USA, 2002. Rated PG-13. 99 minutes.

Cast: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Ulrich Tukur, Morgan Rusler
Writers: Steven Soderbergh, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Music: Cliff Martinez
Cinematographer: Steven Soderbergh (as "Peter Andrews")
Producers: James Cameron, Jon Landau, Rae Sanchini
Director: Steven Soderbergh


Grade: B+ Review by Dominic Varle

"The marble pillars supporting the High Altar, pitch black at a distance, reveal themselves on closer examination to be densely studded with fossilized ammonites..."
          --- Durham Cathedral guide

"God is in the details."
          ---Mies van der Rohe

Solaris is that infrequent kind of movie that will have viewers either scratching their heads or fervently debating its meaning on leaving the theater. As with Rohe and Durham's medieval craftsmen, it is in the details that more profound elements are revealed. Ostensibly, the film follows Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), a widowed psychologist summoned aboard a space station to investigate a series of deaths and the mental malaise of the remaining crew. To his initial horror, shortly after boarding, Chris finds his deceased wife alive and apparently well.

In remaking Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 version of Stanislaw Lem's book, Steven Soderbergh--as screenwriter, pseudonymous cinematographer, director, and editor--posits the question "Are we doomed to play out the same trajectory in a relationship given another chance?" With his unshakable belief in psychoanalysis, Chris believes not.

Except it's not as simple as that, as the crew (Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis) tries to persuade him. While studying the planet Solaris, similar experiences plague their time on board, precipitating trauma and depression. As they orbit the ethereal Solaris, confusion abounds. Seemingly compos mentis, his reincarnate inamorata, Rheya (Natascha McElhone, FearDotCom, Ronin), remembers scant details of their previous life, and is bafflingly possessed of the inner peace that eluded her on earth and led to her suicide. On learning of the crew's experiences, she suggests to Chris that she is now merely a projection of his memory of her earthly self, and that his preconceptions of her suicidal predilections will doom any rekindling of their relationship. This neat twist on "physician, heal thyself," requiring a reversal of their married roles, is one of several Biblical references in the film. Most notable--visually--are echoes of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam towards the denouement, and intermittent shots of Solaris, rendered as tendrils of vapor, contextually become suggestive of a heaven. George Clooney and Natascha McElhoneOnly when Rheya is resurrected for the third time does Chris begin to suspend his logician's disbelief and develop something akin to faith.

Once again, Soderbergh employs his familiar directorial style, using a non-linear timelines to flashback to Rheya and Chris' earlier relationship, including her suicide. This adds much needed depth to what may otherwise have been too straightforward a narrative to hold and stimulate audiences' interest. The prolonged shots of Clooney's naked rear may hold and even stimulate the interest of some, but as Soderbergh's second choice for the part (Daniel Day-Lewis is rumored to have turned the role down) Clooney's limitations here in a psychologically challenging role are equally exposed. "It's not something that I'm known for, not something that I've been asked to do in films," he says--of his acting ability--and there is probably a reason for that. Ultimately, despite his character having to grapple an overwhelming situation fraught with philosophical and psychological resonance, his bankable star-quality (combined with sure-fire storytelling from Soderbergh) covers up his inability to deeply render the complexities of his character.

The supporting cast, however, is uniformly excellent. The statuesque McElhone is possessed of an otherworldliness that works equally well in conveying her repressed neuroses on earth as it does her ambiguity in outer space. Jeremy (Saving Private Ryan, Secretary) Davies' oddball tics eventually reveal themselves to be more than actorly mannerisms. Soderbergh-veteran and Tony Award-winner Viola Davis (Far From Heaven, Traffic, Out of Sight) excels in her one big scene, and while largely a foil for Clooney in moving the plot along, is solid as the last, barely sane member of the crew.

But the film is truly Soderbergh's. Reinforcing the isolation that the crew feels, the characters rarely share a frame, and much of the dialogue captures the inability of the characters to understand each other, themselves, or their situation. Yet, even in the confused, clinical environment of the ship there appears to emanate amniotic warmth, enhanced by the unobtrusive score. This is particularly pronounced during Chris' amphetamine-driven delirium, which in six dialog-free minutes provokes many questions.

Creditably though, despite being a major studio production, the film neither doglegs into Hollywood schmaltz, nor try to definitively provide answers to the questions Soderbergh seems to ask. Solaris juxtaposes the psychological and the theophanic, suffusing the film with fleeting Judaeo-Christian references that counterbalance Chris' trust in the psychoanalytic. Are we doomed to play out the same trajectory in a relationship given another chance? Emitting a primal scream in the face of his incomprehensible situation, Chris ultimately appears to cede his rationalism, accepting that we are subject to the will of a higher power. Is Soderbergh suggesting that faith triumphs over reason, or is he reiterating the question Lem's 1961 book posed, "Can we truly understand the universe around us without first understanding what lies within?"

Of his films, Soderbergh has said, "I'm comfortable with people leaving the cinema not knowing what happened." In these terms, it is hard to imagine that Soderbergh could find himself any more comfortable after the release of the thought-provoking Solaris.

Review © December 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2002 Twentieth Century Fox Corp. and related entities. All Rights Reserved.

  Comment on this review on the boards  

  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page