Review by Dustin Putman
3½ stars out of 4
Those entering a theater showing "Solaris" expecting a space-set thriller,
complete with slimy alien creatures and action-packed battles, should
look elsewhere. The majority of the motion picture takes place on
a space ship, this is true, and there are major hints of something
supernatural going on, but that is where its conventions end. For
a film in the science-fiction genre, and one opening over Thanksgiving
weekend, no less, it is unusually weighty and ponderous stuff, requiring
the viewer's close attention and an open mind. Even then, some may
admittedly still feel alienated.
Written and directed by Steven Soderbergh (2001's "Ocean's Eleven")
and based on the novel by Stanisalw Lem, which was first adapted in
1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky, "Solaris" is a very deliberately paced and
emotionally demanding meditation on the power of guilt, the value
of life, and the undying feeling of true love. As perplexing in its
subject matter as it is heartbreaking in its aftereffect, audiences
may well stumble out 98 minutes later questioning what it is exactly
that they have just seen, and then won't be able to get it out of
their mind for quite some time after.
Set in the near future, Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a sullen
psychologist asked by an old friend (Ulrich Tukur) via videotape to
travel to a space station orbiting the distant planet of Solaris and
investigate a problem the inhabitants have encountered. Once onboard,
Kelvin finds only two survivors, Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Dr. Gordon
(Viola Davis), both of whom are for some reason resisting their return
to Earth. Upon waking up from sleep, Kelvin is visited by his wife,
Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who has been dead for several years. She
is not a figment of his imagination, nor is she necessarily the same
woman he was married to, so what, exactly, is she? Despite looking
and sounding like Rheya, and having all of her memories, Kelvin at
first resists her return, and then starts to believe it may be his
only chance to right the wrongs he made when she was with him on Earth.
A thought-provoking mystery of a movie, "Solaris" offers few solid
answers and a whole lot of questions that it asks the viewer to answer
for themselves. At its core, however, are a number of issues that
are existentially dealt with in a beautiful manner. What would it
be like, for example, if a lost loved one returned exactly as they
once were, but you knew they were simply a replicant of their real
self? And how would you deal with getting a second chance to fix the
mistakes you made in the past? When Rheya returns to Kelvin, she is
exactly as he remembers her: deeply in love with him, but burdened
by depression and suicidal tendencies. There is no way to help her,
because his past memories cannot be altered, yet every time she kills
herself she is resurrected.
"Solaris" is intentionally languid and slow, soaking up and savoring
its every plot point and nuance. The end result is something both
mystifying and beautiful, brought to life by a top-notch production
team. The visual effects by Cinesite and Rhythm & Hues, although used
sparingly, are wondrously believable, and the sterile production design
by Philip Messina (2000's "Traffic") makes great use of empty spaces
and long corridors. Likewise, the cinematography by Soderbergh himself
alternates between richly textured, warm colors in the flashbacks,
and steely, cold ones in the present day.
George Clooney (2001's "Ocean's Eleven"), usually one to play strong,
suave types, is a revelation as Chris Kelvin. Clooney adeptly plays
Kelvin as a man who has suffered a great loss, and has not been able
to pick the right pieces up to move forward in his life. The internal
conflict he is going through, and the external one he faces when Rheya
reappears, superbly transpires through Clooney's heartfelt performance.
Natascha McElhone (2002's "Feardotcom") matches Clooney, yet has a
somewhat trickier part to play, as she alternates between being the
real Rheya in the flashbacks, and another version of Rheya based completely
on Kelvin's memories of her. McElhone's interpretation of both figures
is indelibly brought to life with equal shadings of warmth and severe
hurt. Adding excellent support are Jeremy Davies (1999's "Ravenous")
and Viola Davis (2002's "Far From Heaven"), as surviving crew members
Snow and Gordon, both of whom are grappling with the sudden appearance
of people from their own lives.
"Solaris" is such a multilayered and labyrinthine undertaking that
the brief 98-minute running time could have, and should have, been
lengthened to further develop the rapturous story and its characters'
pasts. The hefty issues the film touches upon are beautifully handled
within the confines of the screenplay, but almost demand further scrutiny.
"Solaris" is the kind of film one cannot simply walk away from and
not think about. It is not only powerful, but the lasting impression
it makes is nearly unshakable. When Kelvin mournfully states near
the end, "I can't help but wonder if what I thought about Rheya was
wrong," you'll know exactly what he means. The implications of such
a notion are staggering.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman