starring George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis
screenplay by Steven Soderbergh, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem
directed by Steven Soderbergh
by Walter Chaw Steven Soderbergh's best film since sex, lies, and videotape (and the film most like it in theme and execution), Solaris is a moving, hypnotic adaptation of the classic Stanislaw Lem novel, which was first made into a film in 1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky. Co-produced by James Cameron's company Lightstorm, Solaris fits loosely into Ridley Scott's Alien future with its monolithic "Company" and the need for a specialist to infiltrate a corrupted interstellar outpost--a future Cameron plumbed in 1986 with his modern genre classic Aliens. But Solaris is less a science-fiction film than it is an existentialist melodrama that, by winnowing itself down to the fierce romanticism at the heart of Lem's novel (and Tarkovsky's trance-like adaptation), locates the core issues of identity and love that plague the dark hours.
Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a widowed psychiatrist asked cryptically by friend and peer Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) to visit a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Having recently lost contact with the station, Gibarian's request is honoured and Kelvin is sent to try to encourage the skeleton-crew research team (shades now and again of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey) to abandon their project and return to Earth. After brief, unfruitful encounters with demented Snow (Jeremy Davies) and paranoid Helen (Viola Davis, her character replacing the Sartorius character from Lem while taking the aspect of the author's African fertility phantom), Chris sleeps to awake next to what appears to be his dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone).
Interesting in that Kelvin shares his name with a scale of temperature measurement that encompasses the nadir of "absolute zero," Solaris is involved in coolness and detachment--the human ability to remove from experiential knowledge in pursuits of ephemeral, philosophical pursuits. Told in carefully-metered flashbacks, a colour palette bleached of warmth (provided by Soderbergh, once again acting as his own cinematographer and editor), and a brilliant score by longtime Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez that marries the native cadence of Frank Poole's murder in Kubrick's 2001 to a cool techno thrum, Solaris manages the astonishing feat of being about the quandary of thought and body while also being deeply romantic and affecting.
With a timelessness born of Lem's obsession with the epistemological dyads of self-destruction and rebirth, of impotence and fertility, and of reality and appearance (Solaris reminds a great deal of a dark Ray Bradbury tonal myth à la "Mars is Heaven" more than either previous incarnation), the picture does away with much verbal articulation. It burns away the fat of Lem's novel and Tarkovsky's too-faithful adaptation (including too gravid an emphasis on the "otherness" of the other), replacing it with muted undertone, scenes from the domestic fable, and an epilogue that finds poignancy in the darker byways of grief and melancholy. With Kelvin's "I can't help but wonder if I remembered her wrong" serving as both an eloquent expression of loss and pithy summary of the film itself, Solaris is a deceptively complicated piece that I suspect is terribly pretentious for asking the big questions in its relatively brief running time--but poetry all the same. Originally published: November 27, 2002.