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Burden of Dreams

George Clooney Floats Into the Deep End in Solaris' Spaced-Out Love Story

Spaced Out: Natascha McElhone and George Clooney contemplate the big questions in Solaris.


Director:Steven Soderbergh
Cast:George Clooney, Ulrich Tukur, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Natascha McElhone
Screen Writer:Steven Soderbergh
Release Date:2002
Genre:Science fiction, Romance

By Lee Gardner | Posted

Simply put, Solaris is one of those films you're going to love or hate. There are plenty of good reasons for either reaction. Love it or hate it, it is certainly one of the most unlikely major studio films released this year.

Riding out the remainder of his Best Director Oscar cred, screenwriter/director/cinematographer/editor Steven Soderbergh got the green light from 20th Century Fox to adapt Stanislaw Lem's 1961 metaphysical sci-fi novel about a distant planet covered by a sentient ocean and its effects on human observers. Though the great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky shot a version of the story in 1972, the film's glacial pace and heavy mystical/philosophical overtones make it a poor precedent for a big-budget Hollywood project. But Soderbergh had that Oscar, the participation of increasingly interesting A-list star George Clooney, and a novel approach to Lem's tale on his side.

Introduced glumly going through the motions of life here on Earth, psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) learns that his friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) has summoned him to come to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris, where something unusual and unspecified is happening. When Kelvin arrives at the station, he finds dried blood splatters, Gibarian's dead body chilling in the computer room, and wigged-out scientists Snow (a sublimely spacey Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis). They won't really discuss what's happening, but Kelvin doesn't have to wonder long once his late wife, Rheya (Ronin's Natascha McElhone), appears in his bed--warm flesh, alive.

Lem and Tarkovsky used these bare plot elements to muse on the mysteries of the planet and the nature of humankind. In Soderbergh's take, Solaris itself (which looks like an orb of molten carnival glass) is literally a backdrop for a more pointed look at a particular aspect of human nature: love. Hard-core fans of the book or the first film can start hating the new Solaris now.

At first, Kelvin is utterly spooked by his visitor; in one of the most emotionally disturbing sequences to hit screens this year, he even tries to send her away. Soon, however, he is drawn in, in love with someone he knows isn't the woman he used to love, someone who can't logically exist. But the re-created Rheya is so fully formed that she starts realizing who she is--a literal figment of his imagination, based on his memories, a fact that sits uneasily on her remanufactured soul. As Soderbergh revisits Kelvin and Rheya's relationship on Earth in flashbacks, it becomes plain that their second life together may be as doomed as the first for reasons that have nothing to do with the laws of the universe.

Critical comparisons to Vertigo are just as apt as those to 2001: A Space Odyssey; it is as a grand and troubled movie romance that the film hits its apogee. Heightened by the otherworldly circumstances, Kelvin and Rheya's impossible reunion forces him to plumb profound depths of grief, obsession, guilt, and surrender. Known as a classic leading-man type rather than an acting chameleon, Clooney nonetheless does an admirable job of working through his character's riotous emotional states. And as in Soderbergh's career-restoring Out of Sight, the director cast Clooney opposite an actress who could match his musky smolder. While her character is a literal construct most of the time, McElhone seizes every opportunity to add idiosyncratic life, from the sexiest shit-eating grin ever to a chilling there/not-there shutdown. The actors' scenes together crackle like no film set mostly on a space station has a right to, and that crackle helps sell both the pleasure and the pain of a love story told on an interplanetary scale.

Solaris also confirms both Soderbergh's skill and his sometimes overweening ambition. Gambling big, he applies the sort of fractured narrative technique he used in The Limey to an already loopy and elliptical story, giving the whole thing an unpredictable rhythm that helps keep the viewer on edge in the process. But the film is also rife with logic lapses that can only be traced back to its screenwriter/director/cinematographer/editor. Who is the other body in the cold room? What happened to the security team sent from Earth? Knowing what one knows late in the going, what happened to the pod ejected from the ship? Even those viewers utterly bedazzled by the visual style and the love story may wonder about nagging things that aren't explained very well (such as the fact that Snow's reconstituted loved one is his brother), if at all (why we never see Gordon's visitor).

Still, Solaris feels like a flawed masterpiece rather than an interesting failure. Despite conceits and foibles that will doubtless drive some viewers nuts, the film errs on the side of ambition, thoughtfulness, and passion as opposed to the low-balling, stupidity, and manipulation more common to Hollywood films. Love it, and you'll probably love it a lot.

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