Solaris
Starring: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, and Jeremy Davies
Director:

Steven Soderbergh

Writer:

Steven Soderbergh

Distributor: USA Films * 95 minutes
Rated: PG-13
  (USA 2002)

Sci Fi. Science Fiction. Just say the words, and people either get a gleam in their eye or roll them toward the heavens. Truth is, it's not everyone's cup of tea.

There's always exceptions to be made, though:  you don't have to like Doctor Who or wear a Klingon uniform to enjoy masterpieces like Star Wars, or Alien, or E.T. Why? Because the best of the cinematic genre known as Science Fiction has always been about asking The Big Questions. About Life. About Us. About Where We Are Headed. Something we all relate to. This is the stuff of what great moviemaking is all about.

Only there's a problem. Because movies, even Sci-Fi ones, aren't really interested in The Big Questions anymore. At least not recently, not these days, in modern Hollywood.

The reasons are endless: interesting science fiction is all too often retro-geek oriented (Star Trek: First Contact), too self-referential (Mars Attacks!), hard to shoot (Supernova), too smart (A.I., Minority Report), or rarely profitable without a comedic angle (Men In Black, Galaxy Quest). Even venerable space-age franchises, like Star Wars and Alien, have fallen on hard artistic times of late, with no recent masterpieces to match their predecessors. Perhaps most disturbingly, what usually passes for science fiction these days is often just a B-movie set in space, whether it be a shoot-'em-up actioner (Battlefield Earth), a horror flick (Jason X), or a pale imitation of a classic (Planet of the Apes).

There was a time, of course, when science fiction cinema also entertained great ideas, questioning the nature and purpose of the universe and our place in it. Classic meditative sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, or most recently Gattaca and A.I. have wondered aloud about the human condition, using a vision of a larger galaxy to illuminate the smaller one watching it on the screen. As the audience for thoughtful examination dwindled in the Age of Entertainment, however -- and as those who wanted to imagine other worlds left sci-fi for the fantasy-based Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings -- those looking for intelligent science fiction were abandoned by Hollywood, left to endlessly re-read the novels of Arthur C. Clarke, Octavia Butler, Joe Haldeman, and the like.

This long introduction is necessary, if only to understand the void filled so satisfyingly and completely by SOLARIS, Steven Soderbergh's mesmerizing new adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's classic novel (as well as the ponderous 1972 film version by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky). Like most great cinematic science-fiction, SOLARIS uses the convention of an outer-space setting to encapsulate the very human, very real interactions between people very much like ourselves. What surprises most in Soderbergh's SOLARIS, however, is the superlative effort made by a modern Hollywood director to ask so many difficult questions: how do we mourn our loved ones after they're gone? Do we want them back? And if they could return to us, would be ready to face the consequences of our actions?

Set on a lonely, distant space station orbiting the planet Solaris, a psychiatrist named Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) arrives to discover that the station's crew has been afflicted with a mysterious, disturbing psychosis caused by proximity to the planet. As he attempts to find a cure, he learns the nature of their illness: waking up one morning, he finds his dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), alive and in his bed next to him.

The ramifications of loved ones suddenly reappearing are complex, provocative, and disquieting -- marvelous fodder for the cerebral powers of Soderbergh, who has created some of Hollywood's most captivating modern classics (sex lies and videotape, Traffic, The Limey). As Kelvin struggles to balance his feelings and his intellect, even the illusions begin to realize they are illusory. And if love drives each of us -- even the re-created -- how do we forge new lives and move forward?

By this point, you've probably realized that SOLARIS isn't for everyone. And you'd be right. The film it most resembles is Kubrick's masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey, both in its majestic, sweeping vision of a spaceship-bound catastrophe and its slow, measured story pacing. Fans of quick-edit, CGI-effected fluff like Terminator 2 or even the pyrotechnics of Star Wars are bound to be twiddling their thumbs waiting for SOLARIS' end credits. There's little music, no fancy camera work, and not one explosion in sight...just solid storytelling, paced character development, and chrome-laden decor. Think of SOLARIS as a rare flower; not everyone wants to wait for spring to bloom, but those who wait patiently will be rewarded as it opens up to vibrant pleasures.

One of its many joys is watching its freakishly talented cast. The film ultimately rests on the shoulders of Clooney, who has always struck me as an actor of limitless charm and limited ability. (Industry rumor has it that the role was first offered to a number of higher caliber actors, notably Daniel Day-Lewis.) What a surprise it is, then, to see Clooney turn in a performance that is undoubtedly the best work of his career. His portrayal of Kelvin arcs beautifully from beginning to end, fashioned from a low-key demeanor that slowly fragments and disintegrates under the throes of guilt and passion. Those who saw the stirrings of a Serious Actor in O Brother Where Art Thou and Out Of Sight will be pleased to see Clooney leap yet again to a new level of dexterity, poise, nuance and restraint. After a bumpy first few years in Hollywood (remember The Peacemaker and Batman and Robin?), Clooney is rapidly becoming one of the most formidable actors of his generation.

Also performing on a career best is Natascha McElhone (The Truman Show, Ronin), who finally proves she's got lead-actress ability. To watch McElhone's face in SOLARIS is to see a multitude; the conflicting, often contradictory emotions of Rheya play across her like a concert violinist. She still lacks in one very necessary department -- onscreen warmth -- but her relationship with Clooney is authentic and convincing. As the two other surviving crew members, Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies are superb; watching their elegant, bitter performances, one realizes that these two may just be the most underrated character actors working today. Davies, in particular, brings a stutteringly odd physicality to his scenes that punctuates and brightens every moment.

SOLARIS has a hard course ahead of it. Being way too smart and way too slow for most teenage moviegoers, it is almost guaranteed to fail at the box office (praise be to USA Films, who had the courage to greenlight it). It has the added danger of being a sci-fi film that isn't really about science fiction, which may turn off adults of all stripes. But for those who remember those breathtaking thoughtful visions that Sci-Fi movies have given us -- that first sunlit crest of 2001's monolith, the spaceship musical 'hellos' of Close Encounters, or the first time E.T.'s finger glowed -- there's a magic waiting to be discovered, orbiting just outside the ethereal outer rings of SOLARIS.

- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2002 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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