Solaris (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Solaris may be the first big budget science fiction motion picture that belongs in an art house rather than a multiplex. The movie bears a stronger resemblance to 2001: A Space Odyssey than to Star Wars, with an emphasis on ideas over action. Those expecting to see space battles and bug-eyed aliens will be disappointed. There's nothing like that here. The experience of watching Solaris doesn't just invite thought and rumination; it demands it.

Of his last four films, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has developed three remakes (besides this one, the other two are Traffic and Ocean's 11). Solaris is based on the novel by Stanisalw Lem, which was first brought to the screen in 1972 by Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. The earlier film, which clocks in at a lengthy 165 minutes, is as slow as it is fascinating. Soderbergh's re-interpretation, which is more economical (it's about 65 minutes shorter), has many of the same strengths as Tarkovsky's version without the somnambulant pace. Soderbergh's Solaris establishes a dreamlike state that allows events to unfold in an unhurried fashion without losing a patient audience's attention.

Solaris transpires at an unspecified time in the near future. Therapist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) travels to a space station orbiting the distant planet of Solaris after a friend requests his help analyzing a problem that the crew of the station has encountered. When Chris arrives, he finds that his friend is among the dead, and there are only two survivors – the laid-back Snow (Jeremy Davies) and the paranoid Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis). Although neither Snow nor Gordon provides helpful information, Chris soon discovers on his own what's transpiring when he receives a visitation from his dead wife, Rhea (Natascha McElhone). Rhea does not appear to be a hallucination or a ghost, and that leaves Chris with a serious issue to resolve: Is she real or not, and, if she is, what is she?

Solaris examines weighty issues like the power of guilt, the nature of life, and the importance of memory. There are no traditional antagonists in this film; Chris' greatest enemy is a burden of conscience that he carries with him, the presence of which weighs down his soul and clouds his judgment. Initially, he doesn't believe his visitor is Rhea. Later, he no longer cares. The presence of someone who looks, feels, and sounds identical to his dead wife gives him an opportunity to assuage the pain of misplaced responsibility.

For George Clooney, while appearing in this movie may not be a big career risk, it's certainly an atypical choice. Known for playing supremely confident men in mainstream Hollywood outings, Clooney uses this opportunity to display his range and perhaps court a different audience. (His "safety net" may be that he has worked twice previously with Soderbergh and obviously feels comfortable with the director.) He capably brings out the deeply rooted pain and need in Chris, and we never have any difficulty accepting him in this role. The other performers have less significant parts. Clooney is the one who carries the film.

Solaris, brought to the screen by Soderbergh and James Cameron (who produced), is a gorgeously rendered motion picture. The cinematography connects us with Chris, allowing us to experience things through his perspective (sometimes literally). Flashbacks fill in the story of Chris' tempestuous marriage to Rhea, including how it began and ended. The special effects are breathtaking and flawless – some of the best to grace the screen this year. They don't represent a big part of the story, but, when they are used, they are effective.

The number of "thinking" science fiction films is small, and most are produced on small budgets for start-up directors. The first-rate production values and A-list star make Solaris an exception – and a rewarding one, at that. This is the first film I have seen in a long time to make me feel some of the things I experienced while watching 2001. Solaris is neither as effective nor as ambitious as Kubrick's masterpiece, but it's still a compelling cinematic experience for those who are willing to abandon themselves to the unforced, measured rhythms of an issues-based motion picture.

Solaris (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2002-11-27
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1