Mark Reviews Movies

SOLARIS (2002)

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Ulrich Tukur

MPAA Rating:  (for sexuality/nudity, brief language and thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 11/27/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris plays like a condensed version of something highly complex. Even people who haven’t seen the original (like myself, although that will change very soon) should be able to tell that Soderbergh has polished the story down to its bare essentials. Some may see that as a virtue in terms of storytelling, however in its handling of such weighty thematic material as death, grieving, love, and even the afterlife, the movie falls significantly short of offering any kind of ambiguity or emotional resonance. There are ideas here, and that is a rarity for Hollywood films nowadays. Buy everything is spelt out for the audience, except for some basic metaphysical and science-fiction questions which ultimately have no bearing on one’s ability to understand what’s happened by the finale. At a brief length of just over an hour and a half, the movie flies by, and despite its heavy motifs, Solaris stays in your head only for the duration of its running time.

Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), despite a surname that would imply a different field, studies the human sciences as a psychoanalyst some time in the undisclosed future. He spends his days alone, occasionally remembering his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). One evening, a group of men arrives at his apartment, delivering a message from an old friend named Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). Gibarian asks him to help solve a problem he and the rest of the crew aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris are encountering. What it is, he won’t say in front of anyone, but Gibarian is convinced that Kelvin can be of some help, considering his past experiences. The powers-that-be are out of options, so sending Kelvin to help may be their last chance to salvage the mission and the crew. Upon arrival, Kelvin discovers that there are only two crew members left: the unaffected Snow (Jeremy Davies) and the incredibly distressed Gordon (Viola Davis). The rest of the crew is dead, and the station has been invaded by “visitors,” physical forms of absent loved ones. For Kelvin, this means the eventual “reappearance” of his deceased wife.

What are these “visitors?”  Where do they come from? Are they real? Are they the actual person they resemble come back from the dead or merely physical constructs based on the memories of those who knew them? Are they hostile? Those are just a few questions the script by Soderbergh (based on Tarkovsky’s film and Stanislaw Lem’s novel) raises, but the implications of these questions could raise some substantial moral and philosophical issues. It’s on this level that the movie falters. Any kind of philosophical or ethical musing brought up is only directly related to what’s going on within the story. Piece by piece the puzzle begins to come together, and eventually, once one realizes that most of those earlier questions are unimportant and the movie is aiming at one, specific metaphysical theme, it’s all pretty obvious where the movie is going and what it all means. The focus is the history of Kelvin and Rheya’s relationship, told through flashbacks, and how things that were left unresolved in life may be answered and forgiven in death. What’s missing from this element is an emotional attachment to the couple. The resolution, which should be quite cathartic, is only satisfying in that it fulfills our expectations and lingering anticipation of what we knew would play out.

On a technical level, the movie is quite impressive. The cinematography is striking, particularly in the flashbacks. There’s a dark, yellowish hue to these scenes that makes the film look dated and classy. The stark, minimalist design of the space station is cold and intimidating. The special effects are used economically, serve the story, and are close to flawless. Waves of color flow across Solaris’ surface, serving a strong antithesis to the surroundings of the station. Soderbergh has the relaxed pacing of this story down, so that even during multiple static scenes, the movie is always interesting. The two key performances are also very strong. George Clooney gives what may be his best performance to date. He’s proving to be one of the most reliable starts around, and here shows his ability for drama. When it boils down to it, this story is one of internal struggle—Kelvin coming to grips with what he may have misunderstood about his wife—and Clooney manages to allow us to become involved with this. Natascha McElhone has a difficult role with Rheya and her “visitor” counterpart. “Rheya” is a sentient being, but she is also under the control of outside forces. McElhone captures her character’s complicated struggle as well.

Solaris is an intellectual quick-fix, bringing up many questions but answering them just when they start to become fascinating. The movie’s virtues are plentiful, but its shortcomings are far more influential. If a film is going to raise eternal quandaries, I want it to follow through with them and affect me intellectually and emotionally, not just dispose of them when convenient.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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