The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'Solaris' shows
Soderbergh and
Clooney at best


December 5, 2002
By Franklin Harris

"Solaris" seems like a relic from the '70s. From the production design and the special effects to the pacing and the brooding atmosphere, it points to a decade when intelligent science fiction was the norm, not the exception.

Perhaps it's because Stanislaw Lem's novel has been adapted for the screen before, by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. Or perhaps it's because most filmmakers now see realistic science fiction through the lens of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," produced in 1968.

George Clooney tries to solve the mystery of ''Solaris'' in Steven Soderbergh's remake of the classic science-fiction film.
Photo © 20th Century Fox
George Clooney tries to solve the mystery of ''Solaris'' in Steven Soderbergh's remake of the classic science-fiction film.
But stylistically Steven Soderbergh's update of "Solaris" borrows little from either Tarkovsky or Kubrick. Even the one scene casual viewers are most likely to associate with "2001" — the approach of a space shuttle to a revolving space station — has more in common visually with a scene from, of all things, Robert Wise's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

While Tarkovsky's version is sometimes plodding — I've seen it unfairly derided as "the worst movie Stanley Kubrick never made" — Soderbergh's is merely leisurely. Soderbergh knows his story is a simple one. He doesn't rush things, and still "Solaris" clocks in at less than two hours.

Delivering the strongest, most nuanced performance of his career, George Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychologist sent to a remote outpost in space to discover what is driving the astronauts there mad.

When Kelvin arrives, he finds that one crewmember has committed suicide and another has vanished. The two survivors may be worse off, however, as they are haunted by "visitors" from the planet below, Solaris.

Enveloped by a shimmering, electric sea, Solaris seems to be alive. As Kelvin is told, it responds to us, and it responds to Kelvin by sending him a doppelganger of his dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who committed suicide years earlier.

But Visitor-Rheya is an imperfect copy, built from Kelvin's memories, real and imagined, of the original. Worse still, she knows what she really is.

Soderbergh may have won an Oscar, but he remains one of Hollywood's most self-indulgent directors. He seems at times incapable of making a film that tells a story from beginning to middle to end. Instead, he leaps through time, usually for no good reason, as if he is trying to disguise the shallowness of his work. It makes even his better films, like "The Limey" and "Out of Sight," frustrating experiences. They are not so much movies as they are experiments gone wrong.

With "Solaris," however, Soderbergh has found a story that complements his eccentricities.

As an extended meditation of memory and forgetfulness, "Solaris" benefits from Soderbergh's obsessive use of flashbacks.

His camerawork here is improved, too. Soderbergh relies less than usual on shakycam and is willing to let a shot play out before cutting to the next. When he does experiment, he succeeds. During conversations, he holds the camera on the listener rather than the speaker, letting the reactions carry the scene.

The acting, especially from supporting players Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis, is wonderful to watch.

While promoting "Solaris," Soderbergh said the film isn't really science fiction. That's wrong. In fact, "Solaris" is exactly how cinematic science fiction should be.

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