Starring: George Clooney, Natasha McElherone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis and Ulrich Tukur
Directed by: Steven Sodenbergh
“And death shall have no dominion.”–Dylan Thomas, as quoted in Solaris.
Solaris would seem to be an unlikely choice for a big-budget, large studio motion picture. Stanislaw Lem is perhaps one of the best well known NON English speaking SF writers, but, still, not precisely common fodder for movies. Solaris WAS already filmed before, in a 1972 adaptation by the Russian director Tarkovsky. That version, which I have not seen, is four hours long and considered controversial and brilliant. I could see an American version of Solaris, but if you told me a couple of years ago, I would have guessed it more fodder for the independent route, with mid-level actors and actresses like Armin Mueller-Stahl and Ileana Douglas.
What we get, though is George Clooney. This is the third time he has been paired with director Sodenbergh, having worked with him on OUT OF SIGHT, and OCEAN’S ELEVEN. So if any director can make Clooney work as Chris Kelvin, Sodenbergh is the guy. Clooney’s counterpart, Rheya, is played by Natasha McElherone, whom I enjoyed watching in The Truman Show and Ronin. It’s a good combination, a movie couple on screen which works.
The basic plot of the movie is difficult to discern from the commercials and advertisements, which seem to focus so strongly on the love story aspects of the movie that its other aspects are downplayed to the point of obfuscation. The movie opens with watching the life of a man who is clearly in the pain of the loss of his wife. We watch Kelvin go about his role as a psychatrist who seems to need to heal himself, as well as others. Its not immediately obvious that this is the future, the advances in technology are understated. Then, a message from a friend on a spacecraft orbiting a mysterious planet soon propels our protagonist on a 2001-esque sequence that lands him on the Prometheus. It is not a space station, but apparently a spacecraft which is in orbit around a ocean-dominated planet which looks to be crackling with energies of unknown proveance. Once aboard, Kelvin quickly determines that things are wrong…there are bodies of the crew, and blood on the ceiling. The station’s crew, in fact, has been reduced to a seemingly stoned technician and another shut in her room. Both hint at strange doings and are extremely vague about what is going on, only that Kelvin himself will soon learn first-hand.
And first-hand he does. The weary psychologist wakes up to find his dead wife next to him, as confused as he is about the experience. It becomes clear, however, that she is not his wife, but something else, something created by the planet for reasons unknown. She has the memories that Kelvin has of his wife…indeed, she is a composite of what Kelvin remembers of her. But she is something more. The construct may be a recollection of Kelvin’s memories of his wife, but she has ideas, goals and impetus of her own. But why did the planet create her? Is this the second chance that Kelvin has always wished he had? Or is she some sort of siren, indeed are all the eidolon like creatures intent on the destruction of the crew?
Solaris asks a lot of questions and does not hesitate to let the audience argue about them on the way out of the theater rather than answering them all itself. The movie is only 100 minutes long, but its pacing, its cinematography, its unravelling are slow and patient. These are not flaws, atlhough judging from many of the reviews on the internet, you would think that anything which was not hyperkinetic was dull as dishwater. Its not a perfect movie by any means. Clooney does as well as he could, although I can think of other actors which might have been more suited to the role. McElhrone does as well as she can with what she is given, much of the time, she simply has to smile into the camera, her luminous face apparently the rock to which Kelvin is ready to lash himself to once again, and do it right this time.
I admit, though, that this is one of those movies which would play better on a DVD at home than in the theater. It doesn’t need the big screen of a theater in the way, say, 2001 shines. Its amazingly intimate and focused for a wide-scale hollywood release, and I have to give the director and producers extra credit for hewing to this vision as much as they do. In an age where cerebral films are as common as unicorn horns, Solaris may not succeed on all levels, but its aspirations alone rise it above many of the pack.
Rating: Four popcorn kernels out of five.