written and directed by Steven Soderbergh
opens Nov. 27 at Guild 45, Meridian, Oak Tree, and others
Called to a distant space station by a friend in distress, psychologist Kelvin (George Clooney) finds himself in what's essentially a very big nuthouse with only two psychos for patients. Or three, including himself. His pal is dead, and the two wigged-out survivors babble vaguely about "it"—the planet Solaris below, which they were sent to investigate. Don't go to sleep, they warn Kelvin. Naturally he does, entering into a sex dream with his long-dead wife who, lo and behold, is there in bed the next morning beside him. In the flesh. Alive. She looks very loving and satisfied—but also rather puzzled by the situation. Kelvin freaks, seals her into an escape pod, and jettisons her into space.
Did Kelvin just kill his wife? Well, she was already dead. So who or what was that? A "visitor" from Solaris, according to the spacey, wary Snow (Jeremy Davies), a figment that mirrors Kelvin's own memories. And, like a vampire, she'll be back—alive but uncanny.
True enough. Rheya (Natascha McElhone) shows up again in Kelvin's bed, but he isn't killing her this time. More humping ensues, now alternating with flashbacks to their prior life on Earth. Soderbergh divides the two realms much as he did in Traffic: Earth is rather yellow and sepia-toned. It rains a lot. Parties there are lush and dark, like a GQ spread. The space station is blue and white (apart from some mysterious bloodstains). It's airless and antiseptic, a clinic, a place for experiments—but who's doing the experimenting?
Like a detective (or a shrink), Dr. Kelvin wants answers. Another astronaut, Gordon (Viola Davis), emerges from her locked room to explain that she and Snow had their own visitors whom they had to zap with a giant laser to free themselves from the unnerving reverie. "She is not human," Gordon insists of Rheya, who looks genuinely hurt by the insinuation. Kelvin wants to take his wife back home, but what if she's some kind of virus Solaris might use to destroy the Earth? Ah—that old sci-fi conundrum, familiar from Star Trek and countless other TV shows, books, and movies: Just because you like it (or it you) doesn't mean you get to keep it.
THIS IS WHERE the movie starts to get less spooky and more talky, as the characters begin to endlessly discuss the reality or unreality of their visitors in a fog of dormitory pot-haze metaphysics. It feels even more dated than Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 adaptation of the same 1961 sci-fi novel by Stanislaw Lem on which Solaris is based; it goes back to Asimov, Bradbury, and the '50s era of sci-fi, which has gotten awfully stale— like so much dried-up weed. Things never get so bad as to have Rheya stare at her hand and ask, "Am I real?" but that scene is probably somewhere on the cutting-room floor.
Tarkovsky's Solaris is sometimes called the Russian 2001, and the problem here is that Soderbergh's effort is too much like Kubrick, too: cold, humorless, and almost inert. As with Spielberg's A.I., you've got this immensely talented filmmaker who's saddled himself to a cranky old ghost. Kubrick is the visitor we never see here, the real vampire—and he's got his teeth in deep. (The only thing bordering on comic relief is the fidgety, stoned-out Davies, who's like Shaggy in space.)
SODERBERGH DOES BEST when he's off the space station and safely on Earth: the flashback scenes of courtship and an increasingly troubled marriage, where Clooney wears his movie stardom with totally confident, masculine aplomb. (McElhone's fine, but she's only required to be beautiful, moody, and confused—an amnesiac, essentially.)
The not-so-futuristic production design is also fun—why are phones actually larger? And what happened to shirt collars? I love any movie featuring giant planets ringed by spindly spaceships in a sea of black, and planet Solaris is no disappointment. It resembles a big blue brain pulsing with MRI splotches and covered with white feathery feelers that rise up like so many lawn sprinklers. "It seems to be reacting almost like it knows it's being observed," Kelvin's dead pal says on video. Observed? It's being worshipped. That's why no one wants to leave—it's so gorgeous and all-powerful.
Ultimately, Solaris is a "facsimile," just like the space station's visitors—something imperfectly felt and reproduced. Yet, while haunted by Kubrick, this replica does have a heart—as does Rheya. Kelvin is like Orpheus, journeying into a netherworld to save his wife. Solaris, too, is a story of romance extending beyond the grave. Kubrick would never have allowed the film's final consolation, but I think Soderbergh has made the better choice. If you're going to explore a vast cosmic mystery, it might as well be love.