Solaris is a 2002 science fiction film and psychological drama directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. It is based on the science fiction novel of the same name by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, which also inspired Andrei Tarkovsky's critically acclaimed 1972 film of the same name and a 1968 Soviet TV film. Borrowing heavily from Tarkovsky's film, Soderbergh's version is a meditative psychodrama set almost entirely on a space station orbiting Solaris, adding flashbacks to the previous experiences of its main characters on Earth. Chris struggles with the questions of Solaris' motivation, his beliefs and memories, and reconciling what was lost with an opportunity for a second chance. Clinical psychologist Dr. Chris Kelvin is approached by emissaries for DBA, a corporation operating a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, who relay a message sent from his scientist friend Dr. Gibarian. Gibarian requests Chris come to the station to help understand an unusual phenomenon, but is unwilling to explain the exact nature.
Fear not, Clooney fans. Those two already-infamous shots of George’s butt are alive and well in the long-talked-about but barely-anticipated Solaris — a remake of the equally infamous 1972 Russian sci-fi epic (known for its stark photography, a near-three-hour running time that challenges even the most patient viewer, and a reputation for being utterly incomprehensible). I’m pleased to say that the remake is less stark, substantially shorter (97 minutes or so), and makes a little more sense. That said, I’d rather have been watching the original film.
The story is relatively faithful to Tarkovsky’s flick. Distraught widower/shrink Chris Kelvin (Clooney) receives a distress call of sorts from a friend aboard a distant space station, then gears up to go to his rescue. Once he arrives at the station, orbiting a mysterious, glowing-pink planet called Solaris, Kelvin encounters a skeleton crew of surviving crewmembers, including the not-quite-right Snow (Jeremy Davies) and the ultra-paranoid Gordon (Viola Davis). It’s not spoiling much to reveal that before his first night on the space station is over, Chris also encounters his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone).
No, she’s not a dream and she’s not a ghost. Everyone can see her and feel her. She has memories of a sort. She even loves her husband. But soon enough we learn that all of the station’s survivors have been seeing their own strange visitors, obvious by-products of the swirling planet below.
How did Tarkovsky pad this story out to three hours? By including countless, unbroken shots of quiet people driving in cars, staring at the planet, and having endless philosophical debates. Aside from judicious editing, Soderbergh apes Tarkovsky perfectly, with every pseudo-intellectual diatribe broken up by a shot of the pretty swirling planet beneath him. (The effects shots of the planet — as well as the gorgeous photography in general — are the highlights of the film. The original’s planet Solaris (actually an ocean on the planet) looks like little more than a puddle of snot.)
We eventually learn that, much like the original, this is a film about free will vs. determinism, reality vs. fantasy, and atheism vs. godliness. Unfortunately Solaris takes easy outs with all of these questions in an ultimately vain attempt to appeal to a mainstream audience. (The sound of this movie bombing will be heard on the moon.) In Soderbergh’s world: Free will exists, sort of. Reality is whatever we want it to be. God may not exist but heaven does, and it’s on a pink planet somewhere in deep space. Sheesh! This much random psychobabble hasn’t flattened a movie this badly since Kirk found ‘God’ at the center of the galaxy in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. To think, if not for the morose Dylan Thomas poetry (which Rheya clutches in her hand as the laziest suicide note of all time), how would we get the mind-shall-conquer-death metaphor!?
With source material as obtuse as the original Solaris, you can’t blame director Steven Soderbergh for trying to make the film more palatable. His casting of Davies as the station’s resident lunatic completely saves the film from disaster. Davies steals the show completely with his performance as the most obviously insane resident of the station, though you feel he’s probably the only one you can trust.
The ideas in the original Solaris have of course been tweaked and updated in numerous films before, including Alien (somewhat dissimilar film, great work) as well as Sphere and Event Horizon (blatant ripoffs, rotten movies). The new Solaris falls somewhere in between these two realms, though it’s hard to peg Soderbergh for being derivative… this is a remake, after all. The more serious violations are how lazy the director is, failing to scare us with its loud music cues but succeeding at boring us with its endless flashbacks (we get it: Chris loved his wife) and establishing shots (you sure got a pink planet there!).
Nevertheless, I will give props to Soderbergh from my bladder, which thanks him immensely.