By Admin | November 20, 2002

“Solaris” is most certain to leave many an audience disappointed. The marketing paints Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel as strictly a romantic drama, rather neatly skirting the issue that said love story takes place… in outer space. Similarly, those drawn by the sci-fi element may be thrown by Soderbergh’s larger attention to more decidedly down-to-earth issues. And then there are the cinéastes in love with Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Russian screen version, who will undoubtedly find many issues of complaint in the new picture.
My word of advice to any audience is to let go and let “Solaris” wash over you. While a number of the major beats remain the same, it’s an entirely different animal from Tarkovsky’s hypnotic but opaque take, and it’s an entirely different animal from most studio product in general. Deliberately–and, certainly for many, maddeningly–vague and more concerned with overall feelings, broader ideas, and open-ended questions than concrete story and definitive answers, Soderbergh’s “Solaris” is a gorgeous and deceptively minimalist cinematic tone poem.
One of the things that this “Solaris” doesn’t share with its predecessor is a mammoth running time. This version lasts only about 96 minutes, a reflection of how Soderbergh (who also penned the new script) distills the story down to its romantic core. Gone are issues of parents, political humiliation, and that five-or-so-minute scene of cars traveling on the highway; front and center is the relationship between Dr. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) and his late wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). When psychiatrist Kelvin is called to investigate the strange goings-on at a space station orbiting the distant planet of Solaris, he is forced to confront all of his love, guilt, and various conflicting feelings–figuratively, by way of intercut memories of their turbulent relationship; and literally, as physical manifestations of Rheya begin to visit him at the space station.
And that, more or less, is the sum of the stripped-down plot in this “Solaris.” Those expecting concrete explanations about the how and why certain things happen won’t get them, for the hows and whys are secondary to the emotions being conveyed–and it’s a credit to the work of Soderbergh and Clooney that so much is said with literally so little. The spare dialogue–which matches Philip Messina’s sleek, sterile space-age sets and the ominous tones of Cliff Martinez’s score–doesn’t speak as much as the many silences, or rather the emotion that can be felt bubbling beneath the nonverbal surface. Clooney is particularly startling, dialing down his natural magnetism to convincingly, compellingly play a man broken and numb with grief and anguish, and in so doing bringing to the fore the real talent so often overshadowed by his overpowering natural charisma. The baggage of his prototypical screen persona actually adds that much more to the performance and the character, as it deepens the sense of how far gone Kelvin is emotionally, spiritually, completely.
McElhone has an even more difficult task: she has to make various incarnations of Rheya distinct yet somehow consistent. A likable, sensual, glowing presence, McElhone pulls off the job without a false note, making it easy to understand why Kelvin cannot escape Rheya. On the other hand, Jeremy Davies seems a bit too fond of Tarantino-esque mannerisms as an eccentric station scientist, but his unusual energy injects some welcome flashes of humor, and his general strangeness adds a discomfiting tension. Certain to be underrated is Viola Davis, who exudes quiet authority as the only other crew member aboard the station, a hard-thinking woman of science who serves as the voice of reason.
On initial glances, “Solaris” can strike one as being as chilly and distant as those outer reaches of the universe, but like the planet of the title, the real story is churning deep beneath its surface: those deep, untamed passions that simultaneously excite and frighten–and refuse to be denied. It’s easy to deny the subtextual splendors of “Solaris,” but it’s easier to simply surrender and, as one character puts it, “live in this feeling.”

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