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movie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Ulrich Tuker

Review by Harvey Karten
2 stars out of 4

Steven Soderbergh's recreation of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 movie of the same name gives new meaning to the song that goes, "When at last, our life on earth is through/I will share eternity with you." Not a vampire movie, though the people on board a space ship may be undead, not an "Alien" sort of pic because there are no explosions and only one scene in which a character talks above a whisper, "Solaris" is a meditative study of human nature using the sci-fi genre as a foundation. The best science fiction is a commentary about life on earth in the here- and-now, whether satiric or philosophic, and such a photographic essay seems to be what Steven Soderbergh has in mind this time around.

The thirty-nine year old writer-director whose "sex, lies and videotape" deals with marriage and adultery as seen through the lens of a video camera and is acted far better by Andie McDowell and James Spader than is "Solaris" by George Clooney and company, was a dazzler, given the story line of a selfish lawyer who turns to his sister-in-law when his wife has turned frigid. That Cannes Festival winner was as earthbound as "Solaris" is ethereal: The ethereal, or celestial, has as much attraction for a mass movie audience as does the poetry of William Wordsworth but properly handled, such a study of relationships can be compelling. "Solaris" is not.

The story, from a Polish novel by Stanislaw Lem, imagines a psychotherapist named Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) whose wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) had committed suicide for no reason that Kelvin can comprehend. Thinking that Kelvin can intervene to prevent a catastrophe on the planet Solaris, the commander of a space ship ask him to report to the space station circling the planet, told that he would be asleep for most of the journey. He considers himself a lucky man because when he awakens, his dead wife is in bed next to him, seemingly awake and kicking. Intellectually he knows she cannot be alive: in his heart (and in his loins) she is very much present. Questioning a human perpetual- motion machine that goes by the name of Snow (Jeremy Davies), he is told amid a flurry of tics and idiotic gestures that the crew is dead and that the scientist Helen Gordon (Viola Davis) has seen all and does not have faith that Kelvin can do much about this.

The concept at work here is that people like the dead Rheya can pretty much do everything that a normal human being can, yet do not have memories of their own. Whatever is in their heads is what their significant others are thinking about them. Since Chris recalls Rheya as suicidal, Rheya is therefore suicidal. Since Chris could not be a party to Rheya deeply held secrets, therefore Rheya in her new incarnation does not have secrets. The whole experience comes across as a parable of human relationships: we cannot truly know another person (if indeed we can know even ourselves). What we know about others is what we think we know.

Unfortunately though the concept is a stunning one, the execution is below par partly because Mr. Clooney's idea of acting is to make faces. His eyes become wide when he's either excited or fearful. Except for one scene that has his character raising the roof, he speaks, like the others, in a whisper almost throughout. The dialogue is pretentious as though Soderbergh is trying to backtrack from his blockbuster hit "Erin Brockovich" to regain his the indie credentials he won from "sex, lies and videotape." At one point the sound went off for three minutes: nobody in the theater moved because we all believed that this was one of Soderbergh's gimmicks. Jeremy Davies, a character actor is ever there was one, goes overboard this time with his bevy of gestures so much so that we wonder why Chris does not pitch him out of the ship. I had not seen the Tarkovsky version in 1972, the one that critics fell all over themselves to praise. One wonders how the Russian director, genius though he may be, could have evoked some coherence to this plot.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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