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
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