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Solaris   B-

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Steven Soderbergh (based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem)
Cast: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Ulrich Tukur, Morgan Rusler.

Review by Rob Vaux

Never accuse Steven Soderbergh of lacking ambition. The maverick director of Traffic and Out of Sight doesn't shy away from challenges, and even when he fails, you can sense him planning for his next run at the hill. Thanks to the support of A-list actors like George Clooney and Julia Roberts, he can basically pick his projects, ranging from big-budget Hollywood vehicles to borderline experimental pieces. Now comes Solaris, a venture into science fiction that matches his earlier work in scope and ambition. Based on a Polish science fiction novel that Andrei Tarkovsky translated into a dense, brilliant, and utterly unwatchable film version in 1972, it aims to convey a sense of theological existentialism while still remaining accessible enough for the multiplex crowd. Hardly a project for a run-of-the-mill hack.

The results, however, are decidedly mixed. While Soderbergh succeeds in recapturing the themes and mood of Tarkovsky's version, he also brings with them a cold, emotionless sheen, a detached air that defeats his efforts to truly engage us. The results give much food for thought, but achieve a limited success at best. Certainly, it's more cerebral than most sci-fi pictures. It stars Clooney as Chris Kelvin, a troubled psychiatrist struggling to come to grips with the suicide of his wife (Natascha McElhone). He receives a summons to a research station orbiting Solaris -- a planet-sized being in the depths of outer space. The team there has been... affected by their subject, and Chris is required to help extract them. He arrives on the station to find it nearly deserted, with only a pair of crewmen still alive. Far more unsettling, however, is the apparent presence of alien constructs: beings with the shape and memories of individuals from the crew's past. Soon enough, a phantom shows up in the form of Chris's wife -- complete in every detail he remembers, and apparently unaware that she is years in her grave. Her appearance draws Chris into the same trap that snared the crew. He wants to believe in her, yet he cannot trust what he knows shouldn't exist. Then again, he asks himself, how reliable are his notions of what shouldn't exist?

The alien/planet is Solaris's best element, a facilitator for the characters' emotional turmoil. It dominates the proceedings even when we can't see it. We've become so used to the Star Trek notion of aliens -- near-human ciphers for very human behavior patterns -- that the idea of a truly inhuman being is nearly impossible to grasp. Solaris defies our efforts at understanding. We have no common frame of reference with it. It behaves according to no set parameters. We can't even be sure if it is sentient, or if it perceives the characters as anything but cosmic flotsam. As such, it becomes both alluring and frightening, a mask for every concept beyond our grasp. Death, God, the forces of the cosmos... anything could lie beneath its scintillating surface. And the appearance of the alien phantoms -- apparently created by Solaris in response to the human presence -- releases a plethora of fears and desires. Soderbergh handles the intellectual aspect of the proceedings with grace and discipline. He denies the audience easy answers, forcing them to decide for themselves what the planet's eerie puzzle means. The questions posed are bound to feed countless coffee-table conversations, and so rare is a Hollywood film with a genuine sense of discourse that Solaris may be worth recommending on that factor alone.

However, "intellectually stimulating" doesn't always translate to "engaging." Soderbergh's technique robs his characters of their warmth, presenting them more as social experiments than people we should care about. His quasi-verité approach puts an interesting spin on the film's look, but prevents us from connecting with Chris the way we need to. Much of the drama hinges on the love between Chris and his wife, yet despite solid performances from both Clooney and McElhone, we never feel their desire, their anguish, or their pain. It's not simply a lack of chemistry -- the pair has plenty -- it's the confounded sheen separating us from them.

Furthermore, the film's efforts to preserve the enigma result in a strangely incomplete feeling, as if some part were missing. Tarkovsky's film ran an interminable two hours and 40 minutes; Soderbergh has shaved his to 96. It retains the core essence (Solaris is more about moods and feelings than concrete expression), but still leaves nooks and crannies unfulfilled. While our asses may thank him for sparing us the long sit, a little more development time might have involved us more and allowed Solaris to achieve a greater sense of resonance than it does.

Soderbergh has a remarkable gift for making esoteric cinema palatable, and for turning difficult subjects into truly enthralling movies. He doesn't necessarily fail here, though at times, he comes dangerously close. Films like Solaris remind us of science fiction's potential, and the fact that movies need not pound us over the head to provide a satisfying experience. Challenging films need not be great to succeed, and even Solaris's failures speak to breathtaking aspirations. Perhaps, like Chris, we should simply appreciate what we have, rather than trying to question how much more we'd like to see.

Review published 12.01.2002.

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