, to the pools of naivete possessed by Natascha McElhone as Rheya, the empty browness of Jeremy Davies as Snow, and the steely determination of Viola Davis as Gordon. All four main performances are superb with the possible exception of Davies' super trippy comic relief stint as Snow, which at times borders on grating and out of place.

The appropriately austere look helps to reinforce the human element of Solaris. Without flashy visuals to distract, we are forced to concentrate on the characters as we are brought into their world. Also, Soderbergh often lights his actors from below which has the effect of accentuating them yet gives the feeling that things are slightly off.

Stylistically, it is odd that the film that Solaris reminds me most of is not Tarkovsky's version, nor Kubrick's 2001, nor any other number of science fiction films, but rather Soderbergh's own Out of Sight. That comparison is certainly aided by the presence of Clooney in both films, but there is more to it than simply sharing the star. Both films take genres that aren't necessarily known for romance and turn them into love stories at their cores. They are also both intent on taking relationships that can't work for one reason or another and exploring an individual's desire to try to imagine that relationship in a different, more conducive circumstance. Finally, they share similar techniques, particularly in editing, where flashing back and forth in time during love scenes creates a transfixing effect that accentuates the onscreen emotion.

Solaris is a triumph. It is the rare remake that doesn't simply recreate the original, but also does not denigrate it either. The two films can stand side by side because they are two completely different interpretations of the source material, and it is a credit to Lem's rich novel that there are enough themes to support both of them.



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